Leather Jackets (1991): Love Story?

Dave takes a look at the sole directorial gig of Londoner Lee Drysdale, and discovers a few layers buried beneath its generic home video façade.

It was on the set of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1978) that a teenage Lee Drysdale first made waves in the industry. In Tony Peake’s biography of the iconic British filmmaker, Drysdale is described as “a young lad from the East End, who possessed a body that could cause palpitations among more elderly admirers, but he was film mad!” A member of the Workers Revolutionary Party, Jarman dubbed him “the Artful Dodger of cine-history, who was more energetic than a night at the Roxy.” [1]

Post-Jubilee, Drysdale penned the extravagant, futuristic, London-set rock musical, Body Contact (1987). Made for the BBC and directed by Candyman (1992) helmer Bernard Rose, its allegorical indictment of a divided society ensured that it was pulled from its original airdate due to its proximity to the Hungerford massacre, and despite its occasional appearance at the BFI, it remains frustratingly absent from home media.

When Drysdale ended up in the director’s chair, it was over in Los Angeles, and it would be with Bridget Fonda (who he’d lived with for the last years of the ‘80s) in the lead role. She plays Claudi, a girl who’s trying to escape her streetwalking past and who finds love in the arms of ex-con Mickey (D. B. Sweeney). Alas, their new-found life of purity is swiftly knocked off the tracks when mutual buddy Dobbs (Cary Elwes) incurs the wrath of the Vietnamese mob in the wake of a botched robbery, and a midnight flit to safety puts the long-standing friendship between the three to the test.

LEATHER JACKETS is an interesting endeavour, but given Drysdale’s background, it’s one that clearly had festival ambitions. Not that its worldwide home video art would agree, boasting gaudy artwork that promises a gun-toting sleaze-fest which no doubt reeled in a few unsuspecting punters geared up for a riff on Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979). Not that the truth is that far away, as it’s a different ’70s auteur that Drysdale uses for inspiration: the coming-of-age moodiness of Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish (1984) looms large with Chris Penn the clear link.

Sweeney and Elwes are certainly no substitute for Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke, and that is one aspect where Leather Jackets falls short. Fonda delivers a great performance despite being hampered by the occasional line of ropey dialogue (“Between erections you’re just killing time like the rest of us”), and all three are backed with a fine ensemble that includes the aforementioned Penn, James LeGros, and the late, great Jon Polito.

Momentum is a little stop-start, with the action reaching a crescendo before the halfway point and then sliding into a dialogue-driven second half. There’s also a notably downbeat ending, which if Hollywood folklore is anything to go by, might explain why producer Moshe Diamant let it gather dust in a warehouse until its eventual American release via Columbia-TriStar in December ’92. Us Brits were markedly more fortunate though, bagging a worldwide premiere through Medusa just over twelve months prior.

USA ● 1991 ● Drama ● 90mins

D. B. Sweeney, Bridget Fonda, Cary Elwes, Chris Penn, Jon Polito ● Dir./Wri. Lee Drysdale

[1] Derek Jarman: A Biography by Tony Peake, Overlook Books, 1999

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