Run time: 111 mins
In Theaters: Friday 2nd July 1993
Distributed by: Screenvision
Production compaines: Renaissance Films, American Playhouse Theatrical Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 40 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Director: Joss Whedon
Producer: Joss Whedon
Screenwriter: Joss Whedon
Starring: Kenneth Branagh as Benedikt, Richard Briers as Signor Leonato, Michael Keaton as Dogberry, Robert Sean Leonard as Claudio, Keanu Reeves as Don Juan, Emma Thompson as Beatrice, Denzel Washington as Don Pedro of Aragon, Kate Beckinsale as Hero, Jimmy Yuill as Friar Francis, Brian Blessed as Antonio, Phyllida Law as Ursula, Imelda Staunton as Margaret
This new version of Shakespeare's romantic farce looks like it was shot on video in the filmmaker's house with his friends over the course of about two weeks, which is exactly the case. It's lively and funny, and occasionally also warm and emotional, but the uneven tone never quite comes together to bring out the passion in the characters. An enjoyable experiment, the film keeps us entertained but refuses to spring to life.
Set in present-day suburbia, the story opens as Don Pedro (Diamond) and his henchmen Benedick and Claudio (Denisof and Kranz) deliver rival gang leader Don John (Maher) to his mob boss brother Leonato (Gregg). A confirmed bachelor, Benedick continues his verbal sparring with Leonato's feisty love-rejecting daughter Beatrice (Acker), while Claudio seeks help in wooing her sweet cousin Hero (Morgese). But Leonato decides to have some fun here, tricking Benedick and Beatrice into falling in love with each other. Meanwhile, the imprisoned Don John is plotting to destroy his brother, while a bumbling detective (Fillion) tries to figure out what's up.
Filmmaker Whedon assembles his cast from actors he worked with in everything from Buffy to The Avengers, creating a loose, relaxed atmosphere that makes the film easy to watch, even though it's in black and white and is spoken in Shakespearean dialect. On the other hand, this kind of mutes the play's romantic highs and tragic lows, evening everything out into a gentle comedy of manners with slapstick touches. Part of the problem is that, if you're unfamiliar with these actors, it's not easy to tell them apart as they are dressed in identical black suits. But the cast is excellent, delivering the dialog with off-handed precision.
Denisof and Acker are especially enjoyable as the spiky, over-confident Benedick and Beatrice, unknowingly manipulated into romance even as they continue to insult each other hilariously. By contrast, Fillion's haplessly silly cop and Maher's conniving villain feel like they come from completely different films. But in Shakespeare's play, these intertwined strands all gel together remarkably, making the sassy barbed dialog fit with dark humiliations and even murder. Here it's rather a lot more uneven, but it's still worth seeing for its inventive simplicity.