Full disclosure, the options for films in September of 1996 are slim pickings to say the least, with even the most successful films of the month being obscure outings you probably haven’t heard off. Hence the first film of the month being “2 Days in the Valley,” a film you probably vaguely remember hearing about or may think you’ve seen before, but can’t remember a single thing about it. That’s fair, as the film is a strange combination of an all star cast packed into a derivative multi-narrative city centric exageration plot that never quite comes together the way it thinks it does our sets out to do.
There’s a little too much “Pulp Fiction” without the finesse of Tarantino who seems to understand the non-linear storytelling mechanic better than most. The problem with “2 Days in the Valley” is that is desperately wants to be something it probably isn’t. The film wants so bad to be the next entry into the Tarantino copycat filmography, but ends up feeling exactly like its attempt rather than elevating itself into something somewhat unique. “2 Days in the Valley” is what happens when someone with a lot of money and favors tries to remake their favorite film they watched in film school, failing to capture the nuances and key narrative meanings and characters that make the film it’s undeniably based on so good.
“2 Days in the Valley” is a non-linear crime thriller/dark comedy about a semi-retired hitman played by Daniel Aiello who gets roped into a dastardly plot by fellow hit man Lee (James Spader) and his sultry and seductive partner Helga (a very young, almost unrecognizable Charlize Theron) to kill the husband of a prominent skiing athlete (Teri Hatcher). Of course, there are jaded and troubled detectives (Eric Stoltz and Jeff Daniels) and some random hostages that all get entangled into this mess of a job. It is written and directed by John Herzfeld, and actually marks the feature film debut for Theron. I really do try to critique films on their own merits, but it is almost impossible to separate “2 Days in the Valley” from films like “Pulp Fiction.” It wants so bad to be something it’s not, and everything feels like a lackluster attempt at a genre and filmmaking method Herzfeld doesn’t fully understand. I don’t want to say he’s not a capable director or writer, because the film has some interesting elements that could be good if framed in a different way. The problem is Herzfeld wants to be Tarantino so bad it’s impossible not to watch the film without thinking you’re watching a “Pulp Fiction” knockoff.
For starters, this budget “Pulp Fiction” lacks the wit and humor that Tarantino films are known for. There is a true skill in being able to make even the most unforgivable characters somewhat likable and funny, even if that humor is dark in its content. “2 Days in the Valley” never quite gets there, with every character being more like a caricature or surface level attempt at what Herzfeld THINKS these characters should be like. No one ever feels like a fully realized character, more like outlines of ones that will get depth later but rarely do. See, “Pulp Fiction” makes all of its most outrageous characters human and likable regardless of whether or not we believe they could function in the real world. Vincent and Jules may be extreme exaggerations of hitman, but in their brief back and forth scenes we learn so much about each of them that their antics become normal in the context of the film. “2 Days in the Valley” does everything it can to recreate this except actually doing it. Every character in the film never feels human. You can’t picture any of them anywhere but here, and nothing about any of them makes you want to know more about who they are or where they came from. They all feel like plot devices to move the narrative along, rather than fully realized characters who’s narratives happen to intersect.
“2 Days in the Valley” is so disjointed in actually sports the best and worst performances of the year in one film. James Spader as the calculated, emotionless, sociopathic but somehow charming hitman Lee is damn near perfect. Spader is so committed and haunting as Lee you kind of wish he was placed in a better film. I would watch Spader’s Lee in a million different crime thrillers and would never tire of it. Spader relishes in the ridiculousness and cruelty of his character, and the performance stands tall above the rest. It’s honestly more of a testament to James Spader’s underrated acting ability than the character Lee. Spader elevates Lee far more than is warranted or needed, and he becomes the best part of “2 Days in the Valley.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Teri Hatcher as Becky Fox, who was nominated for a Razzie for her performance that year. She should’ve won, because she is uniquely terrible here. That’s coming from someone who doesn’t innately hate her and has fond memories of “Lois and Clark” and admits that “Brainsmasher: A Love Story” is an actual movie that exists. She’s REALLY bad here, worse than most in an all star cast who seemingly have nothing to do in the film. It’s great that you were able to get Jeff Daniels, but his story arc as a down on his luck cop fueled by racism and abusive behavior never really has a pay off outside of “ya, he’s a piece of shit and we should definitely revoke his badge.” There’s no payoff for his broken state, nor does he have any bearing on the overall story being told. Most if not all of the characters in “2 Days in the Valley” suffer from this. The screenplay simply doesn’t allow for sense as to why all of these lives intersect, making it more of a “Pulp Fiction” you’d get from Wish.com instead of ordering it from Amazon. Ya, “2 Days in the Valley” is the Wish version of “Pulp Fiction.”
There are some good elements here, and “2 Days in the Valley” could be a good movie, but what transpires and how it all unfolds is just too unoriginal and too much like other, better films to be remembered or worth revisiting. Sure, Charlize Theron’s film debut with nudity should be every 14 year old’s wet dream, but the film as a whole isn’t as a funny or as purposeful as it thinks it is, and falls short in just about everything it sets out to do. It’s unfortunate too, because the cast is pretty stellar for a film that’s so lackluster. And to be fair, everyone does the most with what the have, with Spader standing tall above the rest and Hatcher setting the low bar. But having a spectrum that wide in a star studded crime thriller only tanks the film overall, and so “2 Days in the Valley” crumbles under its own ambition and falls through the cracks into 90s obscurity.
I’m not kidding, I would love to see Spader’s Lee show up in something else, and him as a maniacal villain without a moral compass is a huge missed opportunity. Spader would be right at home as a 90s action star who has a welcomed resurgence in the recent decade. He’d fit right in with the Keanus and Cruises of the world, and “2 Days in the Valley” really just makes you long for this missed opportunity that was never realized.
It’s ok if you’ve never seen “2 Days in the Valley” or don’t remember that it existed. Outside of a few key stand out actors and the only form of celebrity nudity teenagers had at the time, there isn’t much else to remember. You’re better off watching “Pulp Fiction” and saying you also saw “2 Days in the Valley.” Frankly no one would be able to verify this claim, true or not.
I guess seeing Michael Jae White as a stereotypical, 90s queer car jacker for 30 seconds is kind of worth it, but on the filp side we’ve come so far in LGBTQ representation and understanding that just hearing the abundant use of derogatory terms and mindsets as well as inappropriate visual stereotypes just feel more cruel than relative to the time. Also it should be said that the Asian hate, no matter how contextualized it may be in the film feels incredibly insensitive and uncalled for today, a framework that simply can’t be excused regardless of how it’s presented. And that’s probably the overall issue with “2 Days in the Valley.” Whatever it tries to do as tongue in cheek or dark humor just comes off forced and cruel, not even being able to claim “that’s the 90s” as an excuse for its malicious nature.
It’s not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but “2 Days in the Valley” is forgettable for a lot of reasons, and you’re probably better off remembering it as the first pair of boobies you saw as a teenager or the first (really poorly edited and filmed by the way) fight scene between two scantily clad, hot celebrities.
Outside of that, “2 Days in the Valley” doesn’t have much else to offer, even being free on HBO Max.