Thursday, January 16, 2014

Cool About ‘Undercover Heat’

Somewhere, there’s a good movie waiting to be made about a policewoman who turns to prostitution. The concept suggests an intriguing character arc, as it questions this society’s criminalization of irregular forms of sexuality. So, the concept is a good one. But sadly, Undercover Heat (a.k.a. Undercover, 1995) doesn’t deliver a satisfying approach to this promising premise.

This is largely because the film aims itself squarely at the soft-core porn market, which undoubtedly limited its budget. Some rough edges are laughable: the male lead (Anthony Guidera) looks more like a pony-tailed porn star than the cop that he’s supposed to be, and a plot-pivoting car crash is kept eye-rollingly off screen. A bit more attention to character and budget would have been appreciated.

But perhaps the film’s biggest drawback is that its policewoman protagonist, Cindy (Athena Massey), doesn’t grow that much. When the audience first sees her, Cindy is getting dressed, and we watch her bare body gradually being covered by civilian clothes — a convention of sexploitation cinema. Imagine what a greater character arc might have been conveyed if Cindy started the film as a sexless uniformed officer with hair in a bun and, through her encounter with prostitution, came to liberate her more womanly side. Her entry into hooking would have felt more severe, and it could have built up audience expectation for the nudity. (If there had to be nudity in the first shot, the title sequence could have focused on a supporting character.) But since Cindy starts the film as a sensual/sexual being, there’s not as much room for her character to develop.

Athena Massey (left) and Meg Foster in ‘Undercover Heat’
Not to give too much of the ending away, but Cindy finishes the final scene of Undercover Heat in a rather conventional situation. You wonder why she had to experience such a legally transgressive form of sexuality (prostitution) to end the film in such a non-transgressive position. Maybe Undercover Heat was just catering to its audience's expectations. But the film’s premise of a policewoman prostituting herself — in other words, having an upholder of the law break the law — raises very intriguing issues of legality, sexuality, and the positive aspects (such as they are) of prostitution. Cindy might have ended up quitting the force or adopting more of prostitution’s unconventionality to her own sex life. Undercover Heat doesn't maximize its material’s best potential. It would be intriguing to see how this concept would be handled by a more visionary director like Pedro Almodóvar or Kimberly Peirce.

In the midst of all this disappointment, the film’s copious nudity (in the unrated version) is one of its few redeeming features. So is Meg Foster’s performance, whose understated viraginity as the bordello madame beats the direct-to-video woodenness of other actors like a dominatrix flogging a masochist. It’s like watching a professional thespian slumming in a community theatre.  Also deserving a good word is Jeffrey Dean Morgan, whose quiet, unaffected intensity as Cindy’s unexpected ally likewise seems to inhabit an alternate dramaturgical dimension.

If all you want to see is Athena Massey naked, then you probably won't care about my opinions. And if all you want to see is Athena Massey naked, more power to you. But the film’s concept merits something weightier than a cheap, by-the-numbers erotic thriller. As a film about a policewoman enmeshed in prostitution and its paradoxes, 
Undercover Heat is a bust.

Originally posted at in 2004

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