Son of Pulp Fiction

With his muscled arms, deep-set eyes and wavy black hair, 2 days in the Valley writer-director John Herzfeld looks the part of Starsky's brother, a recurring role the actor-turned-filmmaker once played on the ultra-violent Seventies TV series Starsky and Hutch. But Herzfeld's early acting career, which included performances in two classic TV crime series -- Kojak and Baretta -- has long since been eclipsed by his work behind the camera. Herzfeld, who once studied drama at UM, wrote and directed the ABC After School Special "Stoned," which earned six Emmy nominations and won Herzfeld a Best Director statuette. He also directed and co-wrote several highly regarded topical telefilms such as The Ryan White Story, The Preppie Murder, and A Father's Revenge. But there is nothing in Herzfeld's background to prepare viewers for his theatrical feature film directing debut, a kinky, profane, and bloody caper flick. 2 days in the Valley takes viewers on a rollicking, twisted ride that draws on Herzfeld's Seventies cop show training but shoots it through with Nineties Southern California anomie and absurdism; imagine the cops from Adam-12 popping up in Robert Altman's Short Cuts.

It seems as if any indie auteur who combines dark humor and graphic violence in a crime thriller risks comparison to the king of the hot genre, that Tarantino fellow. Herzfeld is certainly no exception; 2 days in the Valley feels more like Pulp Fiction than anything Tarantino's done in the two years since that pop culture powerhouse premiered. Valley comes complete with an appearance by omnipresent indie-movie star Eric Stoltz, whose acting here is on a par with his Pulp performance.

But there are important distinctions between the two films as well. It's always nice to see Seventies stars Marsha Mason and Louise Fletcher -- The Goodbye Girl and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's Nurse Ratched, respectively -- back in action, even if only for all-too-brief supporting turns. Yet, despite 2 days's offbeat and eclectic casting, in the aggregate the performances in Herzfeld's film fall short of the Pulp standard. Newcomer Charlize Theron scorches, and Teri Hatcher and Jeff Daniels tackle characters a few shades darker than their fans have come to expect. But Paul Mazursky, Glenne Headly, Greg Cruttwell, and Austin Pendleton don't fare nearly as well; Danny Aiello has a few nice moments but his work here doesn't approach the brilliance of Samuel L. Jackson or John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.

Herzfeld favors more tasteful and conventional music than Tarantino, working Lyle Lovett, Morphine, Morris Day, Willie Dixon, and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells onto the Valley soundtrack. Still, Valley's complex multicharacter story line, esoteric dialogue, off-color sex, gallows humor, existentialist hit men, wicked violence, gleeful mayhem, and central plot line about a hardboiled career criminal (Aiello) who finds redemption in the unlikeliest of circumstances pretty much guarantee that reviewers will be hard-pressed to analyze Herzfeld's film without mentioning Tarantino's.

The refreshingly down-to-earth and 'tude-less fledgling director confronts the inevitable comparison head-on. "2 days owes a tip of the hat to Pulp Fiction," Herzfeld readily allows. "The success of that film, The Usual Suspects, and other pictures that don't follow a straight linear path blew the doors open for movies like mine in Hollywood. Low-budget independent films that recoup their investments make Hollywood more apt to take risks. So in that respect, I owe a lot to Tarantino. But I completed my script prior to the opening [of Pulp Fiction]."

Still, a few bizarre similarities exist. Herzfeld's film features a character (Hatcher) who plays several scenes with blood and pieces of another character's bullet-exploded brain stuck to her hair, a la Samuel L. Jackson after Travolta's character accidentally blows away a colleague in the car Jackson's character drives in Pulp. And then there's the Stoltz connection. In Pulp Fiction Stoltz played a heroin dealer. In Valley Stoltz plays a vice cop. He's come full circle. In one of Valley's funniest bits, Stoltz goes undercover to bust a dirty massage parlor, but complications (as well as a certain part of Stoltz's anatomy) arise. The scene gives new meaning to the phrase "wooden acting."

"Eric is the workin'est man in Hollywood for two reasons," Herzfeld explains after declining to comment on Stoltz's apparent, um, enthusiasm in the massage parlor scene. "First, he has enormous range. Second, he's one of the most passionate actors you'll ever meet. That massage parlor scene was a risky scene. But Eric's a trouper. He showed up for screenings of all his dailies, and then when his part was done shooting, he continued to show up for other actors' dailies. He hung out with real vice cops to get a feel for the job. When he got his wardrobe three weeks prior to the start of shooting, he started wearing it immediately. He wore it to rehearsals, outside, everywhere. Even on days off. The costume designer came to me right before shooting started and complained, 'I'd like to clean Eric's costume but he won't take it off.'"

Scenes such as the massage parlor non-bust, Hatcher's wandering around with blood-matted hair, or Charlize Theron's S&M-shaded bedroom gambol with a ruthless killer played by James Spader suggest that over the course of several years directing TV movies, Herzfeld may have repressed quite a backlog of graphic imagery. "In features the margins aren't just wider; they're not there," Herzfeld observes. "It's great to be able to not have to worry about Standards and Practices [network censors] with regard to language, sexual content, or violence. But I learned my chops on TV -- how to tell a story with camera and characters, how to work on budget. It's a great place to learn. And it's not just a learning experience; TV allows you to do a kind of socially themed movie that people wouldn't go to a theater to see. Obviously, I could never have done [2 days] on TV. And if it ever runs on network TV, I won't be able to watch it because it'll be so heavily cut, trimmed, chopped, edited, sliced, and diced."

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