Jack’s Back

November 6, 2012

There are some halfway decent ideas on the loose in Jack’s Back, including the basic premise: that a modern-day killer would replicate the foul deeds of Jack the Ripper, 100 years to the day after the Ripper’s crimes. Thus Los Angeles becomes full of dread, waiting for the scheduled murders to take place.

Another good idea is that the movie very carefully sets up its hero, a medical student (James Spader), as a nice, kind, thoughtful fellow, and then lets him drop completely out of the film. His place is taken by a tough-guy twin brother (also played by Spader)—a bad seed who proceeds to track down the killer on his own.

Spader is a good actor (he usually plays creeps, such as the dope dealer in Less Than Zero), and he’s a large part of what make Jack’s Back watchable. Spader opts for a low-key intensity, which means when he’s at his angriest you can barely hear the words he speaks. It’s a useful role for an actor who is bound to break through at some point.

Elsewhere, the film blows hot and cold. Writer-director Rowdy Herrington, whose name almost rhymes with “red herring,” throws a couple of effective false curves into this whodunit. In fact, there are just enough obvious suspects to distract our attention from the logic lapses in the story’s structure.

Herrington isn’t exactly a great stylist, but the film bumps along at its own speed, and there are two or three genuinely scary moments, especially the long scene at a medical clinic where a murder takes place that shifts the film’s emphasis. Besides, Herrington had the good sense to cast Cynthia Gibb, one of the more intelligent of the young actresses, and to let Spader fashion a quirky performance that lingers after the rest of the film is forgotten.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

I guess sex, lies, and videotape debuted at Cannes a year later, so Spader’s breakthrough didn’t take much longer. This movie isn’t high on my list of things to re-visit, but it does sit well enough in that odd collection of late-Eighties nourish titles that aren’t great but do make a decent stab (you should pardon the phrase) at atmosphere.

Short Circuit 2

February 9, 2012

The producers of the Short Circuit movies are in a secure position with their star property. Unlike other Hollywood heavyweights, the collection of hardware known as No. Five will never require a percentage of the gross, never demand a bigger Winnebago, never need to take a month off to detox at the Betty Ford Center.

He probably shouldn’t be left out in the rain, but other than that, No. Five is pretty reliable. So, for that matter, is Short Circuit 2, which uses the same brand of funny-robot humor as the original film.

Steve Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy, the other stars of the first Short Circuit, have gone on to other projects. This may be part of the reason Short Circuit 2 is a better movie than the first film. In the new installment, the first film’s scientist (Fisher Stevens) from India occupies center stage. He’s the one who’s given to tortuous, subcontinental-inflected malapropisms. If you think ethnic dialect humor is funny (and I plead nolo contendre to this guilty pleasure), his performance contains a few laughs.

The Indian scientist and No. Five, now known as Johnny Five, are in a large metropolis (filmed in Toronto) trying to assemble small robots for the toy market. Somehow, they’ve gotten hooked up with a street hawker (Michael McKean) who eyeballs Johnny Five’s $11 million price tag and figures he can make a real killing.

But this isn’t the only plot a-hatching. There’s also a bank robbery being planned, and the robot-assembly warehouse stands in the way.

This last bit overextends the movie and even takes it in the direction of pathos. See, when the bad guys get hold of Johnny Five, they gum up his wires and disconnect his whangdoodle. The robot is in danger of dying, or as much as an input-satiated machine can be in danger of “dying,” anyway.

The robot is the same perky compendium of modern culture; he spits out rock ‘n’ roll and biblical references with equal facility, and even alludes to such up-to-date cultural icons as Chuch Lady from “Saturday Night Live” and the ubiquitous California Raisins. (The robot’s voice is dubbed by Tim Blaney.)

I couldn’t stand the original movie. That robot was just too cutesy-poo. The sequel still has a lot of cutesy and quite a bit of poo, but I have to admit that Short Circuit 2 is shrewdly assembled. The original writing team, S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, repeat their roles here, and director Kenneth Johnson, a TV veteran, keeps things running.

There’s even one scene that finds real charm. The shy scientist has a crush on a toy executive (Cynthia Gibb) and invites her out, but he needs the words of Johnny Five when it comes to wooing her. So, Cyrano-like, the robot’s proddings are transmitted to a large readerboard that the scientist can easily scan—a procedure that works fine until technical difficulties interrupt the broadcast. Just for a moment, though, that robot does seem almost human.

First published in the Herald, July 7, 1988

The law of low expectations wins out here; this movie had to look okay, compared to the first one. I understand a reboot is afoot. With luck, I’ll be out of the business by then. And I still like dialect humor, sadly.


January 3, 2012

The influence of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky films may be much more devious than we ever expected. There is a bad, bad lesson that other filmmakers seem to have learned from the Rocky saga, and it is this: You give ’em the same thing over and over again, and they’ll keep coming back for more.

The Rocky films became formalized long ago, so that there is no longer any sense of invention in them. It’s pure ritual, like the stations of the cross. In other words, there’s barely any movie left—more like a string of recognizable and reassuring sensations.

This theory of filmmaking is becoming more and more common. In recent years, we’ve seen a score of films in which an individual fights the odds to achieve a victory, often in athletic tournaments. Nothing wrong with that story, but the movies themselves seemed to discard any notion of originality; and the success of the narrative shorthand of Flashdance fueled the movement toward superficiality and non-narrative.

All of which leads us to the latest in this unwelcome hybrid, Youngblood, a film so unoriginal and inoffensive that it hardly seems to exist at all, even while you’re watching it. Youngblood has major studio production values, and it’s cleanly and professionally edited and photographed. Even the acting isn’t bad, although Rob Lowe gets less interesting with each film he makes.

But there isn’t a single memorable instant in the film. It’s all by rote, and cynically includes every cliché in the playbook.

This kid (Lowe), who labors on his dad’s farm in upstate New York, gets a tryout with the junior league hockey team in Hamilton, Canada. The kid has a tough time in the tryout, being knocked down by a particularly vicious rival, but he gets the position.

Lowe’s problem is this: He’s fast, but is he tough enough? Something tells me he will wrestle with this problem, then have to prove himself in the last second of the championship game.

Something also tells me he will have to prove himself in a drinking session with his teammates, and then develop a friendship with the team leader, who turns out to be a real nice guy, in an inarticulate kind of way. And, furthermore, something tells me he will avail himself of the lusty charms of his oversexed landlady, but then fall for the cute girl he meets coming out of Slumber Party Massacre (really).

But something tells me she’s going to turn out to be the coach’s daughter. However, something also tells me that eventually Lowe is going to win the respect of the hardnosed coach.

Miraculously, all of these hunches (and more) are proven right during Youngblood. Director-writer Peter Markle (Mr. Hot Dog…The Movie himself) makes dead certain every predictable plot point is in place, and guides the proceedings with the proper eye for shots that can later be lifted to fashion a nice music video.

Against the odds, some of the supporting players do professional work. Cynthia Gibbs is the warm-eyed girl, Ed Lauter is the hawk-eyed coach, and Patrick Swayze (Red Dawn) actually gives a little life to that nice-if-inarticulate guy. They all deserve better than this.

First published in the Herald, January 1986

Keanu Reeves was in the movie too, the same year as River’s Edge. Youngblood is a terrible picture, although I might give it the nod, barely, over Oxford Blues, when it comes to really rotten Rob Lowe movies.