Duranalysis Film School: John Taylor in “Vegas, City of Dreams”

Hey, remember back in 2001 when John Taylor starred as a wealthy, murderous rapist in a straight-to-DVD quasi-religious erotic thriller with incongruous supernatural undertones?

Neither did I. Until very recently, I had no clue this gem existed. Luckily, the wonderful people of the internet tipped me off to the existence of Vegas, City of Dreams.

Vegas, City of Dreams (also known, using a loose definition of “known”, by the alternate titles Vegas C.O.D. and Marked For Murder) was directed by Las Vegas casino magnate Lorenzo Doumani, who has directed nine films, most of which he also wrote, and most of which star his (now ex-) wife, contemporary Christian singer Brenda Epperson. As one might expect from a straight-to-DVD quasi-religious erotic thriller with incongruous supernatural undertones, Vegas, City of Dreams is terrible. But it’s endearingly terrible, and it stars John Taylor (playing a character named—wait for it—Byron Lord), and thus I’m duty-bound to Duranalyze the hell out of it.

It’s Christmas Eve at the Queen Victoria Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and wealthy British tycoon Byron Lord (BYRON LORD!) is pouring out some cabernet for his lovely date, Gabrielle (Carrie Stevens, Playboy’s Playmate of the Month for June 1997). He snorts a line of coke off a silver tray while Gabrielle looks mildly appalled, then growls sexily*, “I’m in the mood for love, baby.”

*Oh, that’s a lie. Nothing about this movie, or John’s performance in particular, can be accurately described as sexy. This is a powerfully un-erotic erotic thriller, and it’s mostly John’s fault.

A sexy masseuse (played by Baywatch’s Angelica Bridges, Playboy cover model for the November 2001 issue) pops up out of nowhere, apparently for the purposes of fooling around with Gabrielle while Byron watches. Gabrielle is not cool with this, but Byron assures her the masseuse is only there to give her a relaxing massage. So Gabrielle stands around glumly, on the brink of tears, while the masseuse awkwardly fondles her breasts a bit.

Byron hands the masseuse a ridiculously thick wad of cash—we’re talking thousands here—as payment for a few minutes of boob-groping. While remaining fully clothed, he has listless, gloomy, clumsy sex with an openly miserable Gabrielle.

Then he pops into the shower, where he simultaneously: a) gives himself a vigorous post-coital scrubbing, and b) holds a secret video conference with an unidentified cohort about deliberately devaluing his own company’s stock so he can purchase it cheaply later and make a killing. I’ll say this for Byron Lord: Not much of a lover, but the dude knows how to multitask.

While loitering around Byron’s suite, morosely waiting for this interminable date to end, Gabrielle accidentally overhears the details of his illegal transaction. On Byron’s orders, his henchmen drive her to the Hoover Dam and shoot her up with heroin. Byron calls her on her cell phone to taunt her about her looming death. “You’re a bloody undercover cop!” he snarls at her, in a line that was pretty transparently added in post-production, before his henchmen shove her over the dam.

Christmas Day: Gabrielle’s three sisters assemble at the Vegas home of their awful father, Dylan (Joe Don Baker). First to arrive is Jessica (Monika Schnarre, Vogue cover girl and Sports Illustrated swimsuit model), who is a graphic designer in New York. Within seconds of her arrival, Dylan launches into a diatribe about how much New York sucks: “You’ve got taxicabs, bad weather, rude people…” Taxis? You’re complaining about the taxis? That’s the very first thing on your laundry list of grievances about New York, dude? We’re probably supposed to find Dylan down-to-earth and roguish, but trust me, between his quips about how he’s only attracted to women young enough to be one of his daughters and his complaints about how women take their careers too seriously, he’s awful. Joe Don Baker, I expect better things from you. The next sister to arrive is Brenda (Epperson), a lounge singer who somehow manages to rake in fifty grand per gig for crooning syrupy Christian-themed ballads to high-rollers. The last and best sister is TV reporter Katherine, played by Baywatch’s Erika Eleniak, Playboy’s Playmate of the Month for June 1989.

Eagle-eyed readers will have detected a trend: All the female roles are played by Playmates, or by swimsuit models, or by people who are married to the director. You might be making some uncharitable assumptions right now, and yeah, you’d mostly be right. With the notable exception of Eleniak, who tackles her role with vigor and a steely-eyed determination, most of the performances are pretty dodgy.

