June 30, 2011

It’s hard not to root just a little for Burt Reynolds at this moment in his career. The most self-mocking of 1970s movie stars has fallen on tough times lately: Right when he suffered through a string of box-office stiffs (notably Stroker Ace and Stick), he took an inadvertent punch to the chin from Clint Eastwood during filming of City Heat.

This accidental realignment of his jaw caused Reynolds some nagging medical problems, which in turn—it’s getting to be inevitable these days—produced rumors that he had AIDS. He had to go on “Entertainment Tonight” with Rona Barrett to deny the stories. (Denying rumors of AIDS has become the latest Hollywood game: recently Richard Pryor and Isabelle Adjani have gone public with denials.)

All of this has taken Reynolds out of the movie-making business. So Heat represents a first step back into the broad-shouldered stardom that he’s enjoyed for the past decade and a half.

Superficially, it’s a good choice. Heat is one of those two-fisted action things about an enforcer who takes care of business his own way (in other words, just the sort of movie that has kept Eastwood’s superstardom secure).

A friend (Karen Young) gets beaten up by a despicable rich twerp (Neill Barry) who has Mafia connections. Reynolds goes after the creep, with the violent consequences you’d expect. Simultaneously, there’s a plot about a wealthy Easterner (Peter MacNicol, the young writer in Sophie’s Choice) who asks Reynolds to give him lessons in self-defense.

All of this takes place in the cinematically exploitable Las Vegas, and it’s been written with some pepper by veteran screenwriter William Goldman. Yet Goldman’s script is weirdly shaped; the two different stories don’t quite mesh, and the action plot gets suspended during a lengthy sequence in which Reynolds’ addiction to gambling is detailed.

Maybe a strong director could have made sense of this. Unfortunately, Heat has considerable directorial problems—starting with the fact that Dick Richards (Farewell, My Lovely) left the film halfway through shooting. He was replaced by Jerry Jameson, director of Raise the Titanic, who could not get this vessel out of the water. (Credit goes to R.M. Richards, which suggests that Dick Richards is not too pleased to be associated with the project).

Reynolds labors manfully to keep it alive, and luckily he’s got some good actors in support. They can’t make this shapeless film work, but it’s easier to watch than most films with two directors, which isn’t saying terribly much.

First published in the Herald, November 1987

What a drag, remembering the days of actors denying they had AIDS. (And what a drag, remembering the reign of Rona Barrett.) Reynolds couldn’t catch a break back then, with movies flopping and his injury (according to IMDb, it was a chair in the face, not Eastwood’s fist, that did the number). He had been at the top for a while, and then he wasn’t, and nothing really clicked. I have memories that Heat and Malone had a certain appeal in part because of their modesty—the great run was over, and now Burt was just making movies. But I’m not going to confirm that.