Before beginning, I must shamefully break a vow I made to myself years ago when I first started writing about movies, to wit: never, under any circumstances, refer to a picture's Rotten Tomatoes rating as if it was a thing with any legitimate meaning. It has not been difficult, and this breach may very well be the only one, only because it distinctly flew in the face of the way I remember things. Here goes: Heart Condition, a movie I watched multiple times in the early 90s, that I taped off cable and watched a few more times, has a 0% Fresh rating, meaning no one whatsoever gave it a positive review.
This came as a shock not because Heart Condition is any great profundity, any forgotten masterwork of the cinema, anything at all really except a buddy comedy at a time when buddy comedies were legion, elevated by the performances of leads Bob Hoskins and Denzel Washington. I primarily remember it for an observation my mom made after we saw it in the theater: “That would have totally sucked if it had starred Danny DeVito and Eddie Murphy.” That stuck with me, because I was just old enough that, huge fan of both Danny DeVito and Eddie Murphy though I was, I knew she was right.
Revisiting Heart Condition for the first time in many years recently, it remains as it ever was, as nearly every one of those critics giving mixed-to-negative reviews pointed out: the entire thing functions to the degree that it even does based on the remarkably nuanced performance Bob Hoskins turns in, and on the equally nuanced, almost classical, work Denzel puts in as Hoskins' bête noire-cum-best buddy. The scenario they're thrown into is the kind of thing where you can almost feel the cocaine dripping down the back of the screenwriter's throat as he pitches it: a toughcopwhodoesn'tplaybytherules suffers a near-fatal heart attack, only to have his life saved by the only available donor, the recently deceased lawyer who'd stolen his girlfriend away. Who, to the mortal (and vividly so) disgust of the (white) toughcopwhodoesn'tplaybytherules, is black. And a ghost.
LET THE HIJINKS ENSUE!!!
The never-ending signifiers of the year 1989 (the movie was released in early 1990 after a bit of a delay)—from the self-conscious white jazz/R&B score to the yuppie pimp/smack dealer villain's laptop-sized cell phone to Denzel's custom-made loose-cut Armani suits and on and on and on—are good for entertainment value 25 years later, if a very mild variety. Writer-director James D. Parriott, a TV veteran, observes rather than comments, and only superficially at that. The significance of the movie's central relationship is solely in its ability to get laughs and somewhat soften the white cop's racial prejudices.
What Hoskins does with that character is really amazing considering what an eyeroll/j.o. the movie as a whole is; he digs deep into the self-destructive pathos of a rigidly rules-oriented cop who despises everything he can't control, chain-smoking cigarette after cigarette, such a falling-down drunk he invests the “cute” gesture of giving his pet cat a splash of Jim Beam in his milk with a follow-up pouring almost a whole shot in, which is really fucked up if you think about it for too long, but it's a brilliant touch to show how debased his character is.
He similarly does not half-ass the character's racial hangups, playing them to the absolute hilt. He kicks Denzel Washington in the balls and calls him the n-word in public. And is not turned into a pillar of salt (the movie's biggest credibility lapse). He is, however, suspended from duty by his cackling superior officer (“You called him the n-word?”) Roger E. Moseley, himself black and an additional target of Hoskins' race-based rage. Without his badge and gun, utterly powerless against his most despised enemies, Hoskins goes home and has his heart attack.
When he wakes up—after an admittedly very funny bit where his fellow cops tweak his race hatred by serenading him with a terrible rendition of “Can't Get Enough of You, Babe” after placing what appears to be a 24'' black dildo directly in his line of sight so it'll be the first thing he sees when he wakes up—Hoskins is faced with the ultimatum: eat healthy and avoid stress, or die. Hoskins says fuck it, because this movie dates from the era when real men smoked, drank, ate red meat, and then had a smoke afterward. At which point the same Ladysmith Black Mombazo cue that played upon the reveal that he had Denzel's heart recurs, and we're introduced to Ghost Denzel.
The ghost business is actually handled with pretty good internal consistency, and considering that he is the only one who can see and interact with Denzel, affords Bob Hoskins the opportunity display some more of the impressive physical comedy skills he showed as Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But Denzel has not returned from the dead solely to screw around: his fatal car crash was no accident, and he wants Hoskins to find out who murdered him.
As a whodunit, this ain't much, since we meet the bad guy right after the opening credits, after assassinating a U.S. senator with tainted crack, as one does. The meat of the movie is in the developing relationship between Hoskins and Denzel, both of whom wring every last bit of dramatic weight out of every scene, even the ones where their text is nothing but schticky comic banter. The total commitment they individually and collectively make to this weirdly inconsistent material is the sum of Heart Condition's value. Parriott can't seem to make up his mind whether he's making a serious cop movie, a romantic comedy (Chloe Webb plays the woman in both leads' lives, who being a woman plays a hooker with a precis where her inner life should be), a romantic drama, a buddy comedy, a ham-fisted commentary about racism (“RACISM BAD BUT RACIST MAN FUNNY AND STILL GOOD GUY”), an obliviously racist stereotype fest (some of Hoskins' and even Denzel's dialogue is cringe-making, not to mention the hip-hop bowling alley, yikes), an urban fantasy, or an analysis of the Lakers' inability to win a title after the departure of white knight Kurt Rambis. It is each of these things—yes, even the bit about the Lakers—but not proportionately, and without the same “what the hell” attitude toward genre hopping and tonal gear-grinding as Indian masala, which inevitably comes to mind when watching a two-hero reincarnation/ghost story.
The most bizarre thing about Heart Condition is that in spite of the laundry list of things wrong with it (not least among which is one of the dumbest title-as-dialogue lines on record), it's still a compelling and entertaining movie, solely on the basis of Hoskins and Denzel, as by their light the supporting cast has something to support. The story's bullshit, but by the end, in spite of what a fucker he is I still want Hoskins to win, to kill the bad guys, save his girl, and live happily ever after with ghost Denzel occasionally popping in to affectionately annoy him with new quiche recipes and stuff. It's not a perfect movie, or even a good movie, or even something I can recommend. But it's really hard to stay mad at. Unless you're Denzel, who fired his agent for talking him into doing this movie and then went another twenty years before starring in another comedy. But he's Denzel, and we're not.
And now, in the spirit of Denzel torturing Hoskins by making him jog and get his nails done and all that, here's Bonnie Raitt's closing song from the credits (don't forget, in 1989 Bonnie Raitt, of all people, was damn near as big a pop star as Madonna), which will now be in your head for days, too: