K-9

July 24, 2012

“He’s not just a dog. He’s a cop.” These words are spoken, with complete seriousness, at a dramatic moment in the new film K-9. They pretty much sums up the concept, although the movie generally has more of a sense of humor about it.

K-9 is the latest cop-buddy movie, the twist being that one half of the crime fighting team is a German shepherd. The other half is played by James Belushi, who has the unenviable task of trying to make this thing work.

Belushi’s a funny guy, but he can’t bring it off without some good support. There is none here. Oh, the dog, Jerry Lee, is fine, but the script is a connect-the-dots enterprise, and the director, Rod Daniel (Like Father, Like Son), can’t tell a joke to save his soul.

The story follows a predictable format. Belushi is reluctantly teamed up with the canine, one of those trained dogs able to sniff out hidden drugs. (The plot has something to do with brining down a big drug kingpin, although the story is so feebly told that it barely registers.)

Belushi and Jerry Lee have a personality clash at first; Jerry Lee elects to sit in the front seat of Belushi’s 1965 Mustang, and disdains the doggy deodorant Belushi picks out for him. But when Belushi gets caught in a sleazy bar by some ruffians, Jerry Lee comes to the rescue by snapping his fangs closed on the bad guy’s crotch. It’s the start of a beautiful friendship.

There are jokes about dog food (chili is preferred), dog flatulence, and dog sex. The latter involves a tete-a-tete between Jerry Lee and a white poodle, in the privacy of a Mercedes. Immediately after this encounter, Jerry Lee romps around to the strains of a James Brown song and heads off with Belushi into a San Diego sunset. He does everything but light up a Pall Mall.

There’s not much human sex, although Belushi is given a decorative girlfriend, in the form of Mel Harris, who plays Hope on “thirtysomething.” But the movie can’t work up much interest or affection for her, not with that scene-stealer Jerry Lee around; he has all the good lines.

First published in the Herald, April 1989

Aaaaaarf.


Salvador

March 15, 2012

Everywhere he goes, journalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) is met by old friends with a recurring salutation: “Boyle? I thought you were dead.”

It’s a suitable greeting. Boyle, an actual photojournalist whose experiences inspired Salvador, is an addictive, out-of-control personality who is clearly running on empty. As the film begins, he’s hit rock bottom in San Francisco, as his wife leaves him and his press card is revoked.

Going on instincts, Boyle figures that the place to be is where the action is: El Salvador (the film is set in 1980-81). Seeking some glimpse of personal and professional redemption, Boyle heads south. He can’t afford the air fare, so he drives to Central America with a pal, a boozy disc jockey named Dr. Rock (James Belushi, shrewdly used for audience identification and comic relief).

As they ingest various controlled substances, the film starts to look like a version of one of Hunter S. Thompson’s milder escapades. But once in El Salvador, things heat up: Boyle and the doctor are taken prisoner and nearly shot, until they find a sympathetic general.

Then Boyle locates an old girlfriend and goes after the story. It’s a nightmare; the right-wing officials are perpetrating atrocities everywhere, and the leftist rebels are hiding in the hills. While taking communion in church with his girlfriend, Boyle watches an anti-government archbishop get shot dead. Boyle and a fellow photographer (John Savage) explore a dump site of human corpses.

Finally, a sympathetic American (Cynthia Gibb) and two nuns are murdered. There is little doubt that, although the film carefully acknowledges the fictionalization of most of the characters, we are viewing versions of the news stories of the time. This is a film that minces neither words nor actions in its denouncement of the horror of that time, including the American government’s involvement.

Heady stuff, considering that most films today are falling all over themselves to toe the popular line (see Top Gun for a real cheerleading rave-up). The director of Salvador, Scarface writer Oliver Stone, broadly caricatures most of the U.S. government flunkies—they even wear their sweaters tied around their necks, a sure sign of moral instability.

Stone, who co-wrote the screenplay with Boyle, allows some ambiguity—in the end, the leftists are seen to adopt the same brutal tactics as the fascists, and the American ambassador (Michael Murphy) is allowed humanity. But most of the time, Stone’s style is cruel, angry, and slanted, and at one point the film stops altogether so Boyle can assert that he really does love his country. All of which, perhaps, weakens the film as a work of art, while at the same time making Salvador the most sheerly alive movie I’ve seen this year.

