Little Odessa Movie Review

Little Odessa refers to an old Russian Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, along the lines of Little Italy or Chinatown. There, everyone speaks Russian, wanders through bleak snow-covered streets, drinks vodka, wears heavy wool coats...and most carry guns. This is the age of the "organizatsya," the Russian mafia, for whom Joshua (Tim Roth) is employed as a hit man.

Joshua, a long-time Little Odessa expatriate, is called back to the neighborhood to perform a hit on a big shot resident. When he arrives, he encounters his worshipful brother Reuben (Edward Furlong), former lover Alla (Moira Kelly), hateful father Arkady (Maximilian Schell), and dying mother Irina (Vanessa Redgrave). Together, the cast creates a highly dysfunctional family the likes of which you've probably never seen before.

As Joshua closes in on his target, relations with his father become more and more strained, as Joshua tries to return home to visit his mother before she dies. While Reuben and Alla grow closer to Joshua, so do the thugs who are out to avenge the man Joshua has murdered. Ultimately, the film culminates in a tragic shoot-out that Quentin Tarantino could have scripted.

Tarantino is not the man behind this film, however. Little Odessa is the surprising first feature of James Gray, who wrote and directed it. Gray is obviously good at scripting action sequences like the finale, but when it comes to old-fashioned storytelling, he still hasn't arrived. The film's opening and long expository sequences set the tone well, but many scenes don't serve any real purpose, dragging the narrative out instead of moving the picture forward. A huge problem for me was that a number of characters look, dress, and sound the same, making it often impossible to figure out what's going on and who's involved.

Thankfully, most of this remedies itself by the end. The multi-layered story ties up neatly, and the net result is a generally satisfying yet heartbreaking finale. However, the acting is what makes Little Odessa watchable. Roth is perfect as the dark and disturbed hitman who still loves his mother. Redgrave as Mom is truly jaw-dropping: the veteran actress playing a cancer-ridden matriarch with frightening realism. Even Furlong shines, proving he has something left after Pet Sematery 2.

A more polished script would have carried Little Odessa a lot farther. The film's intentions were honorable, and the cast and crew obviously genuinely wanted the film to succeed. It unfortunately isn't the masterpiece they were hoping for, but it is enough to make you consider vacation spots other than the real Little Odessa.

Litte Odessa, big trouble.


Little Odessa Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, 1994


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