Stakeout

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?


Blue Thunder

October 12, 2012

Blue Thunder the movie is not quite as sleek and sophisticated as Blue Thunder the ultra-helicopter, but it’s a well-organized hunk of action movie, with the requisite spectacular stunts, a healthy dose of creeping paranoia, and a passel of crooked government bad guys. It’s a film consisting entirely of surfaces—shiny glass, blue metal, white skies—but they’re hard, fast surfaces, and just flashy enough to keep your attention. Passing in front of and between these cool surfaces are some good actors: Roy Scheider as an ace LAPD chopper pilot who gets to test-fly the new supercopter; Daniel Stern (the tall guy in Diner) as his green partner, who is along for the ride when Scheider starts to get wise to some very unusual idiosyncrasies of Blue Thunder; Candy Clark as Scheider’s patient woman friend; Warren Oates heading the police air division (the film is dedicated to the late actor); and Malcolm McDowell as Scheider’s irredeemably loathsome nemesis.

Director John Badham has taken great pains to make sure we know what’s going on, and he also takes care to set up a number of maneuvers that are going to become relevant in the final cat-and-mouse sequence (i.e., Scheider’s proficiency at slaloming around obstacles, and Clark’s skillfully exuberant driving). He’s aided by John Alonzo’s sharp cinematography; as a matter of fact, Blue Thunder is so thoroughly okay that almost nothing leaps out as being particularly praiseworthy.

But there is a weird aspect to it unlike anything I’ve seen in any other slam-bang action movie, and that’s the almost obsessive attention to the safety of innocent bystanders. Everybody who gets in the way of Scheider and his pursuers—and I’m talking about the faceless people on the street now, the kind that get eaten by the dozens in Japanese horror movies—is accounted for by news or police reports; as, “Two helicopters, a police car, and an office building were destroyed, but everybody’s all right.” Scheider even gets caught off his guard because he’s watching one of his attackers parachute to safety in the city streets. This is a new wrinkle in the bust-’em-ups; generally, the extras from central casting who signed on as passers-by also get to double as cannon fodder.

This more humanitarian method is being employed so that Scheider’s final mission won’t be causing a lot of innocent people’s deaths, a situation that might blur the clearly-defined fact that Scheider is the good guy, as indeed he is (earlier, one of the top brass had said that one civilian dead per ten terrorists was an acceptable ratio, but Roy doesn’t think so). I don’t mind this sort of accounting, but it is strange to see a helicopter crash full speed into a solid cement column and then watch all the crew members hop out. And it’s a different sort of summer blockbuster that you can call violent and considerate.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

A mechanical summer hit, as indicated.


Short Circuit

September 30, 2011

Number Five, awful robot

The main character of Short Circuit is a robot named Number Five. It’s intended as a military death machine, armed with a laser-zapper on its left shoulder. But one day Number Five is itself zapped, by an errant bolt of lightning, effectively cleaning its clocks and turning it into an $11 million steel-plated tabula rasa.

The robot escapes its Army camp and wanders into the streets of Astoria, Oregon, where it is given shelter by a sympathetic animal lover (Ally Sheedy). Number Five then absorbs the encyclopedia and 12 hours of television. Understandably, this drives the robot quite insane, and it starts believing—and the movie starts insisting—that the robot is now alive.

Of course, we’re not supposed to think it is now insane. Number Five means to be cuddly and humanoid, dishing out advice as well as breakfast and making with the jive slang. See, he’s picked up little bits of information from everywhere and incorporated them into his button-pushing biorhythms. He’s likely to segue from a stalwart John Wayne imitation to a TV anchorman’s pomposity to a re-creation of the physical profundities of the Three Stooges.

Ahem. What we have here is a movie engaging in a little unwitting self-description. Like its metallic hero, Short Circuit incorporates (read: steals) ideas from a gaggle of recent sources, most glaringly E.T., and regurgitates them with breathless hipness. So what you get is something fast and occasionally funny, but not remotely new.

Short Circuit is from director John Badham, who has made strikingly similar berserk-hardware movies before (WarGames, Blue Thunder). There was a time when Badham seemed like a promising director, with his lively version of Dracula and Saturday Night Fever (the latter is cannibalized by Badham for input fodder for Number Five, who apes a John Travolta dance routine on his able treads).

But Badham’s technique here, so clearly inspired by what has worked before, is pretty empty. The stranger-in-a-strange land routine is reliable, but it’s time to give it a rest. In fact, this movie might kill it: Not only does Number Five spout his cute newly learned American slang (to an opponent robot: “Hey, laser lips, yo’ momma was a snow-blower!”), so does a scientist (Fisher Stevens) from India (to his partner: “Let us go pick up some female chicks”).

Badham’s cast doesn’t help. The robot has more depth than Sheedy or Steve Guttenberg, who plays the robot’s inventor (yeeh, suuuure); he tries to find Number Rive before a gung-ho Army commander (G.W. Bailey) gets his hands on the thing.

