The Abyss

October 24, 2019

abyssIf you’ve never seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Cocoon, or any other of the contact-with-­friendly-aliens movies of the last decade, then The Abyss may seem like a visionary film, a fabulous mix of action, science fiction, and wonder.

It may seem that way even if you have seen those other movies. But The Abyss, an expert and often evocative piece of action filmmaking, suffers from too much familiarity with these themes of alien awe.

That cavil noted, I hasten to applaud The Abyss as the top action movie of the year thus far. It’s the third movie since January to feature a plot about deep-sea workers trapped with major problems at the bottom of the ocean. But while the memory of Deepstar Six and Leviathan recedes into Z- movie cheesiness, The Abyss comes roaring at you with all the breathless ingenuity that writer-director James Cameron can muster.

That’s quite a bit.

Cameron is the fellow who created Aliens and The Terminator, and he’s an energetic, intelligent talent. The Abyss is his most ambitious effort, in more ways than one.

Most of the movie takes place underwater, at an oil-drilling station on the sea floor. When an American nuclear sub crashes nearby, the military asks the rig to help investigate. The boss (Ed Harris) isn’t thrilled, particularly when his estranged wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who designed the sea station, comes down to supervise. He’s also suspicious of the grim Navy divers (led by Michael Biehn) who seem to have their own agenda.

The journey into the wrecked submarine, an unnerving graveyard of floating refuse and snow-white corpses, is just the beginning of the fun. The film’s full of crackling suspense in an old-fashioned movie way; at almost 2 1/2  hours, the forward motion never flags.

But Cameron is up to more than just adventure. The film is about two things: the exploration of non-terrestrial life (“something not us”), and the exploration of a foundering relationship. The Abyss is like a cross between Close Encounters and Scenes From a Marriage. The marriage of Harris and Mastrantonio is shown in broad but deeply felt strokes (and is well played by those two good actors).

Cameron and his own wife, Abyss producer Gale Ann Hurd, were breaking up during the shooting of this film. That must have made for an interesting production. Their marriage was not the only thing that became strained during the grueling, already notorious filming process. Conditions were so horrible that Ed Harris vowed never to talk about the movie at all. The complicated underwater scenes were shot inside a huge abandoned nuclear reactor in South Carolina, and the logistics were a practical nightmare.

Very little of this hardship comes across on screen; the film’s a technical marvel. Technical but human – Cameron knows just how to play off the big special effects with the personal story. It makes you wonder whether the supernatural elements that creep into the film were necessary at all. Despite the nature of his films, Cameron’s touch is for people, not aliens.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

I wasn’t comparing The Abyss to Cocoon, but I do remember thinking that (in terms of subject matter) The Abyss had just missed being ahead of the curve. So that’s what that comment is about. I realize there might be some debate about my last line, since Cameron is not exactly lauded for his treatment of characters, but on the other hand, Titanic wasn’t entirely a smash because of special effects – at the very least, Cameron has a touch for archetypes. 


October 10, 2019

stakeoutVery few actors have ever come back from the dead quite as spectacularly as Richard Dreyfuss, whose career all but vanished after the one­-two punch of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goodbye Girl (he got the Oscar for the latter). It took close to a decade for Dreyfuss to shake off some bad film choices and some well-publicized drug scrapes.

Then, last year, he surfaced amongst the convivial ensemble of Down and Out in Beverly Hills. A few months ago, Tin Men saw him cruising at his former speed. Now Stakeout completes the rehabilitation process. All three films are from Disney’s Touchstone Pictures.

Dreyfuss owns Stakeout. It’s ostensibly a cop-buddy movie, the plot of which puts Dreyfuss and partner Emilio Estevez on an extended stakeout. But it becomes clear early on that Estevez has drawn strictly sidekick duty here; this is really Dreyfuss’s showcase.

The two cops are ensconced in a dilapidated house across the street from the home of a woman (Madeleine Stowe) who is the ex­-girlfriend of a vicious escaped criminal (Aidan Quinn). The cops figure the con may visit the house, so they settle in for a long and boring stakeout.

Except that Dreyfuss finds himself unduly attracted to the object of the watch. He inadvertently makes contact, and is quickly interacting with her in ways that would make Jack Webb’s hair turn white. Estevez, of course, watches from across the street.

Jim Kouf’s script catches a lot of the humor of the situation, particularly the bantering among the cops on the tedious duty. Dreyfuss and Estevez bicker a lot about movie trivia (there’s an inside joke about Jaws, which starred Dreyfuss) and JFK’s assassination.

