Despite having an interesting cast in a seamy mix of kinky sex, violence, dirty politics and dark family secrets, TRACES OF RED loses its bite in a messy pile of subplots.
Palm Beach homicide detective Jack Dobson (James Belushi) is investigating a series of grisly serial killings with partner Steve Frayn (Tony Goldwyn). Before the first killing, of a call girl, Dobson had witnessed the woman's pimp going up to her hotel room only minutes before the body was
discovered. During the pimp's trial for the murder, at which Dobson testifies, he receives a threatening note printed by a computer printer with distinctive lettering flaws and sealed with a "kiss" made by a popular lipstick.
After a casual liaison with a restaurant waitress, Morgan Cassidy (Michelle Joyner), Dobson receives yet another note, warning that an unnamed woman will be garotted. When the waitress turns up dead, strangled with a phone cord, Dobson's suspicions turn to his other current lover, rich Palm Beach
widow Ellen Schofield (Lorraine Bracco), who has a pronounced jealous streak. She uses the right lipstick, but none of her computer printers produce the tell-tale flaws. Then a third note appears, alluding to revenge on Dobson for childhood testimony he had given against his first-grade teacher in
a child-molesting case.
Frayn takes off in solo pursuit of the teacher's surviving son, only to find that he had died a year earlier of AIDS. Complicating matters is the unexpected arrival of Ellen, who seduces Frayn in his hotel room. When Frayn returns home, he finds incriminating evidence has been planted in his
garage. Ellen has also left an incriminating phone message at his home that was intercepted by his irritated wife, Beth (Faye Grant). Frayn sends his wife with Dobson to get away from their house and out of possible danger while he goes to meet with Ellen. Finding Ellen dead at her mansion, Frayn
pursues a car he sees leaving to the campaign office of Dobson's brother Michael (William Russ), a politician running for local office.
Michael reveals to Frayn that Jack was actually molested by their own mother and not the teacher, who was used as a scapegoat to keep their family together. Ever since, Michael says, Jack's been unbalanced and tortured with guilt. Going to Jack's house, Michael and Frayn find the computer printer
and further evidence linking Jack to the murders. Rushing to Jack's country cabin, Frayn shoots Jack, as it seems he is about to harm his wife. The story is covered up and Jack is buried with full honors for dying in the line of duty. Later, Michael has a date with one of his campaign workers.
After getting her to confess that she, too, has slept with Jack, he begins strangling her with a phone cord, only to be interrupted by Frayn and Jack, whose death had been staged to draw Michael out into the open.
TRACES OF RED runs in so many directions at once that it winds up going nowhere. If it had been directed as a campy potboiler rather than an attempt at serious noir, it could have been trashy fun--especially given its first-rate cast.
Bracco seems to be having the most fun as the wanton widow of Palm Beach, who treats life as a banquet and sex as the main course. In the key role, however, Belushi is out of his depth and never able to suggest his problematic past with any conviction. To be fair, he's also let down by a
screenplay that uses his childhood trauma more as a plot device than a character element. On the other hand, Russ does a lot more with a lot less to suggest his own family demons, handling his brief part with enough vivid, villainous energy to suggest that TRACES OF RED may be about the wrong
Despite his co-star billing, Goldwyn mostly lends support; a subplot involving some alleged hanky-panky between his character's wife and Dobson is never developed or explained. Like the rest of the characters, he spends most of the film chasing after endless plot developments.
Even including its daft twist of an ending, TRACES OF RED is moderately watchable, its byzantine plot recalling Mark Frost's STORYVILLE without also recalling that film's sleep-inducing torpor. (Violence, profanity, nudity, sexual situations.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: R
- Review: Despite having an interesting cast in a seamy mix of kinky sex, violence, dirty politics and dark family secrets, TRACES OF RED loses its bite in a messy pile of subplots. Palm Beach homicide detective Jack Dobson (James Belushi) is investigating a series… (more)