Spies Like Us

May 16, 2012

Within a few weeks, someone is going to write a lengthy thinkpiece on the national anxiety about American-Soviet relations, and how this anxiety has manifested itself in the current crop of Christmas movies.

Don’t worry, it’s not going to be me. But the evidence is there. Rocky IV depicts our indestructible national hero going toe-to-toe with a Russkie fighter, with director-writer-star Sylvester Stallone throwing in a humanistic message at the end. And White Nights presents a blatant portrait of the Evil Empire as a Russian defector is held against his will.

Now, here’s Spies Like Us, which takes an admittedly pixillated view of the U.S.-Soviet standoff. In its own way, it actually goes further than the other films, because it dares to portray a nuclear war—not to mention the failure of a “Star Wars” defense system.

But let’s not take Spies Like Us too seriously. It’s a farce from the “Saturday Night Live” alumni association, teaming Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd with director John Landis, who has often worked with members of the gang (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places).

Chase and Aykroyd are inept low-level employees of a certain American intelligence organization. They’d like to be field agents, but they haven’t got a chance of making the grade. Unless….

Unless the organization needs a diversionary squad, a pair of decoys to distract attention from their real agents—”A couple of men you wouldn’t mind wasting,” as one executive puts it. It’s a situation tailor-made for our boys.

So the guys are put through a quick training session and shipped off to the friendly climes of Pakistan, where their arrival is met by a couple of KGB agents. Shrugging off this obstacle, they’re captured by Afghanistan soldiers, who mistake them for doctors and ask them to perform an emergency appendectomy on the son of the head honcho.

It goes on like that, eventually leading Chase and Aykroyd to the Soviet Union and a huge nuclear warhead that could, as Aykroyd puts it, “Suck the paint off your house and give your family a permanent orange Afro.” At this point, Landis and company somehow contrive to have the fate of the world resting on the shoulders of these two comedians.

That’s no small task, and Landis has pulled it off passably well—the film moves at a healthy clip, and seems to contain more one-liners than the standard “SNL” outing. Chase has plenty of opportunities to show off his verbal dexterity, and he gets the majority of the funny lines. He also gets love scenes with Donna Dixon, who in real life is married to Aykroyd. For his part, Aykroyd is more natural on screen than he’s been heretofore.

They’re the show, but Landis has crammed funny bits throughout. Entry into an underground nuclear war room, reached through a drive-in movie, is obtainable only by reaching for a Pepsi, with startling results.

An old Ronald Reagan musical gets a pointed barb. Cameo parts are taken by B.B. King, directors Michael Apted and Costa Gavras, and Terry Gilliam of Monty Python. A desert argument between Chase and Aykroyd is interrupted by Bob Hope, getting in his usual 18 holes before the apocalypse begins.

Hope’s presence is not accidental. Spies Like Us would love to be compared to the Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies. It’s not in their loopy league, but as holiday offerings go, it’s an acceptable try.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

Funny what you learn by reading these reviews—I thought I hated this movie, but apparently it had some moments. Clearly, it should have been remade in about 2004 or so, but that prime moment has passed.

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Salvador

March 15, 2012

Everywhere he goes, journalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) is met by old friends with a recurring salutation: “Boyle? I thought you were dead.”

It’s a suitable greeting. Boyle, an actual photojournalist whose experiences inspired Salvador, is an addictive, out-of-control personality who is clearly running on empty. As the film begins, he’s hit rock bottom in San Francisco, as his wife leaves him and his press card is revoked.

Going on instincts, Boyle figures that the place to be is where the action is: El Salvador (the film is set in 1980-81). Seeking some glimpse of personal and professional redemption, Boyle heads south. He can’t afford the air fare, so he drives to Central America with a pal, a boozy disc jockey named Dr. Rock (James Belushi, shrewdly used for audience identification and comic relief).

As they ingest various controlled substances, the film starts to look like a version of one of Hunter S. Thompson’s milder escapades. But once in El Salvador, things heat up: Boyle and the doctor are taken prisoner and nearly shot, until they find a sympathetic general.

Then Boyle locates an old girlfriend and goes after the story. It’s a nightmare; the right-wing officials are perpetrating atrocities everywhere, and the leftist rebels are hiding in the hills. While taking communion in church with his girlfriend, Boyle watches an anti-government archbishop get shot dead. Boyle and a fellow photographer (John Savage) explore a dump site of human corpses.