Salvador hurtles along at a slashing pace. It’s completely tapped into the energy of Boyle (given a brilliant performance by James Woods, always fun to watch but never better than here). The film spins and whirls, sometimes threatening to go as out of control as its protagonist. Salvador may be controversial, so much so that no major studio would pick it up for U.S. distribution, but it’s also intoxicating. It’s a good swift kick right where American moviemaking needs it.

First published in the Herald, April 1986

It’s easy to criticize Oliver Stone, but if you remember the rah-rah feeling of the Top Gun era, you will always be a little grateful for this furious diatribe, which landed like a gob of expectorant in the middle of the punchbowl. Woods is absolutely in the groove here, and Stone would release Platoon a few months later, launching his feverish run of big projects.


Red Heat

July 22, 2011

When he was dreaming up the story for Red Heat, director Walter Hill (visiting the area last week on a publicity tour) says there was just one sticking-point to his story: “Would the American filmgoing public accept an unregenerate Soviet hero?”

Hilll’s problem may have ben solved in the casting of the role, for these days almost anything with Arnold Schwarzenegger is automatically ticketed for public acceptance. The Soviet hero of Red Heat is a Moscow policeman who comes to Chicago in search of a lethal Russian criminal. There he gains the prickly comradeship of a Chicago cop (James Belushi) on the trail of the same man.

The cop-buddy movie is a familiar formula, but Hill consistently finds a way to put a distinctive spin on individual scenes. He begins the film in the Soviet Union with a crisply mounted manhunt, wherein Schwarzenegger pursues his quarry through a coed steambath, a fistfight in the snow, and a seedy Russian bar, where the pursuit climaxes in one of the truly outrageous physical punchlines of recent memory.

When the scene shifts to Chicago, Hill strikes the appropriate balance in the comic collision between Belushi and Schwarzenegger, a few effective action sequences, and some funky fish-out-of-water business for Schwarzenegger, who strides into a rundown hotel and bellows his name—”Danko”—to which the desk clerk replies, “You’re welcome.”

This is topped by Schwarzenegger’s deadpan announcement after he ditches his uniform and dons an ill-fitting blue suit: “I am working undercover.” He still looks every inch (and there are a lot of them, of course) the alien.

Though Red Heat is fundamentally lightweight, and its narrative locomotion occasionally threaten to outstrip the niceties of logic, it is always informed by wit. It’s a return to cruising speed for Hill, whose recent outings have included the curious byways of Brewster’s Millions, Crossroads, and Extreme Prejudice.

Hill says the genesis of Red Heat was his desire to direct Schwarzenegger, which brings some built-in problems. “He’s a little hard to make work, the accent and all. He can’t play from Peoria, or somewhere.” So Hill came up with the Soviet angle, and “We really wrote the script after we had the actors, which is unusual. The iconography of actors is critical,” he says.

Hill has heard Red Heat compared to his biggest hit, 48 HRS. “It resembles 48 HRS. a lot less than a bunch of other movies made in the last three years. 48 HRS. was a very funny movie, as long as you didn’t think it was a comedy.” Exactly the same is true of Red Heat.

What I make of Hill’s movies is that they continue to represent one of the most provocative talents in the American cinema. My favorite Hill film is The Long Riders, arguably the best Western in the lean two decades after The Wild Bunch.

Says Hill, “I don’t think the Western genre is going to make a comeback. And I say that with a sense of regret—underlined. I have a couple of scripts. You got any money?”

First published in the Herald, June 16, 1988

I interviewed Hill in a busy restaurant, but I can’t remember which one. He wore sunglasses during the interview, which a publicist explained had to do with his sensitivity to light. I probably told him I had a poster for The Long Riders hanging in my room. As for Red Heat, I seem to have enjoyed it, although the specifics have gotten hazy and the exchange, “Danko” “You’re welcome,” makes me question my standards.


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