May 3, 2012

There’s nothing like a good revenge fantasy to get the blood working. Especially when you make the object of the audience’s hatred a bigoted Southern sheriff. It’s practically sure-fire.

As it turns out, Tank, the newest cinematic revenge story, is so-so. The plot is formulaic: hard-nosed Army sergeant moves into a military base near a small Southern town. He manages to make the town’s sheriff very angry. To strike back, the sheriff arrests the sergeant’s lightweight son on a bogus drug charge and sends him away to a work farm. The sergeant must go outside the law and make his own kind of solution to the problem: vigilante justice.

The curve ball here is that the sergeant owns his own customized Sherman tank. Now, when you’ve got a mind to bust your son out of a heavily-guarded prison farm, one of those tanks can come in pretty darned handy. And this tank does the trick: Sarge and son are soon off on the lam through the Georgia underbrush, heading for the state line.

Tank doesn’t really take any of this too seriously. It attempts a light-hearted approach during its first half, and then settles in for the big chase. Unfortunately, the results are just lame; in this case, the predictability of the story’s outcome takes the gas out of the narrative’s forward drive.

James Garner is in agreeable form as the sergeant; Shirley Jones plays his spunky wife. She says grown-up things here the likes of which she hasn’t spoken since she won an Oscar playing a prostitute in Elmer Gantry in 1960. Jones is probably a very nice woman, but she couldn’t act hip if her life depended on it, which I hope it never does.

G.D. Spradlin adds bite to the movie with another one of his roles as a thoroughly despicable, barely human villain. If you don’t recognize the name, perhaps you remember the snake’s eyes or the shark’s grin, from the butt-breaking coaches in North Dallas Forty and One on One to the Army bigwig who sent Martin Sheen up the river in Apocalypse Now. Spradlin plays the sheriff, of course, and he’s as irredeemably vile a creature as you’d ever want to see. Thank heaven for that, or the movie would really be a drag.

Actually, once the big chase starts, the basic dramatic tension of how they’re going to get to the state line takes over, and Tank becomes sporadically involving. But even the chase goes on too long, and you start thinking, can the Tennessee state line really be that far?

Director Marvin Chomsky should probably take the rap for that. He’s helmed a bunch of those respectable TV miniseries, such as “Holocaust” and “Roots.” You could look at five minutes of Tank and say, “Yep. TV director.” There’s a world of difference between the media, or art forms, or whatever you choose to call them. A miniseries can plod along for hours, but a motion picture has to move. Chomsky’s misplaced deliberateness insures that Tank remains a clunky vehicle.

First published in the Herald, March 15, 1984

It seems that, even if most movies drop into obscurity, you might hear mention of them once or twice in your lifetime. I don’t think I’ve ever heard or seen a reference to this utterly blah movie, a non-event of the blandest kind. It sounds as though Spradlin might’ve been worth seeing, and Garner has his persona. But that is assuming this movie actually existed in the world, which I can’t verify.