A spacecraft hurtled into the sky must exceed a certain escape velocity in order to break free of Earth’s gravitational bonds and venture on into interstellar space. So it is with people. An individual may struggle to turn his or her life around; to change a lifetime of bad habits, bad influences, and bad choices in order to break free of the associated nasty consequences.
Just ask lifetime criminal Virgil Bliss (an extraordinary Clint Jordan). Paroled after serving twelve years for nearly killing a liquor store owner during a botched robbery attempt, Virgil is determined to keep his violent temper in check, clean up his act, and maintain his freedom.
Not that the system helps him any. Before Virgil’s even settled into the halfway house where he must temporarily stay, his sullenly feral roommate Manny Alvarez (Anthony Gorman) immediately pressures the painfully naive newcomer to break the house ban on alcohol, drugs and pornography. Nor does the location help matters any either, located as it is within easy walking distance of a seedy street corner where $10 buys you oral sex from either of two haggard prostitutes. Caving in to Manny’s relentless badgering, Virgil finally pays the women a visit…and promptly falls in love with Ruth (Kirsten Russell).
Despite Manny’s skeptical scoffing, Virgil gets a job and persists in his courtship. Eventually, the hard-working ex-con and the opportunistic junkie hooker begin to form the semblance of a “normal” relationship. Norman Rockwell this ain’t, however. Not with them burdened with the handicaps of their troubled pasts, not with Manny’s bad-seed meddling, and especially not with Ruth’s slimy pimp Devo (Marc Romero) up in arms about losing his “property.”
“Virgil Bliss” is as simple and straightforward as its sympathetic protagonist. Laced with an appropriately minimalist soundtrack, director Joe Maggio’s riveting film is blessed with a solid cast. (Remarkably, based on the strength of his performance, a rumor spread that Clint Jordan was actually a former convict who formed the first-of-its kind, all-convict theater group while in prison. This is completely false, Jordan is a well-balanced good citizen.) Harlan Bosmajian does an excellent job shooting the film in a gritty street style reminiscent of such ’70s cop dramas as “Bullet,” (although that “NYPD Blue” shaky-cam thing started looking dated about three years ago).
One watches films such as “Virgil Bliss” with one eye on the running time, hoping that the film will end before something foul — usually not entirely the endearing protagonist’s fault — comes along. Yet, “We are who we are,” is the mantra for this grim urban drama. That human escape velocity can be awfully hard to reach with all those bad influences hanging around.