Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke) is fighting again, and he's fighting because he has been drinking, challenging the bartender Eddie (Frank Stallone) at his preferred haunt to a brawl, determined to win against him this time. It's going well for Henry for a few punches, but just as he is starting to gloat about his impending victory his rival jumps up and lands a blow to his face which sends him reeling, and soon he is sprawled on the ground in the street at the back of the bar unconscious thanks to a combination of his beating and his inebriation, left to sleep it off in the open air by the other patrons. Such is life for alcoholic Henry...
And such was life for writer Charles Bukowski whose experiences he drew on for his art, with Barfly being a rare screenplay he penned himself. This was released the same year as the other big Bukowski cult movie Crazy Love, though this had the higher profile cast therefore garnered most of the attention, and even with the belated release of the Matt Dillon vehicle Factotum this entry in the author's cinematic excursions remains the most celebrated. Much of that was down to star Mickey Rourke's intepretation of his role, which many of those thought had captured the essence of the subject with some flair.
Others, however, pointed out his arthritic posture looked as if he had had a trouser accident and his eccentric delivery was less Bukowski and more Snagglepuss, but for a film which had no shortage of intentionally amusing lines, to turn Chinaski, the author's regular alter ego, into something of a cartoon character wasn't a total betrayal of the spirit of the piece. Barbet Schroeder was notoriously so passionate about bringing the story to the screen that he went into the offices of Cannon, who were threatening to pull out of financing Barfly, and told them he was going to cut one of his fingers off with an electric saw if they did not comply with his wishes, thus demonstrating his eagerness to get the movie made.
Schroeder got to keep his fingers, but his production limped out into the world as Cannon were effectively bankrupt, though in among all those brainlessly gung ho action flicks they churned out there were a few efforts which garnered a following which was not down to how many people were blown up with rocket launchers during the course of their plots, and Barfly was one of those. Helping was the casting of Faye Dunaway as Wanda who becomes Henry's lover, but more importantly his partner in booze, as they like nothing better than getting drunk together, leaving any semblance of storyline shapeless at best as the protagonist stumbles from one drink to the next, with everything else just an obstacle to sweet oblivion.
Dunaway was a lot less mannered than Rourke, which could have gone two ways, either she would steal the film from him or be overshadowed by his antics, but actually more interestingly she manages to complement him and render the anecdotal structure that bit more convincing. A complication arrives in the shape of Alice Krige as publisher Tully who buys Henry's poetry and cannot understand why he continues to relish the squalor he exists in when his talent could take him so much further; a lot of Bukowksi's philosophical rationalisations of his drunkenness survive here which will come across as the wisdom of a man who knew his limitations or pathetic excuses for making a wreck of himself, depending on how you regard him. Indeed, you could regard them as both and it wouldn't harm the entertainment value of the film, providing you didn't mind following a main character who never learns anything about himself and doesn't try to change what could be charitably termed his bad habits whatsoever. The best of Bukowski remains in his books, but Barfly wasn't a bad approximation.