Finally, a sympathetic American (Cynthia Gibb) and two nuns are murdered. There is little doubt that, although the film carefully acknowledges the fictionalization of most of the characters, we are viewing versions of the news stories of the time. This is a film that minces neither words nor actions in its denouncement of the horror of that time, including the American government’s involvement.

Heady stuff, considering that most films today are falling all over themselves to toe the popular line (see Top Gun for a real cheerleading rave-up). The director of Salvador, Scarface writer Oliver Stone, broadly caricatures most of the U.S. government flunkies—they even wear their sweaters tied around their necks, a sure sign of moral instability.

Stone, who co-wrote the screenplay with Boyle, allows some ambiguity—in the end, the leftists are seen to adopt the same brutal tactics as the fascists, and the American ambassador (Michael Murphy) is allowed humanity. But most of the time, Stone’s style is cruel, angry, and slanted, and at one point the film stops altogether so Boyle can assert that he really does love his country. All of which, perhaps, weakens the film as a work of art, while at the same time making Salvador the most sheerly alive movie I’ve seen this year.

Salvador hurtles along at a slashing pace. It’s completely tapped into the energy of Boyle (given a brilliant performance by James Woods, always fun to watch but never better than here). The film spins and whirls, sometimes threatening to go as out of control as its protagonist. Salvador may be controversial, so much so that no major studio would pick it up for U.S. distribution, but it’s also intoxicating. It’s a good swift kick right where American moviemaking needs it.

First published in the Herald, April 1986

It’s easy to criticize Oliver Stone, but if you remember the rah-rah feeling of the Top Gun era, you will always be a little grateful for this furious diatribe, which landed like a gob of expectorant in the middle of the punchbowl. Woods is absolutely in the groove here, and Stone would release Platoon a few months later, launching his feverish run of big projects.


Rambo III

February 2, 2012

Rambo III lurches under way with one of Sylvester Stallone’s most outrageous concepts ever: that the “full-blooded combat soldier” and full-time war wacko John Rambo would find solace in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. Yes, the one-man wrecking crew is seeking inner peace when he’s dragged again into the violent fray.

But this time, as the ads so lugubriously put it, it’s for his friend. That is, the colonel (Richard Crenna) who appeared in the first two Rambo films.

He’s been kidnapped by the Soviet army while on a covert mission within the borders of Afghanistan. When Rambo gets wind of this, he suspends his Buddhist studies and heads west.

That’s the set-up, and if you can’t guess the rest of the movie, you obviously lead some sort of rarefied life. With the intermittent help of some Afghan rebels (one labeled Comic Relief and one labeled Youthful Apprentice), Rambo lays waste to a lot of desert country.

Once the clunky half-hour opening is past, Rambo III really gets into its weave of destruction, and jogs through a bunch of sadistic details: Rambo and the Afghans playing an ancient game that involves the corpse of a sheep; Rambo and friends navigating the sewer system underneath the Soviet prison; Rambo shooting down a state-of-the-art helicopter with a bow and arrow; and, most spectacularly, Rambo removing a piece of shrapnel from his side and cauterizing the wound, a sequence that had the preview audience stamping its feet with approval.

Moments such as the latter almost suggest that Stallone is aware of the ridiculousness of these movies. If so, he didn’t tell director Peter MacDonald, who shoves the action sequences along with grimly efficient regularity. There isn’t anything like character development here. As in comic books, it is assumed that the audience already knows the characters and expects them to do what they always do.

The movie cost something in the neighborhood of $63 million, which puts it among Hollywood’s most expensive ever. (Most reports have pegged Stallone’s fee at $20 million.) The sum is amazing, especially since there’s no sense of it on the screen; how can it cost so much to blow things up? There certainly weren’t any cost overruns on rehearsal time for the actors.

Rambo III will make back a good chunk of that money over the next few weeks, though it will have to perform strongly to match the take of the previous sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II. remember, was about refighting the Vietnam War, and in its own pulpy way it touched a national nerve. You have to wonder: Were Hollywood producers kicking themselves when the Soviets began withdrawing from Afghanistan, thus robbing Rambo III of its cultural urgency? But that may be as cynical a suggestion as Rambo himself.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

I know what you’re thinking: I saved the “most spectacularly” designation for Rambo pulling shrapnel out of his side, not for shooting down a helicopter with a bow and arrow. That should tell you something about the shrapnel scene. How Stallone resisted sending Rambo back to Afghanistan when he brought the character back in the 21st century I don’t know, but perhaps by sifting again  through this original somebody will find a foreshadowing of the U.S. war there. I myself won’t be doing that.


