Fatale: Low Heat, by David Bax
From the first growled syllables of Michael Ealy’s voiceover–accompanied by aerial shots of the Los Angeles skyline–it’s apparent exactly what kind of seedy pop-thriller Deon Taylor’s Fatale is going to be. And there are plot developments you’ll spot on the horizon by the end of the film’s first scene, in which two couples toast the success of the men’s company from a lavish neomodern home high in the hills. But, like a Hallmark Christmas movie, the formula is kind of the point here. Fatale‘s successes and failures lie in Taylor’s ability, or inability, to gussy it up and imbue it with his own slick imprint.
Ealy plays Derrick Tyler, a former NCAA basketball star turned professional sports agent. The company he’s built with his business partner, Rafe (Mike Colter), is a success but the years of long hours it took to get there have put a strain on his marriage to Traci (Damaris Lewis). Perhaps that’s why he takes off his wedding ring during a bachelor party in Las Vegas and ends up having a one night stand with Valerie (Hilary Swank). It’s only a few days later, back home in Los Angeles, that Valerie appears in Derrick and Traci’s life in an unexpected way.
And so obviously, like so many movies that aim to be risqué or even trashy, there’s a streak of deeply conservative morality to Fatale. Derrick has transgressed and must be put through the wringer for it. With some cuts, the film could pass the Production Code.
One of the ways in which Taylor and screenwriter David Loughery (reuniting, along with Ealy, after last year’s pulpy delight The Intruder) distinguish this familiar tale is by highlighting what Derrick’s race and background add to what he’s put at risk through his infidelity. When Michael Douglas’ white, upper middle class lawyer cheats on his wife in Fatal Attraction, he’s jeopardized his marriage, to be sure. But we are constantly reminded that Derrick’s agency started as a “small, Black business,” something that he built from scratch despite coming from poverty. The stakes are higher here because–fairly or not–Derrick is seen as a role model to his family and those he grew up with.
That adds a hefty, aspirational dimension to Taylor’s preoccupation with conspicuous materialism. Every home, car, bedsheet and piece of luggage is exquisite and covetable. It helps that Taylor is once again working with masterful cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who shot Taylor’s Traffik and Black and Blue and who brings the deep blues and swimming neon we remember from his Michael Mann collaborations.
In many way, Fatale falls flat due to corny dialogue (let’s just stop having characters say, “Trouble in paradise?” when they hear about someone’s marital problems for at least a decade, huh?), too much exposition delivered via news reports and, most crucially, a lack of heat between Ealy and Swank. But Taylor has become too distinct a voice for anything he makes to be written off.