Relentless

April 6, 2020

relentlessArriving home in L.A., an ordinary guy listens to the message on his answering machine. “I called to see if you were home,” the calm voice says. “I have to kill you tonight.”

Sooner than you can say “Sorry, wrong number,” the ordinary guy has indeed been killed and the plot of Relentless has been set in motion. It’s a basic city-held-in-­the-grip-of-a-serial-killer movie, with Brat Packer Judd Nelson as the mad murderer. The creepy phone message is just about the last interesting touch in the movie, which quickly deploys itself in search of any kind of unpleasantness it can find.

Mostly it goes in the direction of buddy-cop formula. The two cops on the mad killer case are, of course, enjoying their first week as partners. And, wouldn’t you know it, they are exact opposites. One is an LA veteran (Robert Loggia), who’s gotten soft from all the sunshine and tofu; when he checks out a murder scene, he’s busy sizing up the layout. (Stepping over a body, he wonders, “What do these condos go for?”)

His new younger partner (Leo Rossi) is recently moved from New York, where they do this with a bit more zeal. His laid­ back wife (Meg Foster, wasted as usual) coaxes him into being more agreeable, by urging him to take out his hostility by talking nasty to plants, but the serial killer sends him into full Bronx throttle.

Much of the film is taken up with the leaden banter between tile two cops. Loggia and Rossi are good character actors, but director William Lustig, who recently weighed in with Maniac Cop, appears to have no touch with the lighter material.

As for the heavier material, well, it takes care of itself. Judd Nelson walks around looking a bit like Conrad Veidt in the silent classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, his eyes buggy, his cheeks sallow, his arms held out from his sides. He also runs around the edges of building roofs.

Flashbacks reveal that the problems are the fault of his father, a brutal policeman who tormented his son. Rossi tries to unravel this psychological tangle by consulting a police psychiatrist. The doctor offers a refreshing opinion on the profile of the killer: “Maybe he’s just crazy.” The way Nelson plays the guy, that’s good enough.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

I know Lustig has a following, but obviously I was not into this one. I am intrigued by one sentence here: “He also runs around the edges of building roofs.” It must have been distinctive, or absurd, enough for me to mention it. But is it one of Judd Nelson’s signature things here? The film was written by Phil Alden Robinson, who used a pseudonym, presumably because Field of Dreams was already in theaters at this point.


Ratboy/Firewalker/Eye of the Tiger

April 3, 2020

ratboyOffbeat barely begins to describe the new film Ratboy, which is about a little boy, apparently half-rat, who is exploited and abused by the greed of others.

It’s an entirely unexpected Hollywood production – how, you  wonder, did this film get made? Well, part of the reason is surely that Sandra Locke, the star and first-time director, is the longtime co-star and consort of Clint Eastwood, whose Malpaso Productions produced the movie.

It’s still surprising that such a clearly non-blockbuster little moral fable could find the light of day. But Locke’s achievement is not merely in production. Her direction consistently brings a human touch, and often finds the humor of the often pathetic situations.

She plays a greedy loser who happens to acquire the ratboy (S. L. Baird, makeup by Rick Baker) and decides to give him a big media buildup: press conferences, Hollywood parties, a shot on the Merv Griffin show. The whole progression of the story has strong affinities to King Kong, as well as the obvious Beauty and the Beast angle.

The script by Rob Thompson (a writer originally from Seattle) is sharp and funny. The only fault with the movie is that it makes its points very early on and never deepens them; as nice and as well-produced as this story is, it exists almost wholly on a simple surface level. Locke’s story­ telling is able, but it is without real mystery that the subject matter requires.

*

JN2017-01986There’s certainly no mystery about the cloddish action movies that turned up over the weekend. Firewalker brings us the first outright Chuck Norris comedy, a thought that ought to fill all sensible people with trepidation. Some, of course, would argue that man of Norris’ straight-faced shoot-em-ups had a goodly portion of laughs, albeit unintentional.

Firewalker isn’t unendurable, it just isn’t very good. Norris is teamed with Lou Gossett; they’re a couple of adventurers who go treasure-hunting with a woman (Melody Anderson) who knows the location of a secret Central American cache of gold.