John Badham, whose direction can be good (War Games) or bad (Short Circuit) depending on the script, is nimble enough here. The lightness of tone almost short-circuits the movie, particularly during a farcical car chase when Dreyfuss has to exit Stowe’s house after spending the night with her, and the police mistake him for the escaped con.

Luckily, when the psychopathic escapee does show up (I’m not giving a surprise away, the film makes it inevitable) Badham gets the danger back into it. Some of this has to do with the sheer intensity of Aidan Quinn, who continues to look like one of the best actors in America.

For the most part, the movie’s loosey-goosey and wisecracking, which fits Dreyfuss perfectly. He rips through the film with all the confidence of the young bantam he was in Jaws and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Welcome back.

Oh yeah, the film is set in Seattle. You know this because one character wears a Seahawks cap, there’s a fight in a fish-processing plant, and a totem pole is being carved in front of the police station. (Please!) But the whole thing was shot in Vancouver, B.C., because the Canadian dollar is currently so agreeable. So try not to snicker when the Expo ’86 grounds flash by outside Richard Dreyfuss’s apartment—it’s all part of the illusion, folks.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

Couple of things here that have been generally forgotten: That Stakeout was a big hit movie, and that Dreyfuss had a bona fide comeback. You never hear this film mentioned today, but it was very successful (made the year’s top ten grossers) and generally liked. I see I was impressed with Aidan Quinn back then, and at this moment his promising career took a mystifying turn. Stowe should have been huge as well; this was her first significant thing in movies, and of course she had a nice run for a while. There was a sequel, but who remembers Another Stakeout?

Extreme Prejudice

October 3, 2019

Extreme-PrejudiceExtreme Prejudice has the good bloodlines of a strong action film, especially in its star, Nick Nolte, and director, Walter Hill. They previously teamed on 48 HRS., and Hill brought his slashing style to The Warriors and The Long Riders.

So  it’s disappointing to report that Extreme Prejudice goes nowhere, a hopeless mix of divergent plots and themes. For the first hour or so, it almost seems as though two different movies are going on. One movie follows a gang of government­sponsored ex-soldiers who descend on a Texas border town in a covert mission to put the clamp on a bustling dope trade. The  other movie involves Jack Benteen (Nolte), a spitshine Texas Ranger who confronts his boyhood friend Cash Bailey (Powers Boothe), a bad apple who now runs the dope ring through Mexico.

Naturally, these two plots come together, and the film actually becomes more interesting as it proceeds. Benteen’s problem is not only with Bailey, or with the covert group, but also with a girlfriend (Maria Conchita Alonso), Bailey’s former flame.

She keeps telling Benteen she needs to talk things out. He says, “Conversation is not my strong suit,” and you believe him. Also, she may be fed up with the fact that he never seems to remove his 20-gallon cowboy hat.

That may be too much going on already, but there’s even more. Rip Torn turns up, playing Benteen’s tobacco-chewing father figure. He’s an entertaining actor, and he gives the film some much-needed humor (Nolte is absolutely deadpan throughout), but Torn  gets  blown  away  early  on. Curiously, the film almost immediately forgets him.

Hill doesn’t maneuver the film in any fruitful direction. By itself, either the story of childhood friends gone sour or the high­ tech CIA boys vs. old-fashioned ranger might have worked; but neither is developed. And Alonso’s role is strictly decoration.

Worse, Hill doesn’t give the movie the jagged, nervy visual snap that he had in The Long Riders and 48 HRS. He winds up the movie by trying to restage the epic shootout from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and spills a lot of blood but misses entirely the tragedy and heroism of Peckinpah’s lost men.

Presumably the mishmash quality can be attributed in part to a screenplay that seems to have passed through a lot of different typewriters, including those of John (Red Dawn) Milius and Deric (The Deer Hunter) Washburn. Two other writers are credited, and Nolte and Hill also worked the script over, according to the press notes. No wonder it takes off in so many different directions.

Hill’s fondness for colorful character actors pays off, however. Michael Ironside and Clancy Brown are vivid as a couple of the covert operators, as is William Forsythe, whose cherub-faced psychopath is a more complex characterization than it first appears. Keep an eye on this guy; he could be up for a supporting actor Oscar in a few years, though he may always be too disreputable (he most recently popped up in Raising Arizona as one of the simple­ minded prisoners).