However: All of the aforementioned actresses are better in this movie than John Taylor. At the very least, they’re trying. Here’s my public service announcement for the day: Directors, do not hire John Taylor to act in your movie, because he won’t do it. Oh, he’ll take your money, and he’ll even show up on set, but he will refuse to act. You’ll get a bunch of terse, low-energy line deliveries, and he’ll look self-conscious and miserable the whole time. I understand the rationale for casting him in this film, believe me: He’s beautiful and ridiculously photogenic! In real life, he’s wildly charismatic! He’s playing a wealthy, debauched, depraved, wine-swilling, coke-snorting Brit who sexes up lots of ladies! This should certainly be within John’s skill set. In theory, it makes sense. In execution, it’s a disaster.

Christmas dinner is interrupted by the police bringing news of Gabrielle’s death. Dylan collapses from the shock and is rushed to the hospital for open-heart surgery. The sisters weep and talk about God for a while (for a tawdry softcore thriller, this movie sure has a heavy hand with the God stuff), then decide to band together to find out how Gabrielle died.

After the police captain (Tony Plana, the nice dad on Ugly Betty) tells them Gabrielle’s death has been ruled a suicide, the sisters visit the eccentric coroner, Dr. Stein, played by Daniel Benzali, who had a moment in the sun back in 1995 starring in ABC’s Murder One.

Dr. Stein informs the sisters that heroin was found in Gabrielle’s system, and that she engaged in intercourse immediately before death. Or, as he puts it, “I found sperm in her love canal,” because nothing screams professionalism like a doctor who refers to the vagina as a “love canal.” Of Gabrielle, he mentions, “Great-looking corpse. Perhaps the most perfect female specimen I’ve ever seen.” The sisters are all appropriately nonplussed by this comment.

Back at the Queen Victoria, Byron meets with the hotel manager, played by the late and much-loved Oscar-nominated character actor Paul Winfield, who is totally slumming it in this crapfest. Byron is suspiciously cheerful and upbeat about the plummeting company stock.

Byron celebrates his looming financial ruin by getting a massage from a different sexy masseuse, Michelle (Joey House), who turns out to be one of Gabrielle’s friends. “You’re a very attractive, powerful man,” Michelle purrs at Byron while half-heartedly tweaking his nipples. “That I am,” Byron replies gravely.

Jessica heads to Lake Mead and finds Gabrielle’s cell phone near the spot where her body was discovered. The last call Gabrielle received before her death came from the Queen Victoria, because Byron, the dimwit, called her from the phone in his suite to taunt her before having her killed. Dumb mistake, Byron. If you ever want to be a world-class murderer/rape enthusiast, you’re going to have to raise your game. Meanwhile, in a scene that exists mostly to squeeze a few random pairs of bare boobs into this movie, Katherine visits a strip club, where she discovers Gabrielle worked at the Queen Victoria as a private concierge for high-rollers.

Brenda, for her part, rehearses a song for her upcoming New Year’s Eve concert. Byron, a surprise fan of soft Christian adult-contemporary music, stops by to gush about her performance. Oh, man. This is a terribly unflattering shot. The lighting director on this film hates you, John. Haaaaates you. How did you let this happen? This is not the Duran Duran way! Nick Rhodes would feast on the blood of any lighting director who made him look this bad.

Oh, and then Jessica discovers she has psychic powers when she starts having visions of Gabrielle’s final moments. Sure, why not?

There’s a whole lot more plot that goes on, featuring fleeting appearances by actors who are too good to be stranded in this quagmire (Tiny Lister! 24’s Carlos Bernard!), but none of it involves John Taylor, so I’m just going to blast past all of it and get to the good (“good”) stuff. Having learned that his masseuse, Michelle, knew about his relationship with Gabrielle, Byron visits Michelle at her mountain cabin for a night of weird, awkward, un-erotic kinky sex. She’s bound to the bed, blindfolded, wearing flossy lingerie; he’s fully clothed, down to his heavy overcoat and gloves. While he runs a knife along her throat, she pants and writhes in orgasmic bliss. She yammers on about how he’s totally amazing in the sack, which seems to be mostly wishful thinking.