The usual Indiana Jones gunplay and horseplay ensues, with Norris about as leaden to the task as you’d expect. The direction of J. Lee Thompson (Guns of Navarone) matches Norris’ comedic touch.

*

eyeoftigerEye of the Tiger, at least, plays it honest. This is a straight-ahead revenge melodrama, very much of the Walking Tall school. The star is Gary Busey, whose career has been spinning out of control since The Buddy Holly Story. Busey recently lost a lot of weight and has found his edge again; here he plays an ex-con trying to go straight in his small hometown. Problem is, a gang of bikers have taken control during his prison stay, and Busey makes the mistake of crossing them.

A bunch of plot leads to the overblown and predictable showdown between Busey and his biker nemesis (William Smith) as well as the corrupt sheriff (Seymour Cassel). Under Richard C. Sarafian’s direction, it’s all dumb and plodding. The sole redeeming factor is Busey, who contributes some urgency. It’s good to have this electric actor back.

First published in the Herald, November 26, 1986

A triple! And what a batch for the holiday season. Ratboy didn’t led to a few other directing gigs for Locke, and a few lawsuits, too. Screenwriter Rob Thompson (whose breakthrough was the script for Hearts of the West) went on to produced and direct for shows such as Northern Exposure and Monk. The star of the film was former Mouseketeer and H. R. Pufnstuf performer Sharon Baird, a curious choice. For Firewalker director J. Lee Thompson, Firewalker came in the midst of doing a bunch of Charles Bronson pictures, and came from Cannon Films. I am sure Eye of the Tiger has its fans, because, I mean, look at it. Richard C. Sarafian was Robert Altman’s brother-in-law, and did Vanishing Point and lots of 60s TV.


Rude Awakening

April 2, 2020

rudeawakeningFor a movie with such a ridiculous premise, Rude Awakening has a surprising amount of sweetness.

It’s about two FBI-dodging hippies (Eric Roberts and Cheech Marin) who have hidden away in the Central American jungles for 20 years, and return to America 1989 to find that things didn’t turn out the way they expected.

All right, it sounds stupid. And, for the most part, it is, although the film is not the situation comedy it may sound. Actually, Rude Awakening takes some pains to treat its subject with thoughtfulness. Of course, the thoughtfulness is interspersed with marijuana jokes, so nothing ever quite works as it should.

The two hippies return to New York City to find that their two best friends have become straight-arrow members of the Establishment. One is a high­ strung businesswoman (Julie Hagerty); she’s horrified when they arrive on the rug of her sterile condo: “You still look like dirty, smelly hippies,” she says. “You look great, too,” they reply.

The other old friend (Robert Carradine) has cornered the market in tanning salons. The revolution, except in ultraviolet rays, got lost somewhere along the way. But it probably goes without saying that the reappearance of the two old comrades-in-arms does a lot to rekindle these ex-radicals’ former beliefs.

There’s plenty of silly nonsense, obviously. The idea that the committed hippies of the 1960s have turned into the soulless yuppies of the 1980s is a familiar one, but there’s comic mileage left in the cliché.

The movie’s funniest scene involves an uptight ultra-yuppie couple (brilliantly played by Buck Henry and Andrea Martin) invading Carradine’s home and coming face to face with the long-hairs, who are busy smoking weed and calling for revolution. Henry and Martin deliver such devastating comic caricatures that the proceedings spring to consistent life for the longest stretch in the movie.

Other than that, Rude Awakening has a tendency to get stuck in its own dewy-­eyedness (and it founders on Eric Roberts’ inability to play a simple leading-man role). But it could have been worse, and in a month in which we’ve been repeatedly told how meaningless Woodstock was, the film’s flower-power charm is even refreshing.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

People must have been marking the Woodstock anniversary that year, and this was a period when conservative pundits were fond of insisting that the Sixties were responsible for all our contemporary problems. So that’s what the last paragraph is about. In the review I keep talking about how ridiculous this movie is, but then acknowledging that it’s actually pretty good, so I don’t know why I was embarrassed about it. Co-director Robert Greenwalt previously did the fun Secret Admirer and went on to success in TV, including the Buffy the Vampire Slayer world. Co-director Aaron Russo later ran for office as a libertarian and made a documentary about the evils of the IRS, or something like that. So I’m not sure what’s going on there.


