The January Man (1989) – A Review


A review of the 1989 comedy thriller The January Man, starring Kevin Kline, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Susan Sarandon, Harvey Keitel, Alan Rickman, Danny Aiello and Rod Steiger


There’s a serial killer on the loose in New York City. For the past eleven months a killer has terrorized the city. Every month a woman has been strangled and with January approaching it could mark twelve victims and the police no closer to catching this killer. 

The Mayor (Rod Steiger) has had enough of the bad headlines and having the press breathe down his neck. He wants this lunatic caught! Since the police haven’t been able to crack the case, he orders an eccentric ex-detective back on the force to catch the killer. 

Kevin Kline is the ex-detective, and after being a disgraced scapegoat of a scandal two years earlier, begrudgingly agrees to work the case. Old wounds are opened with ex-wife, his brother and his former police captain. However, Kline does manage time to romance the mayor’s daughter and is able to deduce the killers pattern and where and when he’s going to strike in January. The only question is can he convince everyone he is right and stop the twelfth murder. 

The January Man seems like a straight forward thriller. Murderer on the loose, unique man who’s tasked in catching him. Simple enough. Along with the suspense that would normally illicit, there’s comedy and romance sprinkled over it. Then you have an outstanding cast that’s assembled for The January Man! Kevin Kline, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Susan Sarandon, Harvey Keitel, Danny Aiello, Alan Rickman and Rod Steiger!

WOW! What a cast! Plus, it was written by recent Oscar-winning Moonstruck writer John Patrick Shanley! Well, surely with this lineup of actors coming together there must be an entertaining film here right? Right? Ehhhhh……

The-January-Man-1989-Kevin-Kline-Mary-Elizabeth-Mastrantonio-comedy-thrillerI’ve always had a problem trying to pinpoint where things go so wrong with The January Man. It’s a story about a serial killer that’s less interested in the crimes and the killers motivations, than Kline coming back into the fold of the police force, following him around upsetting people around him and the romance between him and the mayor’s daughter.

The mix of comedy, romance, drama, suspense just doesn’t come together. It tries to balance all these – well, actually the film doesn’t seem like it tries very hard at that. The tone in the movie gets pulled back and forth so frequently and to such degrees you’re not sure what the scene is meant to be doing. Is it meant to be funny here? Dramatic? Oh this is the suspense part I guess???

I won’t give away anything, but even during the climax of the film, what the story has been building up to with Kline and the killer, it bounces between comedy and suspense that I never know what to make of the scene. It just ends up feeling weird. 

Maybe The January Man was meant to play more as some kind of subtle farce. I’m not sure. I’m really not sure. 

The serial killer story almost gets on the back burner for the majority of the first half of the film. This is not a meticulous procedural with Kline piecing clues together. The solution and final act comes together incredibly easily and not a lot twists or interesting legwork to get there. By the end, you don’t care who this killer is or why he was doing any of the murders.

Most of The January Man are scenes with Kline acting as the eccentric detective – for no real reasons. Everyone is always talking about his unorthodox approach and him being this unique investigator, yet he never really delivers on any impressive deductive reasoning to get any answers. He never demonstrates his special detective skills in any truly interesting ways or shows why he was so vital to have come in and be the man to solve the case.

At the start of the film there’s this an air of him being sort of a ‘New York Sherlock Holmes’, who’s eccentricities are worth putting up with for his acute investigative powers. He’s got some quirks that I suppose are mean to be endearing. Oh, he needs his espresso. Oh, he moved all the furniture out of his office to have space to think. Oh, he needs his artist pal by his side. It’s all meaningless traits that are meant to be humorous, but he never has any extraordinary breakthrough moment of realization in the case.

The-January-Man-1989-Kevin-Kline-Alan-Rickman-comedy-thrillerIn fact, how Kline breaks the case and finds the killer is incredibly dull. There’s no pattern of clues that Kline puts together in a unique way to make catching the baddie in anyway satisfying. The climax is neither thrilling or funny. There’s really no danger in the third act when the killer returns for his twelfth murder, no catharsis, no satisfying revelations and nothing rewarding occurs.

For such a notable cast, it’s shocking how little impact they all leave in the film. Sarandon plays Kline’s ex-wife who is now married to her brother Keitel. She’s forced to have an awkward dinner with him as one of his demands he returns back to the police force. The most notable thing that happens during her big scene is when she melodramatically slaps Kline. After that, she’s pretty much disappears from the film until the very end when she can quickly wrap up a subplot you’ve probably completely forgotten about by then.

Keitel drifts through the movie without making any effort. Aiello as the police chief arrives in his scenes screaming and then walks out meekly. That’s the pattern for his role.

For some reason, Mastrantonio’s young age is meant to be a concern to Kline, yet she doesn’t look or act anywhere near the early twenty-something character she’s meant to be portraying. The age conflict comes up, drifts away and is forgotten anyway. It’s confusing why they even introduced it in the first place.

They’re relationship is not the least bit convincing and so abrupt it’s laughable. They meet and go to bed together immediately following Mastrantonio attending her friends funeral and going ice skating. It’s so weird. 

The-January-Man-1989-Harvey-Keitel-Danny-Aiello-Rod-SteigerThe two actors that provide the best entertainment in the movie is Alan Rickman and Rod Steiger. 

Rickman has some dry comedic moments as a bizarre artist. He’s very subdued and deadpan. Steiger on the other hand is just the opposite. He gives the most memorable over-the-top performance in one scene as he practically jumps off the screen, dials up to such a high degree to make the foundations of the Actors Studio shake and does a wild rant towards Aiello. It’s a hysterical scene just for out of nowhere it comes. It’s the the best part of The January Man.

I’ve read that Steiger didn’t like his performance in The January Man, but for this scene he just decided to let loose. Boy, did he! 

I have to award some bonus points to Keitel, who seems more focused on working with his prop and sipping from his coffee cup than performing with his fellow actors. 

Such an incredible cast in a mostly forgotten film. Why?

Well, simply there’s not much that The January Man does right. It’s a buffet of pretty much every kind of tone on the table which is has mistakenly placed on a gimbal and is shaking around and getting all mixed together in unappetizing ways. Even the actors don’t seem to be on the same page as to what they’re meant to be doing while being in the same scene!

The-January-Man-1989-Susan-Sarandon-Kevin-Kline-comedy-thrillerSetup of promising scenes and subplots immediately get erased by strange scenes, out of place behavior by characters and a contrived story with so many half-baked elements that you never get invested in any of it.

There’s a whole lot of stuff happening around Kline. His redemption, his relationship, the corruption in the department getting exposed, catching this serial killer – it’s all impossible to care if any of those get resolved because they’re all handled in such a poor unfocused way. 

One the most puzzling aspects about The January Man is the cast that was assembled. It makes me wonder how all these actors signed up for such a menial project. My only theory is was due to Shanley’s attachment.

At the time Shanley had a lot of buzz around him. Just recently winning the Oscar for the screenplay for Moonstuck. Perhaps it was the lure of the being in the playwright’s followup film was enough and they just trusted the film would work. Either that, or maybe it was just an easy job for the actors to film while they were in New York City. 

The-January-Man-1989-cast-Mastrantonio-Steiger-Aiello-Kline-Keitel-SarandonWhatever the reason, The January Man remains an oddity. On the surface it’s a film that looks like it will be great, and I’m wanting to like it. It turns out to be one very strange movie that creeps in, doesn’t ever get started and quietly fades out. Aside from Steiger’s scene that will wake you up, there’s nothing else worth remembering from it. 


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