Shoot to Kill

May 28, 2020

shoottokillIt’s hard to believe Sidney Poitier hasn’t had a film role in more than 10 years. But consider the pressures on this actor: He was, after all, the standard-bearer, the first black actor to be a full-fledged leading man in Hollywood (and the first black Oscar­ winning best actor, for Lilies of the Field in 1963).

During the ’50s and ’60s, Poitier’s acting choices were limited by the awesome responsibility of his status as barrier-breaker. Like Jackie Robinson, he couldn’t afford to do anything untoward lest it reflect badly not just on himself but on his race. That’s an unfair burden, but someone had to be the first. And it was Poitier. And so he was over-­idealized, made a goody-goody, robbed of much of his onscreen sexual power.

By the time the ’70s rolled around, and everyone was supposedly hipped, Poitier was out. People made fun of his straight-arrow image, and vague intimations of Uncle Tom-ism followed him. He seemed to become more interested in directing than acting anyway, and he went behind the camera.

As a director, Poitier labored hard, but he made some pretty bad movies (Stir Crazy, Hanky Panky). Now he’s come back to the screen, with two movies shot last year: Little Nikita and Shoot to Kill.

Shoot to Kill arrives first, and it’s not a bad comeback vehicle, even if it is an utterly standard action movie. Poitier plays a San Francisco cop who follows a killer up to the Washington forests, where he has to depend on a combative mountain­-man tracker (Tom Berenger, of Platoon) to lead him to the quarry. Meanwhile, the killer’s making a beeline for the Canadian border, with Berenger’s mountain-woman girlfriend (Kirstie Alley) as a hostage-guide.

The pursuit takes the two men through snow, over gorge, up sheer rock. Thus Poitier’s citified ways are played off the rugged setting to produce some fish-out-of-water comedy. It’s formula material, sort of a comedic Deliverance played as a buddy picture.

Too bad; the opening 15-minute sequence promises better. It’s a taut, grabby set piece in which the madman commits the crime that begins the manhunt. Poitier is superb in these early scenes, and the film’s edginess makes you regret the eventual lightening of tone.

Director Roger Spottiswoode has previously done some tasty work, from the hard Central American drama of Under Fire to the small-­town sweetness of The Best of Times. Here he’s out to do a strictly professional job, and he relies on the soaring British Columbia scenery (photographed by Michael Chapman) and the banter of Poitier and Berenger to carry the day. Despite the film’s thinness, it’s easy to take, and perhaps it signals the beginning of a revitalized career for Poitier. It’s very good to have him back. Now isn’t it time to let him play a real nasty?

First published in The Herald, February 16, 1988

Movie did pretty well, b.o.-wise. Spottiswoode was somebody who interested me at the time; he came out of Sam Peckinpah’s editing room, and Under Fire and The Best of Times are both terrific. He’s done some big films (including one Bond picture, Tomorrow Never Dies) and a lot of variety.

 


The Package

May 22, 2020

packageAs far as spy-movie footage goes, ABC-TV’s recent Nightly News “re-creation” of Felix Bloch’s escapades was slightly more convincing than The Package. But both cover familiar ground.

The Package, however, doesn’t pretend to be anything but fiction. It’s about an Army sergeant (Gene Hackman) who’s assigned to escort a troublesome soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) from Europe to the United States. When the “package,” as Jones is called, slips out of Hackman’s grasp, Hackman begins to sense an elaborate plot focusing on an upcoming U.S.-Soviet summit in Chicago.

The film, directed by Andrew (Above the Law) Davis, trots along at a competent pace. It has a few interesting threads that were either never developed or dropped on the cutting-room floor, such as Hackman’s bantering, loving relationship with his ex-wife (Joanna Cassidy). Perhaps the most intriguing of these threads is the pairing of Hackman and his package; Tommy Lee Jones has an offbeat, mysterious playfulness that jibes well with Hackman’s simple, blunt Army lifer. But they spend too little time together.

There’s also an Oliver North figure, played by John Heard, and a standard issue Chicago cop (Dennis Franz) who helps Hackman circum­vent official channels. But the different elements of The Package don’t come together, and its attempt at conjuring a sense of governmental paranoia seems tame compared to reality.

Hackman contributes a nice character study. He’s one of the few actors who can play simple characters without playing down to them, and that’s exactly what he’s up to here.

Hackman was in Seattle recently (he’s shooting a movie in Vancouver, British Columbia), and he spoke about his acting method. “Usually things that look effortless have a lot of hard work behind them,” he said, referring to his non-showy style. “I don’t take any of it very casually.”

Hackman described his early stirrings toward acting; walking out of a movie in his hometown of Danville, Ohio, he was stunned to catch his reflection in a mirror and not see Errol Flynn.

“I realized then that I was so involved with the character in the theater that I had really transferred myself into that. At that moment, I think I really decided that I would like to do this. I think I could do this.” After a stint in the Marines and some knocking around New York, he did it. Hackman has worked a lot in both leading and supporting roles, in the last couple of years. “I would do almost anything as an actor, if it was offered to me. I like to work. There are people out there who have some kind of parameters about how much work you should do. I don’t know who those people are. Let them talk to my ex-wife’s lawyers.”

