Best Defense

July 11, 2011

Strategic Murphy: Best Defense

The characters in Best Defense are concerned with building a tiny part that will control the defense systems of a new tank. So there’s a lot of talk about getting the right design, making sure it will work in the heat of battle, and all that.

I wonder if the people making this movie ever talked about their film in those terms. Best Defense is an embarrassing misfire, a film in which nobody seems to know what’s going on—on or offscreen.

It has to do with an unlucky engineer (Dudley Moore) whose design of a gyro for a new tank is a flop. Just after a disastrous test, he meets a stranger in a Mexican restaurant who turns out to be an engineer who’s actually solved the gyro problem—and he’s about to give it to a Russian spy. Except that he changes heart, drops the crucial info into Dudley’s briefcase, and disappears.

So Moore “discovers” the gyro in the end, but after he’s gotten the credit, and saved his company with it, new problems crop up. The thing may not work in battle after all. And, more immediately, the KGB man would like to get his gyro back.

Cut into this main plot is an episode that takes place two years later. The finished tank is being tested in the Kuwait desert by a lieutenant (Eddie Murphy) who manages, as the tank self-destructs, to steer the machine into the middle of a real war. The suspense here is: Will Moore change the part so that it will work in battle—and save Murphy and his crew?

If you think Paramount Pictures is gonna kill off Eddie Murphy, then your view of the economic realities of filmmaking is off-target. But if the attempted surprise doesn’t come off, what is Eddie Murphy doing here?

It’s a nothing part, and Murphy, an extremely funny fellow, contributes zilch to it. He’s billed as “Strategic Guest Star,” and rightly so, since his role takes up relatively little screen time. But Paramount is featuring him prominently in its ads, as though he had a full-fledged starring part.

Now, a lot of people are going to be disappointed when they come to the movie and don’t get Eddie. But Paramount probably figures this unfunny movie will generate bad word-of-mouth anyway—so if they emphasize Murphy’s presence, they can clean up in the first couple of weeks of release, and then have the film die a quick death.

Murphy’s poorness doesn’t stand out, because everybody’s pretty bad—except David Rasche, who plays the hep-talk spy with a comic ferociousness. As you watch the film, you realize that the tank turns into an unwitting metaphor for the movie itself. It’s flying apart at the seams, going in every direction but the right one and desperately in need of someone in charge. Filmmakers Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck may latch on to another good project, but they should probably put someone else in the driver’s seat—or director’s chair.

First published in the Herald, July 20, 1984

To answer the question implicitly posed in the final paragraph, Huyck and Katz next made the legendary  bomb Howard the Duck, and that movie’s nowhere near as bad as Best Defense. Eddie Murphy has expressed his embarrassment about this one; I remember seeing him on a talk show just before Beverly Hills Cop came out and he assured the audience that this would make up for Best Defense. Of course one feels bad for Dudley Moore, too. For being prescient about the whole war-in-Kuwait thing, the film must merit some retrospective points, as long as I don’t have to watch it again.

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Howard the Duck

June 27, 2011

A friend of the three-foot duck hero of Howard the Duck looks him right in the bill and comments, “I’ll bet you were born from a hard-boiled egg.”

That’s the best of the movie’s duck jokes, mainly because it aptly describes the prickly waterfowl protagonist. Howard T. Duck, a Marvel Comics character created by Steve Gerber, is an outspoken bird given to no-nonsense jibes and haughty pronouncements.

He has a right to be perturbed. He’s sitting at home in an easy chair, pounding a brewski, when he is suddenly pulled from his duck planet to our Earth, through some sort of laser-beam, force-field thing. To make matters worse, he lands in Cleveland.

He’s befriended by a rock singer (Lea Thompson) and examined by a would-be scientist (Tim Robbins), who sees a Nobel Prize in the offing. Then Howard’s led to the man who can send him back to his home planet: the scientist (Jeffrey Jones, the slow-burning principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) who built the laser-beam thing.

The first half of the film is taken up with Howard’s predictable difficulties adjusting to the human world. He tries to hold a job, demonstrates “quack fu” on those who would harass him, and dabbles in a love scene with Thompson.

The movie then shifts gears, into an extended chase, complicated by a laser-beam malfunction that zaps a dark overlord of the universe into Jones’ body. This prompts a bunch of spectacular special effects, as Jones changes shape and creates mayhem around him, and Howard and his friends try to save the world from this alien menace.

All these special effects, and the creation of Howard himself, come to us through the wizardry of George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic (Lucas is also the film’s executive producer). It’s all first-class work. Howard, primarily embodied by Ed Gale, but credited to a host of actors and technicians, is every bit as expressive and complex a piece of machinery as E.T.

Lucas’s old film-school chums, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, teamed as director and producer, respectively, and wrote the script. The scripts they’ve written for Lucas—American Graffiti and Indiana Jones at the Temple of Doom—were fine, but the movies they’ve made as a director-producer combo have been less impressive; French Postcards went nowhere, and Best Defense was perhaps the worst major-studio comedy of the last decade.

They’ve fared better with Howard, although the film has its problems. The schizophrenic structure, for starters, plus the dumb, illogical opening scene, in which Howard’s planet is seen as a collection of duck variations on Earth products (some easy laughs, but nonsensical).

The funniest scene takes place in a roadside diner, where Jones is transforming into the dark overlord, hissing malevolent pronouncements about the impending doom of the Earth. Naturally, a waitress mistakes him for a TV evangelist.

Most important, Huyck and Katz succeed in making Howard an unsentimental duck, and that’s the key to enjoying the film. Rather than being overly cutesy, he retains his obstreperous edge. It’s not surprising; if you had to endure this many duck jokes, you’d be a fowl mood too.

Sorry.

First published in the Herald, August 5, 1986

Before the movie came out there was no hint its title would become synonymous with Worst Movies of All Time, although that is quickly (almost within a week or so) what happened. Mostly that’s because the movie flopped, and also because the title sounded stupid to most people, therefore it must be a terrible film. But seriously, Howard the Duck looks like Grand Illusion compared to Best Defense, the Huyck-Katz opus I cite here. (I actually have a small residual fondness for the engagingly cast French Postcards, one of those semester-in-Europe movies.) Howard the Duck isn’t very good, but it’s a long way from the bottom. Usage footnote: This was back when I still used “schizophrenic” in the lazy old way that people use it to mean “split personality.” That’s not what it means, so I don’t use it like that anymore.