Mona Lisa (1986) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Very complicated movie with an even more complicated central character. On the surface, it's a British gangster flick, with some detective elements thrown in. Like many great films, however, it uses some genre conventions only to gussie up a character-based drama.

Bob Hoskins plays a small-time mob functionary just back from seven years in stir. He believes that he did his time to protect his boss, so he naturally thinks Mr Big (Michael Caine) owes him big-time. Mr Big doesn't see things the same way. He tries to avoid Hoskins entirely, and the best thing he can offer him is a menial job as the chauffeur for a dark-skinned call girl named Simone. Hoskins is an ordinary man, unsophisticated, casual, uneducated, and slovenly. He immediately clashes with the prostitute, who wears designer clothing, frequents toney hotels, and purrs with a plummy accent. After several arguments, Hoskins finally wins the favor of the call girl because she can see that he is completely different from the other men in her life and in her profession - for all his faults, he is actually a very decent and compassionate human being, even a little naive. Although he had originally seemed totally unsuited for the job of escorting her through expensive hotel lobbies, given his rough manner, Hawaiian print shirts and yellow patent leather shoes, the call girl finally decides to polish up his rough image and continue working with him.

In the meat of the film, the call girl bonds with the unpretentious ex-con deeply enough to ask for his assistance in a bit of detective work. She wants Hoskins to find a young girl lost somewhere in the back streets of London, presumably turning street tricks and shooting up junk. He takes up the challenge, and makes a foray into the depths of London's seamy underbelly of sordid peep shows and sex-for-sale. Hoskins is no Columbo, so he really doesn't realize the number of feathers he will end up ruffling to bring the young girl back to Simone, but he is greatly attracted to Simone and thinks that they may be falling in love, so he is willing to take on some dangerous mob types to get the job done.

The title of the film relates to the fact that Simone, like the woman in the painting and the figurative Mona Lisa in Nat King Cole's song, is not just the superficial work of art on display for customers, but a complicated and surprising woman. Unfortunately, the surprises don't always work out as well as Hoskins might have hoped.

Although the crux of the plot involves the relationship of the chauffeur and the prostitute, the drama is given far greater depth and realism by two other relationships in Hoskins' life. The film derives additional atmosphere and offbeat energy from Hoskins' relationship with his best friend, an eccentric mechanic who is into reselling kitschy items and reading lurid detective stories, many of which seem to have parallels with Hoskins' own life. The story picks up a dash of heart and develops some additional character depth through Hoskins' attempts to rekindle a relationship with his teenage daughter, who barely remembers him from her childhood, before his trip up the river.

Underneath its layer of small-time mobster sleaze, Mona Lisa is a genuine and heartfelt story. You will understand what an unusual gangster film it is when you realize that the musical score is not hard rock or hip-hop, but elegant and sad love ballads by Nat King Cole and Phil Collins. The characters seem like real people that we get to know, if not always like. I feel that I could have run into these people in London, and they would have behaved as they did in the film. I was very pleased to see the film concentrate on plot and characterization rather than car chases, pecker contests, and gunfights, so I was a little bit disappointed that this realistic slice-of-life drama degenerated into a violent slay-fest at the end, but even that was handled with a certain degree of credibility that is lacking in the fantasy gangster films of the post-Tarantino era.

A very worthwhile watch. I'm not convinced that it is the great movie promised by the four star reviews and a 100% score at Rotten Tomatoes. As I see it, the IMDb score is in the right vicinity, indicative of a good movie with many great facets, including Hoskins' universally acclaimed performance.



  • The widescreen transfer is anamorphically enhanced, and is quite good.
  • Director Neil Jordan does a full-length commentary, accompanied by laconic Bob Hoskins, who offers very few comments.



Hoskins sees two topless women in various peep show clubs.

Cathy Tyson is seen in a skimpy leather S&M outfit, but there's no nudity.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus out of four stars: nearly the full four. James Berardinelli 4/4, Roger Ebert 4/4, BBC 4/5.

  • It was nominated for an Oscar for Bob Hoskins' performance. It was nominated for six BAFTAs, with Hoskins winning his category. It was nominated for four Golden Globes, with Hoskins again taking home a statue. Hoskins' performance was also picked as the year's best by the New York Critics, the L.A. Critics, the Cannes panel, and many other societies.

The People Vote ...

  • It grossed $6 million in the USA
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a B. I don't see how I could rate it any lower. I was moved by it and enjoyed spending time with the characters. It has 100% positive reviews. It was nominated for a bunch of awards. 

Return to the Movie House home page