Platoon

September 14, 2011

Dafoe and Berenger: Platoon's Homeric Gods

In the current issue of American Film magazine, writer-director Oliver Stone describes himself in Vietnam in 1967: “(A) solitary, wide-eyed youth standing under those raggedy Asiatic clouds, looking out at the sea with his fantasies of Lord Jim and Julie Christie, an anonymous infantryman…and I knew that someday, somehow, I would write my story and join the flow of time.”

Almost 20 years later, Stone’s time has come. His new film, Platoon, tells the straightest, truest Vietnam story of any film yet. He served 15 months as an infantryman in the war, was wounded a couple of times, and won the Bronze Star. The movie is about the kinds of men he served with, and covers a year’s service through the eyes of a raw recruit.

From the opening images of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) arriving in the yellowish haze of Southeast Asia, the film tracks the relentless march of his platoon. Harrowing jungle attacks are alternated with rests at base, until the year is over. In its gritty, riveting action, Platoon is reminiscent of such classic war movies as Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet and Anthony Mann’s Men in War.

Part of Stone’s intent, clearly, is to provide an immediate sense that this is the way it was. In this, he succeeds spectacularly; the movie has the authentic feel that qualifies it as a work of someone who’s been there. (Filming took place in the Philippines.)

But Stone has also provided a mythic backbone to Taylor’s coming-of-age story. It lies in the good vs. evil struggle between two sergeants in the platoon—”Homeric gods,” as Stone has described them. Barnes (Tom Berenger) is brutal and amoral; “Our Ahab” Taylor calls him at one point, when the platoon destroys a My Lai-like village in insane retribution for sabotage, the film’s most horrifying sequence.

The other sergeant, Elias (Willem Dafoe), is poetic, almost divine. Despite the differences between them, however, Stone draws no simple conclusions. Barnes may be a black presence, but he repeatedly proves himself a good soldier who saves the lives of his men.

The entire film sustains this ambiguity. Platoon is no easy anti-war screed; Stone knows the issue is too complex for that. There are no cheap shots here—even the generals, the apparently lily-livered lieutenant and the kill-happy grunts have their moments of self-realization. They are all at sea in this nightmare.

The actors who play them are magnificent. Even the small, fleeting roles are finely etched. Sheen is appropriately dazed as the unformed youth (he is the son of Martin Sheen, who played the lead in Francis Coppola’s Vietnam film Apocalypse Now). Berenger, who played the TV star in The Big Chill, is a limited actor, but he transcends himself as the scarred Barnes, especially in the scene where he confronts the angry soldiers: “You smoke this dope t’escape reality?…I am reality.”

Dafoe, previously stuck with playing villains (as in To Live and Die in L.A.) because of his stark features, is superb as the angelic Elias. He brings an odd mystery to the role, a hinting at past unspoken experiences that give shading to his heroic character.

With all Stone’s capacity for subtlety, he also has a tendency to go too far. This was more evident in last year’s vivid Salvador than here, although it might be said that the narration in Platoon, in the form of Taylor’s letters home, may state too much that has already been shown. But for the most part, the film is a personal triumph. Stone can use it; since winning the best screenplay Oscar in 1977 for Midnight Express (a movie directed by someone else), he’s wandered around the Hollywood fringes. Now, via the circuitous route of his own past, he seems to have finished his odyssey.

First published in the Herald, January 15, 1987

I haven’t seen the film in a long time, although I recall getting to see it twice before I wrote about it. Stone was never this on-point again, but I continue to have a soft spot for his excessive tendencies—the grandness suggested in the opening quote. When I interviewed him (he did a press tour in Seattle for World Trade Center), he was pleased that I appreciated The Hand, his pre-respectability horror film, which somehow did not surprise me. Platoonis small and big at the same time, a tricky act, passionately achieved.


Top Gun

August 17, 2011

Cruise and the flag: the future of movies

Top Gun has all the earmarks of a summer blockbuster. It has glitz, it has stars, it has high technology, it has the new patriotism (or is that the old xenophobia?). Every little element seems calculated to produce a true-blue audience-pleaser.

Doubtless it will please audiences. But there may be too many earmarks. Somewhere within the yards of shiny jet fighters and the approximately 1,095 close-ups of sweat-drenched faces, somebody forgot to make a movie—a movie, at any rate, with anything like a sense of recognizable life.

The brainchild of those packaging wizards, Paramount producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop), Top Gun is the story of a Navy pilot (Tom Cruise) who enters an elite flying program called Top Gun. He’s obsessed with being the best there is and he’s willing to break the rules to do it.