Then, while she’s still blindfolded, he shrugs and saunters off, leaving one of his henchmen to rape her before slitting her throat. This is intercut with Brenda’s big sold-out New Year’s Eve concert, in which she sings about God while women in lingerie and angel wings boogie lethargically behind her. Vegas is weird, man.

Upon learning of Michelle’s murder, the sisters conclude that Gabrielle’s killer is on their trail, so they arm themselves with guns from their dad’s collection. Dang it all, I’ve now watched this film three complete times for the purposes of this Duranalysis, and this is probably just the Stockholm Syndrome kicking in, but I’m starting to become downright fond of our three intrepid female leads, what with their sensible knitwear ensembles and their weird line deliveries and their random psychic abilities and their dubious investigative skills. If Vegas: City of Dreams were a weekly television series, I might watch it. And I feel only slightly embarrassed about admitting that.

Having narrowed their list of potential suspects to Byron, Jessica comes up with a plan to get a sample of his DNA to see if it matches the sperm found in Gabrielle: She’s going to cozy up to him, seduce him, and then bite his neck with a spike-equipped fake tooth hard enough to draw blood. Oh, Jessica, this is a bad plan. There are so, so many easier ways to get a DNA sample, girl. She sends Byron a mash note, in which she offers to be his mistress and encloses a cheesecake photo. She’s addressed the letter to “Lord Byron”; Byron glances at the envelope and mutters, “Either a literary buff, or a moron.” Hey, why not both? She signs the letter “Medora Leigh”, which is the name of Lord Byron’s niece and, due to a rumored spot of inter-sibling incest, his likely daughter. At least the movie is sort of obliquely admitting that “Byron Lord” is an utterly ridiculous character name.

So Jessica visits Byron in his suite, where they drink cabernet and discuss Byronic incest. Byron snorts some coke, and then they set about groping each other listlessly (Byron growls out his signature catchphrase again: “I’m in the mood for love, baby.” Nope. Still not sexy, particularly since John sounds like he’s test-driving his best Austin Powers impression). Jessica implements her dumb plan to bite him hard enough to draw blood, which backfires terribly: He figures out who she is, whereupon he has his henchmen drag her off to kill her at the Hoover Dam.

Katherine and Brenda race to the dam to save their sister. Along the way, they call their sick dad in the hospital to brief him on the situation. He volunteers to call the cops, which is an excellent idea. Probably should’ve saved yourselves a step or two by calling the cops first, ladies.

Jessica and Byron’s goons arrive at the Hoover Dam in a car. Katherine and Brenda arrive at the Hoover Dam in a car. Byron arrives at the Hoover Dam… in a helicopter. What the hell, Byron? You and Jessica left from the exact same location; couldn’t you have saved some gas by carpooling?

It’s a standoff! Katherine and Brenda aim their guns at Byron! Byron uses Jessica as a shield and aims his gun at her head!

And then Byron’s phone rings. Instead of letting it roll to voicemail, like 99% of crazed hostage-taking murderers would, Byron releases Jessica, lowers his gun, and answers the call. “This better be worth it,” he snarls into the receiver.

Surprise! It’s Gabrielle’s ghost on the other end of the line! No, really—Gabrielle’s ghost is calling Byron. Shocked and confused by this utterly pulled-out-of-the-ass plot twist, Byron stumbles backward and falls to his death from the top of the dam.

Denouement! The three sisters, plus their newly-healthy dad, stand in front of Gabrielle’s grave. “I can’t believe Gabby was an undercover cop!” Brenda says in an obvious overdub, because someone evidently decided after the movie was in the can that having Gabrielle be a cop this whole time would make total sense.

Probably every rock star dreams of playing a sexy, charismatic villain. Many succeed: Bowie’s got Labyrinth, Sting’s got Dune, Jagger’s got Freejack. John Taylor has Vegas, City of Dreams.

Sorry about that, John.