First published in The Herald, August 1989

Hackman was working a lot in those days (oh, those lawyers), and I assume the Vancouver movie he was shooting was the Narrow Margin remake. This movie was a stiff, but Andrew Davis’s next two films were Under Siege and The Fugitive (both with Tommy Lee Jones, of course). Jones had Lonesome Dove come out the same year as The Package, and he was about to break through into the meat of his career. I had forgotten the Felix Bloch affair, but it was a spy case that got into the headlines at the time.

 


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 Rescue

March 24, 2020

rescue1Even though it’s only a silly action flick, The Rescue feels seriously out of date. If this thing had been released at the height of the 1984 flag-waving frenzy, when fantasy movies about hostage rescues were all the rage, then it might have had a chance.

But Chuck Norris no longer searches for the missing in action, and even Rambo has taken a header this summer. The Rescue is some sort of mid-’80s relic.

And a particularly ludicrously conceived one at that. When a crack American task force is captured on a secret mission off the coast of North Korea, the U.S. government chills a plan to go in and rescue them. As usual in these movies, the government is lily-livered and ineffective. (The unnamed president, we are assured, “would be in there in a minute” if it were up to him, but his hands are tied.)

While the American soldiers are languishing in a prison camp, their children – yes, their children – decide that it’s time to take matters into their own hands. So five spunky offspring steal the secret plans of the North Korean camp. And then they move in.

Audiences have been giggling for months now at this premise, as presented by coming-attractions trailers. (The idea is an echo of Iron Eagle, in which a teen stole a jet to nab his imprisoned father from a Middle Eastern hostage camp.) In full-length form, the concept isn’t much less ridiculous, especially in such moments as the kids putting aside the enormity of invading a hostile Communist country and inviting certain death in order to decide whether they should let a girl go along.

The kids involved are played by Kevin Dillon (Matt’s little brother, also on display this weekend in the remake of The Blob), Christina Harnos, Ned Vaughn, Mare Price and Ian Giatti. They are more-or-less serviceable, fulfilling the usual roles the moody one, the square one, the funny one, etc.

Two things can be said for this movie. One is that the locations are spectacular; ace cameraman Russell Boyd makes the mountains of New Zealand double for Korea.

The other thing is that Ferdinand Fairfax (Nate and Hayes) has directed it about as well as anyone could have, given the material. The script, by Jim Thomas and John Thomas, would be a tough assignment for any director with the slightest sense of the real world, but Fairfax actually puts some zip into a couple of sequences, and in the big prison-breakout scene, really works up a lather. But at that point, nothing can bust this film out.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

From this distance, the idea – kids rescuing their SEAL daddies – doesn’t sound especially strange, but then I’ve been worn down by decades of high concept. I note the participation of director Fairfax, whose Nates and Hayes does have some zip, and who went back into British TV after this for a nice long career (he died in 2008). The screenwriters had just come off the success of Predator.


The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus

March 23, 2020

reincarnationgoldenlotusMovies from Hong Kong have been exciting film festival audiences for the last few years. These films tend to be breathless joy rides through weird mythical/supernatural territory. The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus is no exception; it’s a typically wild outing.

Golden Lotus is even getting off the festival circuit (it was shown at the recent Seattle International Film Festival) and opening for a regular theatrical run. It’s slightly less insane than many of the Hong Kong movies, and even has a feminist undercurrent, courtesy of director Clara Law, a Hong Kong filmmaker by way of the National Film School in London.

It opens with a beautiful woman in ancient China, Golden Lotus (Joi Wong), carrying her severed head to the Gates of Hell, her life having just ended via decapitation. Then the story skips ahead to the 20th century, where Golden Lotus has been reincarnated as a young woman whose beauty keeps inspiring bad things to happen to her. (These sorts of century-leaps are not uncommon in Hong Kong films.)

Eventually she marries a dimwitted fellow who wears ugly floral sport coats, whose chauffeur happens to be the very man who brutally betrayed Golden Lotus years before.

Also, she meets a seductive fashion designer (played by an actor with an incredible name, Sin Lap Man), who engages her in some kinky sex.

The whole thing turns around until she finds herself with a centuries-old case of deja vu. The events that led to her beheading are repeating themselves in modern terms.

Does this sound confusing? It isn’t really, because the movie shoots along quickly enough to cover any murky plot points. Hollywood ought to sign the director up to make Gremlins 3.

First published in the Herald, summer 1990

This review reads as slightly drunk, I’m afraid, and it looks like another piece that might have been shortened for length. The name listed in (I assume) the film’s contemporary publicity as Joi Wong refers to the actress Joey Wang, star of A Chinese Ghost Story; and, although I know it sounds juvenile, I stand by my awe regarding the name Sin Lap Man. Clara Law (and filmmaking partner Eddie Fong) has been working since this film, but I’m sorry to say I know little of her work.


