In V.I. Warshawski, Kathleen Turner plays a smoky-voiced Chicago private eye who takes her whiskey straight up and dresses like a ’40s glamour girl. V.I., whose messy apartment gazes directly out onto Wrigley Field (somehow, this doesn’t make the room seem any more luxurious), is meant to be a light-comic feminist update of vintage Hollywood detectives such as Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Tough, sassy, and independent — why, she even knows aikido! — she’s a lot more good-natured than Humphrey Bogart, and she’s got a thing for wearing four-inch-high pumps, the flashier the better.
Early on, she’s having a drink with a friend when one of her new red- spangled heels slips off. It catches the attention of former hockey star Boom-Boom Grafalk (Stephen Meadows), who can’t help noticing what lovely arches she has. There’s humor, and a certain poetic justice, in the notion of a tough-broad detective who uses her spectacular gams to manipulate men. But V.I. Warshawski, I’m afraid, is a dud. As soon as that sexy scene in the bar is over, Boom-Boom gets blown up in a tugboat (the plot takes off from a corruption scandal involving his family’s shipping business), and V.I. is reduced from a quirky sleuth-seductress to a generic and rather cloddish investigator.
Adapted from Sara Paretsky’s popular series of mystery novels, V.I. Warshawski looks and feels like a second-rate TV show. The film lacks caginess, wit, and style, and the characters V.I. meets during her investigation have to be some of the blandest eccentrics ever assembled for a detective thriller. There are a few scenes of sub-Moonlighting banter between V.I. and her stubbornly unromantic journalist boyfriend (Jay O. Sanders). But the script’s idea of character is mostly to have V.I. keep repeating her name — as if there were something terribly clever about that pseudo-Polish moniker — and to surround her with cutesy, decorative touches, such as her baseball-field apartment or her car’s exhaust pipe always letting out a single, explosive cough.
Turner does her best to turn on the blowsy charm. The film, though, is too obvious about trying to ”humanize” V.I. Much of the time, she’s looking after Boom-Boom’s 13-year-old daughter (Angela Goethals), whom the villains are after. This precocious brat gets way too much screen time. She defuses the danger necessary to spark a good mystery, and V.I. just ends up seeming like a glorified mom. Turner, with her leonine sexiness, remains a radiantly adult actress. She deserves better than this kid-stuff thriller. C-