Ingrid Richter said…
Heh. A fine, fine review of a fine, fine movie. Loved the bottomless pit deaths of Gabrielle and Byron Lord (I remember *howling* with you when they said his full name). I'm also going to add this tidbit: Erika Eleniak and Tiny Lister (John's bodyguard) will later star together in Dracula 3000, perhaps the finest vampire flick starring Casper Van Dien, Udo Kier and Coolio in existence.
Anonymous said…
john falls off the cliff! and he falls... and he falls... and he falls...

you are now officially the best-versed person in this movie that i know of, the one true vegas master. i've learned things i don't think i ever needed to know, but which make the existence of this thing make more sense. i wonder if the other eight brenda epperson vehicles also feature vegas and models this heavily.

i haven't sat down to watch the entire thing yet (three times! you have done us all a great service), i just knew the john parts... but i'm glad to hear that it makes just as little sense in full. for example, i still don't understand why byron goes to the dam at all, no matter how he got there. he wasn't there for gabrielle's death, what makes jessica special other than "the plot needs him here so he can die?"

when they're stacked up next to each other like in the john taylor scenes only version, i remember it being really obvious that jessica and gabrielle get identical treatment, down to the awkward catchphrase (there may even have been flashbacks to make it more obvious?) and it seemed really weird and forced. though i also remember at the end when they're all standing on the cliff john just starts spouting off all these random lines like "i love capitalism, don't you?" and it gave me so much secondhand embarrassment that i had to skip to him falling off the cliff. when you add in things like the lingerie angels and christian singing, and the weird-looking coroner talking about love canals, that just puts it over the top into insanity. there are so many things here, and they exist next to each other, and... oh, man. i can barely comprehend this movie, even with your summarizing powers.

i think the weirdest part about it to me, and i guess this is explained by the director/writer, was always how, it's like... you'd think john taylor's presence here, and the fact that all the protagonists are women, would say "oh, this is definitely a movie for the ladies" but it's very male-gazey to me*. the knowledge that there actually are bare breasts while we barely see more of john than his chest (and every time he does anything resembling sex he's clothed!) somehow doesn't surprise me, and neither do the dad's and the coroner's gross attitudes.

*the last movie for adults i saw was the martian, and before that it was mr. holmes because mom really likes detective-type things. everything else i see tends to be animated or mcu (or star wars, but that's also disney, so it's like the mcu). i may be the last person who could tell you what does or doesn't count as male-gazey to adults in the real world.

i guess what i'm saying is, if vegas had equal-opportunity fanservice, would it be a slightly better movie? it would at least have yet another thing in it. anyway, thank you for bestowing this review upon the world.
Mintycake said…
Oh...my....god....from reading this review I conclude that this movie is just so much worse than the short "John" clips on youtube lead you to believe. John can't even use the excuse that he was high at the time (this was post rehab) for his terrible acting or decision to even be part of this film. If my younger self had seen this at the time of release, all of my John fantasies would have been tragically shattered. Shattered, I tell you! Thankfully it is 2016 and I am now made of sterner stuff. Oh, the humanity!
Morgan Richter said…
BYRON LORD! Yeah--when my sister and I watched it for the first time earlier this week, we howled at the first mention of his name. It was a sign that the film was in some dangerously unstable creative hands.

Mintycake: The whole film seems designed to kill any lingering lustful fantasies anyone has about John. It's so terribly ungood, and you're right, he doesn't even have the not-in-his-right-head excuse.

Anonymous: I now have my PhD in Vegas, City of Dreams! I'm so proud. You're dead on about the whole male-gaze problem; I think if the film had been more willing to exploit John (at the very least, require him to take his jacket off during his sex scenes! It's only polite, really), or, I don't know, hire a couple of the Baywatch guys to wander through a scene shirtless (I'm sure Billy Warlock and/or David Charvet would've been thrilled to do it), maybe it would've balanced out all the bare breasts? I'm totally fine with a little exploitation, but it'd be nice if it didn't exclude 50% of the viewing population. Cutting out the dad's folksy-yet-horrifically-sexist comments would've been a good idea, too.

...It's a terrible movie. But I'm so grateful to everyone who recommended I watch it! It was clearly a necessary inclusion in the ever-expanding Duranalysis canon.
Anonymous said…
Where can this movie be seen? Aside from a $40 dollar dvd on Amazon I can't find it anywhere!
Morgan Richter said…
Some kind soul put the whole movie up on YouTube, Anonymous. Blogger isn't letting me embed links right now, but you can cut and paste this link to see it in all its seedy glory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IL8GViqSB8U

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