Nicky (John Cassavetes) is holed up in a dingy hotel room, barely holding off the panic as he telephones his old friend Mikey (Peter Falk) to instruct him to get over there as quickly as he can, but under conditions: don't take your own car, and ask the taxi driver to stop a few streets before the hotel to make sure you're not followed. Mikey dutifully follows his friend's advice and finally works out where he is when Nicky throws bottles wrapped with towels out of the window to attract his attention. But even standing at the door of the room, he isn't allowed in until he batters on it and eventually Nicky relents. The cause of all this trouble? Nicky believes there's a contract out on him...
Although it looks a lot like a film directed by John Cassavetes, Mikey and Nicky was written and directed by Elaine May, though it was the loose, semi-improvisational style of Cassavetes that she was following, even going as far as to cast him and one of his favourite actors, Falk. Unfortunately as well as his strengths, the film included its influence's weakenesses in a tale that started as an examination of make bonding and ended up, well, an examination of violent male separation. Suffering as May's work tended to a lot of production problems, it doesn't finish the way it begins, banging on doors aside, but the actors achieved a certain consistency of masculine malaise.
And how nice to see a film where trying to kick and hammer a door down doesn't result in it giving way on the second thump, which is a cliché still in use today. Back at the plot, the tone of paranoia is carefully built up, if you can call the two leads' bull in a china shop performing careful, as you're not sure at first whether there is any truth behind Nicky's fears. As the events draw on, it becomes more apparent that he might have a reason for believing he is about to be shot dead, especially as we see the hitman out to commit the deed (Ned Beatty) huffily driving around looking for Nicky.
For the first half, there's a lot of acting school scenes where Falk and Cassavetes flex their thespian muscles, and self-indulgence would appear to be the order of the day. This feeling is not dispellled by such sequences as Nicky narrowly avoiding being beaten up when he racially insults a group of men in a bar, and a daft bit of business on a bus with the driver, a role essayed by M. Emmet Walsh, being wrestled to the ground for being petty. Then there's a graveyard setting for Nicky to look for his mother's resting place and questions of life and death to arise.
Yes, as well as being self-indulgent it's pretentious into the bargain, with Nicky behaving as if he is invincible on the night time streets of the city as after all, he's dead already, and Mikey trying to talk him down. But then the real picture of what is happening grows clearer, and Mikey is not making sure his supposed friend is reaching safety, but leading him to his doom in revenge for perceived slights against his character. So not only do we have the meaning of life and death, the possibilities of male friendship and how far they can go, but there's a grand betrayal to boot. If that doesn't tickle your fancy, there is a nice sense of location as the duo make their way through New York City and grindhouse fans will get a kick out of seeing the real thing up there, showing New One-Armed Swordsman and The Laughing Policeman in a double bill. If you like actorly pieces, this is fine, but the air of self importance becomes wearing. Music by John Strauss.