This is a frustrating movie, because some of its ideas are potent. But its wrong turns are too frequent, and too extreme.

First published in the Herald, April 1987.

Lots of eras criss-crossing here, including the times of Powers Boothe and Maria Conchita Alonso. Apologies to Walter Hill devotees – I’m one myself – but this one should have crackled like hell, and it just didn’t. As for Forsythe, he hasn’t got his Oscar – yet.

Cold Steel

January 30, 2013

coldsteelCold Steel is a throwaway action flick, given some weight by the presence of a few good actors. Almost every idea in the film comes off as half-baked, and even the action sequences are strange.

The opening sequence promises a little something. We watch as two cops grab a container marked for the bomb squad, throw it in their car, and race across town through a series of stunts. They end by racing into a bar, where they have just won a speed contest for a Christmas party; there was no bomb involved at all.

Pretty good chase, and a pretty good twist. But this leads nowhere, like almost everything else in the movie.

One of the cops is a hothead (Brad Davis, from Midnight Express) whose father is murdered in a robbery of his jewelry store. This prompts the required scene in which a superior demands the wronged cop’s badge and gun, saying that he is “too close to the case.” Naturally, there’s no doubt Davis will continue to pursue the killers on his own.

Davis’s life is soothed by the presence of a woman he picks up in a bar one night. She’s played by Sharon Stone, an attractive actress who always seems to make terrible movies (she was the female lead in those excruciating Richard Chamberlain King Solomon’s Mines films).

Davis is being stalked by a bad guy (Jonathan Banks)—”They call me Iceman,” he says—and a stooge (Adam Ant) who are completing a bizarre revenge. Very bizarre, in fact; when the reason is revealed in a flashback near the film’s end, the incident that prompts this revenge is so lame it renders Banks’s ferocity unbelievable.

But then the movie has lots of problems, and loose ends. What to make of the implied relationship between Davis and a barmaid, or even the supposed recklessness of Davis’s lifestyle? None of this goes anywhere.

When the film, directed by Dorothy Ann Puzo, tries to be different, the consequences are mixed. A big car chase ends up in an auto speedway, where the incredible stunts are laughable. And when a dope dealer who operates a pet store is done in by a villain who shoves a poisonous fish in his mouth, it’s unintentional humor time, as is the other fish-feeding scene, when the supposedly hard-living, hard-loving Davis plies his new girlfriend with sushi. These really must be the ’80s.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1987

Nope—this one doesn’t ring the vaguest bell. But I saw it, and there it is. IMDb reports that this movie was AFI-funded and the only directing credit in film for Director Puzo, who is, yes, the daughter of Mario Puzo.

Lock Up

January 24, 2013

lockupSylvester Stallone’s new movie, Lock Up, begins with shots of our hero exchanging loving hugs with his girlfriend and sifting through sentimental old photographs, all accompanied by sensitive piano music.

Piano music? And they call this a Stallone movie? Well, yes, as it turns out. Soon enough, Lock Up gets back to basics. It turns out Sly is a convict on a weekend furlough; he’s quickly back in prison, where he awaits his upcoming release. (His crime, of course, is completely justifiable, so there’s no problem being on his side.)

Unfortunately, he gets transferred from his comfy county club jailhouse to the state’s “garage dump,” a place run by a psychotic warden (Donald Sutherland) who has it in for Stallone. When Sly arrives at the prison, the warden takes him down to look at the nice electric chair and, bathed in red light, announces, “This is hell. And I’m going to give you the guided tour.”

The tour consists of the next 90 minutes, wherein Stallone is beaten up, slammed into the mud, knifed, and driven into the sewers. Such masochism is, of course, a Stallone hallmark, and as always he revels in getting shellacked. There’s also a lot of absurd buddy-bonding, as well as the customary Stallone catch phrases (“Nuthin’s dead ’til it’s buried, man,” is the favorite here).

Director John Flynn (Best Seller) does a competent job in terms of moving things along, but the film is watered down, colorless. The only suspense comes from waiting to see which of Stallone’s little buddies is going to get killed and thus set him off into a climactic rage.

You find yourself waiting for Donald Sutherland to glide into view, because it’s such a relief to see someone who’s interested in doing a little acting. Sutherland doesn’t have very much to work with—most of his role consists of walking over to a window to watch Stallone be humiliated in the courtyard below—but he does bring an elegant sense of depravity to his scenes.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

Not often mentioned when Stallone’s 1980s career is cited, and it was no blockbuster. But as you can see, it taps into some of the man’s most cherished obsessions, and nothing is dead until it’s buried, man.


