Over the span of his career, Patrick Swayze appeared in dozens of productions, playing characters that mostly had a few key assets: seductive dance moves, tough-guy attitude and, as his performance in Ghost revealed, the gravity of a leading man (plus: those hands!). But in City of Joy, Roland Joffe’s 1992 adaptation of Dominique LaPierre’s eponymous book, Swayze portrayed a different kind of character; a man who was searching for answers, who had lost his way in life and, above all, needed some purpose -- and fast.
As the film opens, we meet Swayze’s all-American Dr. Max Lowe in the operating room, performing surgery on a little girl who doesn’t make it. This is the breaking point: His face contorting in angst, Max makes a run for it.
His next stop? India, naturally. But after a boozy first night out in Calcutta, Max is brutally attacked by a gang of thugs and wakes up in a slum called City of Joy. The impoverished Hasari Pal (Om Puri), has brought him to a clinic there, under the care of the capable Joan Bethel (Pauline Collins), an upbeat, Irish ex-pat. And from this set of chance encounters, unique relationships begin to blossom, and their lives begin to change-- but not without some hurdles.
While we get to know Hasari and watch him struggle to provide for his family, Joan launches a campaign to recruit Max for the clinic, pushing his buttons with unlikely directness and facing a stubbornness that borders on the unlikeable. In a moment of dramatic irony, Swayze’s doc reveals: “I don’t like sick people.”
But Joan gets through to him eventually, with lines like, “There are three choices in life: to run, to speculate, to commit." Marooned, Max finally decides to stay a while and pitch in -- and he has his work cut out for him. As the movie unfolds, he tackles a lot of other problems. There’s the local “godfather” -- a slumlord whose son has it in for the
City of Joy -- the constant threat of violence, and, later, a monsoon that floods the town. We’re introduced to a wide swath of characters, whose struggles and joys thread together the slum’s gritty pastiche.
One of City of Joy’s greatest strengths is this wide-scale view, both in the story and cinematography, with sweeping views and teeming street scenes. Yet, one of the film’s greatest weaknesses is how it clumsily carries some post-colonial baggage in which the Western man becomes enlightened savior, while finding redemption of his own in the East’s vast spiritual terrain.
Swayze’s stab at cinematic grist is admirable, and his co-stars do their best with broadly drawn characters, punctuating the film with honest moments of anger and tenderness. Unfortunately, as Max runs from his past, we can’t run from our own.