Positive I.D.

April 1, 2020

positiveidWhen you’re an independent filmmaker out to make a name for yourself, it behooves you to remember a couple of things. The first is to make the best movie you can with the (probably scarce) resources you have.

The second is to make the film not merely an honorable piece of work, but also one in which you get a chance to display certain skills that may be deemed attractive in the marketplace: action, thrills, a love scene, a car chase. Projects as disparate as The Return of the Secaucus Seven and Blood Simple have been savvy enough to serve both as good movies and as audition pieces for bigger things.

Positive I.D. is not in the imaginative league of those two films, but it’s a diverting little movie and it’s a clever audition piece. It chafes under its low budget from time to time, but its carefully unfolding mystery is enough to sustain the level of intrigue.

The movie plays a delicate game. Information comes to us only in drips and shreds; as the film opens, we watch a Fort Worth couple suffer through some domestic tension. The wife (Stephanie Rasco), it turns out, is battling to recover from a rape and the well­ publicized trial of the attacker, a gangland figure who has been given a ridiculously paltry sentence. The husband (John Davies) desperately tries to keep a smiley face plastered over every situation, but it doesn’t stick.

The woman becomes fascinated with the idea that an alternate identity might be assumed by using someone else’s birth certificate. Soon she’s taking over a dead woman’s name, buying a wig and false eyelashes, and establishing an entirely different existence in her spare time.

At first, this seems to be merely a neurotic game. Then we begin to sense that the woman has a purpose in mind, one which will eventually lead to an act of violence.

The writer-director-producer, Andy Anderson, is content to let this snaky narrative slither along at its own pace, which is the suitably unsettling way to do it. But he also knows when to show off, as when he wickedly creates the illusion that the wife has been suddenly caught at her ruse and arrested; in fact, she’s just getting her mug shot taken for her fake driver’s license.

Positive I.D. doesn’t have all of its wrinkles worked out, but it is a quirky example of American ingenuity, low-budget variety. And a good audition for bigger things.

First published in the Herald, October 23, 1987

Universal picked it up for distribution, maybe sensing another Blood Simple Texas indie noir in the air. Didn’t work out that way. Director Anderson was a longtime professor of film at U of Texas Arlington, and made a couple of other features; he died in 2017. I have to say, the plot sounds intriguing. At the very least, it deserves a footnote in the annals of regional moviemaking. Bonus: in his review, Michael Wilmington used the phrase “it suggests a kind of Forth Worth Belle de Jour,” so that’s worth something.


Fire with Fire

March 31, 2020

firewithfireThe romance in Fire with Fire springs from a fundamentally laughable situation; namely, that a girl in a Catholic boarding school out in the hinterlands would fall in love with a boy in an honor detention camp, a relaxed prison that just happens to be located a few miles from the girls’ school.

Like many fundamentally laughable situations, this one reportedly is based on a true story. Oh well. That doesn’t make it any better, especially with the fictional finale the screenwriters have dreamed up.

Joe (Craig Sheffer) is running through the woods one day when he spots Lisa (Virginia Madsen) floating in a forest pool. She looks like a saint undergoing some religious ecstasy. He doesn’t know it, but she’s photographing herself in this position.

It’s love at first sight. But they don’t actually meet until Lisa engineers a school dance for the boys from the camp. Then the Romeo and Juliet business goes into full gear, and these two sense they are destined for something or other. As it happens, a few nights later they’re caught trysting in a crypt at the forest cemetery, and an escape into the woods (filmed in British Columbia) is necessary.

Most of this is goofy, as you can probably guess. In sheer terms of plot, it’s one unlikely event after another. My favorite plausibility-stretcher is the characterization of the prisoners; they come off like a bunch of happy-go-lucky fellows, out for a weekend camping trip. They don’t even use nasty language.