At the program, he attracts the rivalry of a fellow hotshot (Val Kilmer), the fatherly interest of the school’s commanding officer (Tom Skerritt), and the non-fatherly interest of a knockout instructor (Kelly McGillis, late of Witness).

Most of these relationships are programmed to fulfill their particular niche in the story, as is Cruise’s friendship with his goofily likable Radar Intercept Officer (Anthony Edwards)—that’s the guy who sits behind him in the F-14. Edwards serves much the same—no, make that exactly the same—function that the David Keith character served for Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman.

In fact, the screenplay for that film might have served as the blueprint for Top Gun, so familiar are the new film’s plot turns. The big difference is in directorial style. Where An Officer and a Gentleman was straightforward and traditional, Top Gun is full of diffused light, screeching Dolby, and high-powered techno-sheen.

This comes courtesy of British director Tony Scott, whose first film, The Hunger, also was marked by irritating visual tics. Scott is undeniably nervy with the aerial battles, which include a couple of encounters with Soviet MiGs.

But he can’t shoot a simple scene of people talking without turning it into a battle of close-ups. This insistent style becomes oppressive, and shuts down whatever life the actors might have provided. I can think of only one scene, when Cruise and McGillis share a dinner and listen to Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” when the human element enters. When Scott labors to inject some humanity, as when Edwards (who displays some nice comic flair) and Cruise jam on “Great Balls of Fire,” it’s forced.

Having said all this, I have to admit that there are sequences in Top Gun that are entertaining. Most of the dogfight stuff is engrossing, even through there’s a consistent problem with knowing who’s who in the sky.

But Top Gun really reminded me of Short Circuit, last week’s supposed early summer blockbuster. Both seem wholly derivative of past successes, and overwhelmingly mechanical in their appeal. If they are any indication of the ’86 summer season, we are in for a long dry spell.

First published in the Herald, May 1986

As it turned out, the Year in Film 1986 was indeed not one for the ages. This film, of course, did all right; apparently I didn’t quite see the phenomenon coming, and it’s absolutely in the running for the representative film of the decade. I actually think it’s a very significant title in terms of influence, at least as much as Star Wars. The shadow of Top Gun is still in play, as Bruckheimer and Tony Scott continue to make pictures and Michael Bay and his ilk are directly descended from this movie, but the movie lives in our culture in ways that go far beyond the multiplex; the gross mindset on display here has gone everywhere, and may even have determined a few elections along the way. Right, Maverick?


Missing in Action 2 / Avenging Angel

July 5, 2011

Makers of exploitation movies can be counted on not to miss a trick. They don’t just rip off successful films from the major studios. They’re also smart enough to steal from themselves.

Here are two low-budget films, both sequels to successful 1984 originals. Missing in Action 2 is actually a prequel to Missing in Action, which cleaned up when it was released in November 1984.

November 1984! My, these people work fast. It just proves that sometimes it’s easier to get things done in the world of quickie shoestring productions than in the major studios.

Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, like its predecessor, is a vehicle for martial-arts star Chuck Norris, a stone-faced, Clint Eastwood sort of fellow who doesn’t say much. He does smolder a lot, though, and he can be counted on to blow away a few dozen people (foolish enough to have ticked him off) in the last reel of his movies.

Chuck plays the leader of a group of soldiers being held in a prisoner of war camp in Vietnam at the end of the war. They’re tortured by the camp’s commandant (Soon-Teck Oh) who obsessively demands that Norris sign a war-crimes confession.

Chuck, of course, says no dice. So atrocity follows atrocity, until Chuck finally gets upset and takes his revenge.

The film is a masochist’s delight. Chuck and his men go through bloody heck before the movie’s half over—they’re blown up, burned alive, thrown down waterfalls, covered with worms. At one point Chuck is hanged upside down and a bag containing a live rat is tied around his head. Blecch.

It’s all to work the spectator into an emotional frenzy, and as such, it’s pretty well done—lots of action, fast moving, and absolutely black-and-white values. In movies such as this, there’s no doubt who the heroes and villains are.

Oh, and there’s a cameo appearance—via newsfilm—by Ronald Reagan.

Avenging Angel updates 1984’s Angel by five years. Angel, the high-school honor student/Hollywood hooker, is now a law student, her sordid past having been put behind her. But when her policeman friend (Robert F. Lyons) is killed on Hollywood Boulevard, it’s back to the streets for Angel—this time to find out whodunit.

