Best Defense

July 11, 2011

Strategic Murphy: Best Defense

The characters in Best Defense are concerned with building a tiny part that will control the defense systems of a new tank. So there’s a lot of talk about getting the right design, making sure it will work in the heat of battle, and all that.

I wonder if the people making this movie ever talked about their film in those terms. Best Defense is an embarrassing misfire, a film in which nobody seems to know what’s going on—on or offscreen.

It has to do with an unlucky engineer (Dudley Moore) whose design of a gyro for a new tank is a flop. Just after a disastrous test, he meets a stranger in a Mexican restaurant who turns out to be an engineer who’s actually solved the gyro problem—and he’s about to give it to a Russian spy. Except that he changes heart, drops the crucial info into Dudley’s briefcase, and disappears.

So Moore “discovers” the gyro in the end, but after he’s gotten the credit, and saved his company with it, new problems crop up. The thing may not work in battle after all. And, more immediately, the KGB man would like to get his gyro back.

Cut into this main plot is an episode that takes place two years later. The finished tank is being tested in the Kuwait desert by a lieutenant (Eddie Murphy) who manages, as the tank self-destructs, to steer the machine into the middle of a real war. The suspense here is: Will Moore change the part so that it will work in battle—and save Murphy and his crew?

If you think Paramount Pictures is gonna kill off Eddie Murphy, then your view of the economic realities of filmmaking is off-target. But if the attempted surprise doesn’t come off, what is Eddie Murphy doing here?

It’s a nothing part, and Murphy, an extremely funny fellow, contributes zilch to it. He’s billed as “Strategic Guest Star,” and rightly so, since his role takes up relatively little screen time. But Paramount is featuring him prominently in its ads, as though he had a full-fledged starring part.

Now, a lot of people are going to be disappointed when they come to the movie and don’t get Eddie. But Paramount probably figures this unfunny movie will generate bad word-of-mouth anyway—so if they emphasize Murphy’s presence, they can clean up in the first couple of weeks of release, and then have the film die a quick death.

Murphy’s poorness doesn’t stand out, because everybody’s pretty bad—except David Rasche, who plays the hep-talk spy with a comic ferociousness. As you watch the film, you realize that the tank turns into an unwitting metaphor for the movie itself. It’s flying apart at the seams, going in every direction but the right one and desperately in need of someone in charge. Filmmakers Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck may latch on to another good project, but they should probably put someone else in the driver’s seat—or director’s chair.

First published in the Herald, July 20, 1984

To answer the question implicitly posed in the final paragraph, Huyck and Katz next made the legendary  bomb Howard the Duck, and that movie’s nowhere near as bad as Best Defense. Eddie Murphy has expressed his embarrassment about this one; I remember seeing him on a talk show just before Beverly Hills Cop came out and he assured the audience that this would make up for Best Defense. Of course one feels bad for Dudley Moore, too. For being prescient about the whole war-in-Kuwait thing, the film must merit some retrospective points, as long as I don’t have to watch it again.