Blind Fury

February 13, 2020

blindfury“Well, well,” says the bad guy, “if it ain’t the walkin’ chop-o-matic.” That’s about the extent of the wit in Blind Fury, a new film about a very talented swordsman.

The walking chop-o-matic is a guy named Nick (what else?), who lost his eyesight in a mortar attack in Vietnam. Taken in by some mystically-oriented villagers, Nick was taught how to “see” despite his blindness, and how to handle a major­-league sword. When the story picks up in the present day, Nick is searching for an old Army buddy who is in trouble.

Nick takes his buddy’s son under his wing, and they go on a cross-country search for the father. They’re followed by thugs the entire time, but Nick – who can split a dragonfly in two just by listening for the buzz – is up to the challenge.

The movie is an excuse to mount enough fights to satisfy the crowd that supports kung fu movies, and to let Nick, played by Dutch star Rutger Hauer, show off some fancy swordsmanship. Martial-arts superstar Sho Kosugi makes a cameo appearance, and the movie also throws in ex­ prizefighter Randall “Tex” Cobb, who does his usual brawly schtick.

By now you’re probably wondering: A blind swordsman? What will they think of next? Well, actually, they didn’t even think of it this time; Blind Fury is based on a popular series of Japanese films about a blind samurai. This film doesn’t wear its cross-cultural pollination very well, as it veers between zen absurdity and redneck head-stompin’. Even the jokes seem like an awkward translation, except for two diverting low-life henchmen, who are so stupid they wind up knocking each other off.

Overall it’s pretty routine. I expected more from the director, Philip Noyce, an Australian who has displayed a thoughtful touch elsewhere (his previous film was the snappy Dead Calm). He doesn’t belong here.

First published in the Herald, March 17, 1990

I have to believe this review was cut for space, because it seems short, and I didn’t say anything about Rutger Hauer. The cast includes Terry O’Quinn, Lisa Blount, and Meg Foster. Someday ask me about the time I shared a 90-minute car ride with Philip Noyce from the Gdansk airport to a film festival in Bydgoszcz, without exchanging a word of conversation.

 


Flashpoint

December 10, 2019

flashpointFlashpoint is exactly the sort of nothing movie that gets thrown away in the post-blockbuster lull at the end of summer. It has almost no discernible box office potential, but it’s by no means a bad little film.

If it follows the usual life-span for a movie like this, it’ll probably last a couple of weeks in first-run houses, then fade quietly away. It’s likely few people will notice.

There is an intriguing idea at the heart of Flashpoint, and it’s the kind of gimmick that might have made a competent suspenser. But the film flops around from one thing to another, and never narrows down to the element on which it should concentrate.

It’s about a couple of Texas border policemen, one laid-back (Kris Kristofferson), one young and fiery (Treat Williams). The mainspring for the most interesting of their adventures is their discovery of a long-buried jeep with a surprise in the glove compartment: $800,000. They get set to go to Mexico with the cash, but questions nag. They’re determined to find out where the money came from, and then go down to Mexico with it.

As their search progresses  there’s evidence that the money – and the dead jeep driver – may have been connected with a certain famous political assassination. If this thread had been focused on, Flashpoint might have been one of those shamelessly fun “What If” movies. But all kinds of things are dragged in: an airplane drug bust, the computerization of the border patrol, a mysterious old man who lives at the edge of the desert.

Lamest of all are the totally unecessary love interests for Kristofferson and Williams, played – rather well – by Tess Harper and Jean Smart. They exist early on to establish the playful, good-ole-boy nature of the two men. After that, there’s not that much they can contribute to the story; in fact, they just get in the way of the potentially fruitful central plot.

But even given the aimlessness of some of the plot turns, the film is hardly a chore to watch. The director, William Tannen, making his first feature here after a career of directing award-winning commercials, consistently goes for pretty desert compositions, framing people against mesas and sagebrush. And he keeps things moving along – the film clocks in at just over 90 minutes.

Maybe he rushes too much. At the end, when we supposedly find out what the big secret was with the $800,000, it’s still not quite clear just how some of the people in the film were involved with it – or why everything’s hitting the fan at this particular moment.

The big revelation seems anti-climactic, since you’ve already figured it out if you’ve really been watching the movie and picking up clues. Possibly the filmmakers should have spilled their secret earlier gotten it out of the way, then gone more for suspense than mystery.

But these things didn’t happen. Speculating about them is just another “What If” game, like the movie: interesting, but ultimately irrelevant.

First published in the Herald, August 1984

Director Bill Tannen has had a long career, and his IMBd page notes his creation of the “Girl Watcher” ad campaign for Diet Pepsi; he later made a scattering of feature films, including Hero and the Terror, with Chuck Norris. I remember Flashpoint as a true oddity, a real How Did This Get Made? sort of experience – not bad, but strange. The cast includes Rip Torn, Miguel Ferrer, and Roberts Blossom; the music is by Tangerine Dream.