As unsatisfying as the script is, there’s a surprising degree of commitment on the part of director Duncan Gibbins, whose first feature this is. Gibbins plays everything as though it all actually mattered somehow. This provokes some unintentional laughter, but it’s an honest way to make movies. This attitude is particularly surprising when you consider that Gibbins comes out of the glib world of music videos (he made Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”).

At least one thing makes Fire with Fire palatable: the drop-dead gorgeous Virginia Madsen (Creator), whose angelic appearance is utterly beguiling. Aside from being a fine actress, she certainly provides a convincing argument for this whole love-at-first-sight business.

First published in the Herald, May 10, 1986

Gibbins was big in music videos; he worked with Wham! and Eurythmics, too. This is weird, but he died in 1993 during wildfires in Southern California; according to Wikipedia he was trying to rescue a cat from a burning house and sustained lethal burns. His other features were Eve of Destruction and A Case for Murder. The painting Madsen’s character is trying to re-create is Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite corker, Ophelia. This movie came during Craig Sheffer’s run as the New Thing, which included That Was Then … This Is Now, and Some Kind of Wonderful. I didn’t mention the nuns, but they are a formidable group: Kate Reid, Jean Smart, and Detour star Ann Savage, who could absolutely put the fear of God into anybody. I really think I’d give this another shot, laughable or not.


Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

March 30, 2020

remowilliamsClearly, we are to assume from the title of Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins . . . that this film is the first installment in what, if box-office receipts merit, will be a continuing series. It’s got the usual tendencies for such a series: action, humor, a clearly defined distinction between good and evil.

What Remo Williams lacks is any kind of adroitness at presenting these elements. And, more seriously, it doesn’t have the gumption to create a hero of its own; rather, this fellow Remo Williams is fashioned out of bits and pieces from various other movies.

There’s a large debt to Hitchcock, especially Saboteur and North by Northwest, and the Indiana Jones movies also have been an inspiration. But the most prominent bloodline of the film comes from James Bond – the director (Guy Hamiton) and scriptwriter (Christopher Wood) are both veterans of Bond films.

So 007 is the formula for this film – which means you can count on a series of splashy stunts and a hero who wisecracks more often than he uses a gun.

Remo Williams (the excellent  Fred Ward, from The Right Stuff) fulfills those requirements, but he’s entirely more down to earth than Bond. Williams is a former cop, without dapper clothes or good manners, who’s been recruited by a super-secret government agency.

He’s been recruited against his will, which is probably the only way this agency gets its employees. You see, their business is eliminating the bad guys, by whatever means necessary (including “extreme prejudice,” as they say), and they are answerable only to the president.

Williams is kidnapped and given a new identity. His superiors (Wilford Brimley and J.A. Preston) tell him that “You’re going to be the 11th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not get away with it.'” They enlist him in some superhero training courses given by a mysterious chap named Chiun (Joel Grey, under a lot of convincing Asian makeup).

At this point, Remo Williams reaches for a different source of inspiration: the white-guy-getting-wisdom-from-an-Oriental-master plot, which recently proved sure-fire in “The Karate Kid.” Chiun imparts a lot of wise sayings to Remo; the gag here is that he’s also sort of cranky, and sometimes comes on like Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent, telling Remo that “You move like a pregnant yak.”

He also tells Remo that “Professional assassination is the highest form of public service,” which the film seems to endorse, rather queasily.

Chiun teaches Remo how to dodge bullets and walk on water; most importantly, he teaches him how to keep his balance. This is crucial because the film comes up with every way it can think of to make Remo fall from on high: He walks along a building ledge, dangles from a Ferris wheel, has a big fight scene on the Statue of Liberty, and is carried along a tramway holding on to a tree.

This is in the course of training, and as part of his first assignment: wiping out a sleazy military contractor (Charles Cioffi).

Despite the attempts at humor, and a lot of reasons this bad guy should be eliminated, the film doesn’t quite come to grips with the fact that its hero is a professional killer. But then again, it probably doesn’t want to.

