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cold feet

Tom Waits is such a weird, cool, enigmatic bad-ass of a dude that whenever he shows up in movies, he usually steals them right away from the rest of the cast. Like a thief in the night, Waits slips in, does that thing he does (acting? living? just being?) and slips out, leaving nothing but bare walls and floors in his wake. He’s truly an amazing actor in that, like similar odd-job Crispin Glover, he so readily becomes whatever character he’s portraying: it’s always impossible to tell where the character ends and Tom begins, which makes each and every performance both thrilling and a little terrifying. Needless to say, Waits’ by turns hilarious and frightening performance in Robert Dornhelm’s weird ’80s oddity, Cold Feet (1989), is not only the best, most interesting performance in that film but probably one of the best, weirdest performances of that whole year.

Monte (Keith Carradine), Maureen (Sally Kirkland) and Kenny (Tom Waits) are three small-time crooks with a big-time plan: they’ve stolen a small fortune in emeralds and had the bright idea to have them surgically implanted in a horse. After wack-a-doodle Kenny unceremoniously blows away the crooked vet who performs the surgery, the trio make their escape, hitting the high road and handily by-passing law enforcement.

Trouble comes to paradise when Monte double-crosses his partners (even more grievous since he was actually engaged to Maureen, who appears to be as loose-screwed as Kenny is) and hightails it for his square brother’s horse ranch. Monte hasn’t seen brother Buck (Bill Pullman) and his wife, Laura (Kathleen York), in quite some time but they didn’t exactly part on the best of terms: Monte is desperate, however, and really does want to save Infidel (the horse) from getting gutted by the increasingly ruthless Kenny. Monte also wants to reconnect with his estranged 9-year-old daughter, Rosemary (Amber Bauer), who’s just back from a “survival school.”What better place to hide a horse than a horse ranch, he figures?

As Kenny and Maureen haul ass across the country in a stolen motor home, Monte tries to convince his suspicious brother that the reasons for his surprise visit have more to do with familial love than ulterior motives. Laura would love to see Buck and Monte become close again but is this too little too late? Once the local sheriff (Rip Torn) gets involved, you just know that the whole thing is gonna get awful crazy awful quick. There’s no fury like a woman scorned, however, and Maureen is going to make sure to get her pound of flesh, come hell or high water. And Kenny? Well, he just wants to keep eating them Turkish dates, man!

Similar to the Crispin Glover-starring oddity Twister (oddly enough, also 1989), Cold Feet is about 10 pounds of weird in a 5-pound sack. The movie is all over the place, an almost complete mess tonally: it’s a light-hearted comedy right up to the point where Kenny blows somebody away in cold-blood, then goes into slapstick territory before becoming a “brothers-in-crisis” drama, a crime thriller and a romance. The whole thing is shot through with a garish, neon ’80s sensibility which is completely jarring when juxtaposed with the numerous nods to Westerns and rural living: call it the “Rhinestone (1984) factor” but there’s something about the neon-’80s and cowboys that just don’t go together.

Acting-wise, you’ve got a pretty mixed bag: Pullman plays it dead-serious, Carradine hams it up, Kirkland plays it like a dinner-theater version of Madea stoned on nitrous, Rip Torn is Rip Torn and Waits is, as can be expected, suitably amazing. It’s no surprise that Kenny ends up being not only the most interesting character in the film but, despite his obvious insanity, the most relatable character: he’s not interested in any games, he doesn’t have any agendas…he just is, dammit, and to hell with any of you squares who tell him otherwise! Whether he’s doing bizarre calisthenics in a moving car, reminding Maureen that sex with radium miners will make her ass glow, eating Turkish dates by the bagful or surviving the kind of shit that would kill the Terminator, Kenny is, quite simply, the man and Waits is absolutely magnificent. Despite any other issues with the film (and boy are there issues), folks could be forgiven for stopping by just to check out Kenny: Waits’ performance really is that much fun and he gets a sizeable chunk of celluloid dedicated to him.

Another highlight for me, albeit a fleeting one, was a pretty superb cameo from Jeff Bridges as a grinning, shithead bartender with a, itchy trigger finger: even for his few moments of screen-time, it’s painfully obvious how equally bad-ass Bridges is. I can’t help but feel that a true Tom Waits/Jeff Bridges collaboration might blow the planet off its axis, ushering in a new ice age…we should probably never find out.

Without a doubt, Cold Feet is definitely a curiosity. Director Dornhelm (still working today) has mostly stayed in the realm of television, so I’m guessing that this didn’t end up being a springboard to bigger and better things. The film never achieves anything approaching a consistent tone or sense of purpose but is still filled with some truly great moments: Sheriff Rip Torn scamming new boots…pretty much anything involving Maureen and Kenny’s cross-country ride…absolutely anything involving Tom Waits. There’s an awful lot of dead space going around, however, and the main storyline about Buck and Monte’s reconciliation is pretty long in the tooth. The film also has a tendency to slip into really silly slapstick (Maureen’s fight with Rosemary’s teacher is really stupid) which sits uncomfortably next to Kenny’s moments of actual violence.

Cold Feet is a weird bird but I’m pretty confident that at least some viewers out there will be able to get on its frequency. While the film is messy, silly and frequently nonsensical, it’s also quite a bit of fun and features one hell of an awesome performance from Tom Waits. If you’re a fan of Waits, this should be a must-see. For everyone else, however, this may just be one of those ’80s curios that passes you by. I would really think hard about it, though: after all, you wouldn’t wanna piss off Kenny, would you?