They’re secondary to the technology. Number Five is constructed with great ingenuity—his wide-set eyes inevitably recall E.T.’s—but for all his savvy talk, he is a uniquely charmless being. This was a minority opinion at the laughing full-house preview where I saw the film, but even the laugh-getting seemed like a mechanical process, just a matter of pushing the right buttons.

First published in the Herald, May 8, 1986

Really bad movie, really a quintessential Eighties success story. I do recall being sort of fascinated by Fisher Stevens’ impeccably rendered Peter Sellers-like Indian character, because one had thought that such a stunt was long past doing. But there it is. (And he returned in the sequel, too.) This movie was a big hit.


WarGames

August 15, 2011

We’ve had years of warnings. We’ve all known that computers were going to take over the world someday. But the books and the movies that predicted it never said it would be such a quiet overthrow. The machines slipped into our homes and businesses and modestly suggested that they serve us; we jumped at the offer, and they made us dependent on them. Quietly—with only the low purr of entering and the gleeful chattering of printing to mark the shift of power.

Don’t get me wrong—I like the computer at my workplace. It knows so much. And it tries to keep me from going wrong—when I give it the wrong date, it stops me and says, “WHAT YEAR?” When I move to eliminate information, it wonders whether I should reconsider: “DELETE? ARE YOU SURE?” Like a wise grandfather—but without the accommodating knee—it cares about the decisions I make, and wants me to do the right thing, though it won’t actually stop me, as long as I’m sure about what I want.

We even share secrets, like the special password that will let me into its system. So why is it I don’t really trust the thing? Maybe it’s the influence of all those paranoid fantasies about computers seizing control of the world, plus the nagging suspicion that they’re like those dogs who serve the master faithfully for years and then turn homicidal one day, without apparent reason.

Popular culture has played with that suspicion for a couple of decades now, and WarGames—officially designated this summer’s E.T., even before it opened—is in the tradition of computer mistrust. This Seattle kid (Matthew Broderick) has an astonishingly elaborate set of computer terminals in his bedroom, which he uses to make long-distance airline reservations, change his computer-recorded high school grades, and the like. One day he realizes he’s bumped up against the system of the U.S. National Defense. Neat! But he can’t get in—until he hears that computer programmers sometimes leave a “back door” (that is, a secret password) in systems they design so that they can go back in someday, if they ever need to. Broderick comes up with the password, and asks the system if it would like to play a little game. Chess? Naah. Mebbe some checkers? Forget about it. Thermonuclear war? Cowabunga! The computer takes the American side, Broderick is the Russians (among his first moves: nuke the Emerald City) and they’re off and running on some harmless fun.

A boy and his computer; it’s a new twist, but it had to happen. The only problem is, the head honcho (Dabney Coleman) down at the War Room just convinced the government to switch responsibility for a nuclear retaliatory strike from human operatives (too unreliable) to the monster computer known as WOPR (as in, “Aren’t You Hungry?”). So when Broderick start playing hide-the-densepack, WOPR thinks it’s for real, flashes an image on the War Room screen of a warhead arcing toward the Space Needle, and prepares for a full-scale counterattack. Broderick has to interrupt the game when his Dad calls him downstairs to clean up the garbage in the driveway, but the computer wants to keep right on playing the game…and so it does.

You get the idea. And a good idea it is, too. It’s a shame WarGames never really gets past the level of being a good idea; the plot starts to go kattywampus about the time Broderick gets arrested while sucking down a Big Gulp outside the local 7-Eleven. The holes in the script begin to whistle in the wind; more important than that, there’s that Something Missing that keeps good movies from being great ones—the absence of commitment, of artistic investment. The blame for this hollowness is most handily given to the switch in directors during shooting—Martin (Going in Style) Brest began the movie, but it was A John Badham Film before the cameras stopped rolling.

Mr. Big Close-Up tries hard to pump some suspense into the proceedings, but that’s tough to do when the audience can sit there and say, “Uh, why doesn’t somebody just pick up the phone and call the War Room….” There’s nothing wrong with Badham’s method, but it’s not particularly inspiring. Still, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy (the morsel of jailbait on a recent “Hill Street Blues”) are likable, and John Wood does more with his confusedly-written part than it deserves. It just seems as though we deserve a more coherent and unified piece of filmmaking, especially with the stakes so high.

First published in The Informer, June 1983

Densepack: I had to Google it just now to find out what it meant in 1983. I watched Martin Brest make a shot for this film one day on the University of Washington campus, a brief look at Broderick crossing some stairs by Red Square. I worked in an office with a computer back then, and I was still in the early stage of wonder about the thing. Watched this movie again about a year ago, and sure enough, it isn’t as good as it should be. Also: RIP John Wood, who died a few days ago, and whose patrician air somehow fit his name.