First published in the Herald, October 18, 1985

Okay, so first off, I totally get it that 35 years after this movie was made, viewers will likely find Joel Grey’s Asian make-up not only unconvincing but simply not the kind of thing you do. So I acknowledge that. It was a sequel-happy era, but even by the standards of 1985, tagging your movie with The Adventure Begins seems presumptuous. When it comes to would-be 80s franchises, I’ll take Action Jackson, thank you. Because my memories of this film, such as they are, are almost entirely of something lighter-than-air, I was surprised to be reminded that it’s from the “fun assassin” subgenre, which is a pretty tricky tone to bring off. 


The Quiet Earth

March 27, 2020

quietearthSome months ago, little New Zealand attracted the world’s attention when it quixotically declared itself a nuclear-free zone in response to nuclear tests in the South Pacific. The country’s declaration seems relevant to the newest film to come out of New Zealand, which, although it doesn’t actually name nuclear weapons as the source of the apocalypse it portrays, is obviously an analogical version of life after a nuclear war.

The Quiet Earth is the work of the leading filmmakers in New Zealand: director Geoff Murphy, whose Utu was one of the most intriguing movies of the past year, and actor/co-screenwriter Bruno Lawrence, who gave brilliant performances in Utu and Smash Palace.

For The Quiet Earth, they’ve adapted a science-­fiction novel by Craig Harrison. It’s one of those end-of-the-world things, in which a survivor searches for the reasons for the catastrophe, and for other survivors.

In this case, the survivor, played by Lawrence, may have had something to do with the apocalyptic disaster. He’s a research scientist who’s been working on a top­-secret project called Operation Flashlight, which was supposed to construct an energy grid that would circle the earth. This would allow high-flying planes to refuel without landing.

One sunny morning, Lawrence wakes up, vaguely aware of a slight atmospheric zap. When he goes out, he discovers that at 6:12 that morning, Operation Flashlight was launched. The grid was constructed, but there was a little side effect: every animal on Earth was vaporized. Lawrence finds everything empty: lights are on, engines are running, tables are set – but the people are gone.

He has no idea why he’s still around, but he guiltily guesses it might be some sort of retribution for his part in the destruction. “I’ve been condemned to live,” he mutters.

Lawrence fights off the madness that might come from such solitude. He paints billboards that say, “Am I the only person left on Earth? Please contact me at …. ” He sends out radio messages. He takes comfort in the godlike freedom he has: living in the best houses, drinking the finest champagne, wearing snazzy clothes.

He will, well into the film, meet other survivors; a hip young girl (Alison Routledge) and a Maori – one of the native New Zealanders, comparable to the Indians of the United States – played by Peter Smith.

Obviously, these people each “represent” something, but Murphy doesn’t let them become symbols at the expense of the characters. And he imbues the film with the same kind of weird, sidelong humor that sparked Utu.

Some of the visuals are unforgettable: a huge, shimmering orange sun rising into a red sky in the film’s opening shot; Lawrence playing the saxophone down a deserted, rainy street at night; the final, enigmatic image, where Lawrence strides toward something impossible but nevertheless visible.

This ending is inexplicable. Lawrence has spouted some gobbledygook about the space-time continuum being disrupted, and that may provide a clue. Or not. The ending is curious, but it certainly is beautiful, and it’ll rattle around in your mind for a long time after.

First published in the Herald, November 15, 1985

I just re-watched this one, having carried fond memories of it for years. It’s still effective. This review is probably spoiler-heavy by 2020 standards, although there isn’t much that would be surprising to anybody who likes Last Man on Earth movies. And what an ending! I don’t know why I said the ending was inexplicable, as the film does prepare a couple of distinct possibilities, which fit neatly into the imagery we see. The music, by John Charles, has a big effect on the final sequence as well; it’s a big orchestral piece with distinctly sci-fi moodiness. Lawrence was always an interesting actor, with his boxer’s face and odd sense of vulnerability; Smash Palace is an amazing showcase for him. Funny how times change; I felt the need to explain “Maori,” which I wouldn’t do today.