Angel is played by Betsy Russell, who is threatening to become the new queen of exploitation, with Private School, Out of Control, and now this. She’s a different Angel from the one in the original (when she returns to Hollywood Boulevard, everyone says, “Gee, you look different”).

With the help of a senile cowboy (Rory Calhoun—these are sad days for aging B-movie veterans) and her former landlady (Susan Tyrell), Angel starts her search.

It’s pretty abysmal. The tone veers from the heroine’s occasional quivery-lipped determination to a cutesy brand of comedy. What’s missing is any kind of liveliness—even of the rock-bottom brand of Missing in Action 2. Except for the rare unintentional giggle—Angel, pursued by a killer, minces through a parking garage in miniskirt and high heels, and pauses to pull a derringer from her garter—the movie’s a snooze.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

This twofer undoubtedly represents a trip out to the Aurora Village theater, a now-vanished and unlamented multiplex ‘way up north along Highway 99. These movies would open without an advance press screening (duh) and I would drive up either after work on Friday or Saturday for a matinee (because I still worked a real job at this point). MIA 2 truly is a landmark of sadism, and another solid hit for Norris; I assume Avenging Angel did fine, as a couple of sequels followed.


Heartbreak Ridge

June 21, 2011

The U.S. Marine Corps has withdrawn its official approval of Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge, even though the Corps participated in the actual filming of the movie. The Marines evidently feel that the cussing, brawling soldiers portrayed in the film are not in keeping with the image of the Corps.

Yeaaaahhh, right. Marines have never been known for spilling salty language.

Actually, even real Marines might have trouble keeping up with the film’s blue streak, which is incessant (and occasionally shamelessly amusing). James Carabatsos’s screenplay doesn’t miss many profane possibilities.

The Marines’ withdrawal of approval is quite silly. Surely they realize that Heartbreak Ridge, for all its swearing and punching, portrays the service in an utterly attractive light.

Eastwood, on holiday from mayoral duties in Carmel, Calif., is in familiar territory. He plays a hard-nosed Marine, a veteran of Korea and Vietnam, who returns to the reconnaissance platoon where he got his start. He intends to kill the time before his retirement by passing along the fundamentals (and his collection of suggestive one-liners) to a predictably rag-tag collection of soldiers.

Equally predictably, Eastwood knocks heads with his immediate commander (Everett McGill), a creep who’s never known combat and who refers to Eastwood as an anachronism and a relic. It follows that Clint will have to teach this upstart a thing or two about combat (preferably hand-to-hand).

He’s also saddled with an ex-wife (Marsha Mason) whose proximity—surprise—rekindles an old flame. That’s expected, but the few scenes they share are the film’s only interesting moments, as he startles her by asking, “Did we mutually nurture each other?” and other other touchy-feely sentiments he has absorbed from women’s magazines—a curious and poignant attempt by this leathery old boot to enter a newer world (and a tweak of Eastwood’s macho public image, which he sometimes satirizes within his own films).

But most of the film has Eastwood riding herd over his platoon, and what a thoroughly uncompelling bunch they are. The film needs an ending that will allow the men to prove themselves, so it’s conveniently set in 1983 before the invasion of Grenada. You know how that one came out.

Heartbreak Ridge represents a back-stepping for Eastwood (he produced and directed), as his films of the last decade have gotten progressively more interesting. This movie is so conventional, so eager to press the right crowd-pleasing audience buttons, that you wonder whether Eastwood was scared off by the darker territory he experimented with in recent movies such as Tightrope and Pale Rider.

It should do well enough at the box office. And the Marine Corps can rest easy. Not since Top Gun has there been such an effective recruitment poster for the armed services.

First published in the Herald, December 6, 1986

It may have been a step back, but Eastwood went charging right ahead again, diving into a couple of unusual directing projects (Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart) while playing it safe with a Dirty Harry sequel (albeit a very peculiar Dirty Harry sequel). I had the experience of watching the film at a press screening while sitting next to David Thomson, who was in Seattle to speak at an Orson Welles series that Tom Keogh and I had organized for a new non-profit organization. (I remember looking through the next edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Film to see how Heartbreak Ridge had fared.) This was at the Northwest Preview Room, a tiny screening theater that weirdly occupied a section of a building perched on the side of an urban cliff. The theater had a separate entrance from the rest of the building, although every once in a while we’d have to go in through the main entrance (which was really a roof—the whole thing was odd) and the occupants of the building—at the end it was Seattle Opera—were always mighty puzzled about what we were doing in that little room. Lousy place to see movies. I must’ve seen at least a thousand films there, sitting in the second row because the sightlines were bad.