January 22, 2013

leviathanLeviathan has exactly the same plot as Deep Star Six, a film released in January. Both movies are about a station at the bottom of the ocean menaced by a sea monster that attacks the crew members one by one.

Is there something in the collective unconscious that fears big, ugly things that emerge from the ocean floor? Perhaps. Or could it be that two production companies had the idea for ripping off Alien at the same time?

Whereas Deep Star Six was a bouncy exercise in B-movie silliness, Leviathan comes equipped with some A-movie trappings. It’s got some actors, for starters, and a more impressive set design. The basic idea is slightly more clever: The crew of a mining station discovers the hull of a Soviet ship resting on the sea floor. They investigate.

A couple of the crew decide to drink from the ship’s still-intact vodka supply. Bad idea. This causes, as the doctor (Richard Crenna) puts it, “Some sort of genetic aberration,” and the afflicted mutate into big ugly slimy things that want to kill.

The response of the guy in charge (Peter Weller, Robocop) is to fire up all the power tools, zip the bodies in plastic, and set ’em adrift. Unfortunately, he doesn’t see the spare limb that gets sheared off and left behind, like a demonic leg of lamb. When it reconstitutes itself, things really shake loose.

Some of the other crew members include Hector Elizondo, Ernie Hudson, Lisa Eilbacher, and Daniel Stern. A decent enough ensemble, but with very little to do except wait around to get slimed. Also, there’s Amanda Pays, a luscious British actress (from the “Max Headroom” TV show), who is the resident fitness expert. This means the filmmakers must find excuses for her to jog around in tight sweat clothes. Which they do.

Director is George P. Cosmatos, best known as the man who guided, or endured, Sylvester Stallone in Rambo II and Cobra. Cosmatos clearly has his heart in action sequences, and Leviathan gives him a few to play with. Unfortunately, there’s nothing else going on, and the movie stiffs out long before it’s over. Lloyd Bridges, where are you when we need you?

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1989

This film is no relation to the 2012 release labeled “best of the year” by Cinema Scope…or is it? I haven’t seen the other Leviathan, so I suppose I really can’t say.

Off Limits

January 17, 2013

offlimitsNow that we’ve gotten the definitive films about Vietnam out of the way—movies that deal with the Vietnam War itself as a phenomenon, such as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket—it’s time for the genre film to move in. Thus in Good Morning, Vietnam, we see the sketch comedy set in Saigon; in Off Limits, it’s the formula cop movie.

The cops are McGriff (Willem Dafoe) and Perkins (Gregory Hines); according to the formula, one is white, one is black. They’re patrolling the seediest streets of Saigon in 1968, as part of a special Army investigation unit, when they detect a pattern in a series of prostitute killings.

As it turns out, the suspect list includes some high-ranking officers in the American services, which means that McGriff and Perkins had best chill the investigation or risk losing their jobs, or worse. Naturally, they continue, trying to find both the killer and “some (bleeping) meaning” to concentrate on in the madness around them.

Director and co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe creates a hellish environment for his violent heroes, all dirty rooms and bloody corpses. The Americans have contempt for their South Vietnamese allies, and the contempt is reciprocal. The only oasis is a church where the cops meet a nun (Amanda Pays) who helps them on the trail of the killer.

In whodunit terms, Off Limits is a bit clumsy. You can see the real culprit coming from way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and when the explanation does arrive, it renders the movie’s most memorable scene inexplicable.

That scene has the cops confronting their prime suspect, a crazed officer (Scott Glenn) who nearly tops Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now for scary insanity. Glenn takes them up in a helicopter and begins to heave Viet Cong out the door, as a prelude to his own reckless action. It’s a startling scene.

The movie has a few of them. Even when it seems to be falling apart, Off Limits does have some brutal power, and it’s gritty enough to make you want to take a shower after watching it.

What it lacks is chemistry. Dafoe, who was so memorable as the Christ-like sergeant in Platoon, has a withdrawn, pinched quality, and it doesn’t mesh with Hines’ more open style. Fred Ward is just right as their superior, who can’t believe these guys are expending this much energy on a case involving murdered prostitutes, a case that nobody cares about anyway. He can’t see that’s exactly why they’re doing it.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

The generic title didn’t help, either. And by the way: Amanda Pays—least likely movie nun ever? Still, the whole thing sounds just intriguing enough to take another look sometime.