Firestarter

December 12, 2019

firestarterOverheard while walking out of the theater after Firestarter: “Let that be a lesson to you: never volunteer for scientific experiments.” Words of wisdom. But if people, real or fictional, ever heeded  that lesson, we’d be robbed of a lot of science fiction/horror stories.

In Firestarter, the latest film adaptation of a Stephen King tale, a scientific experiment with hallucinogenic drugs alters the minds of David Keith and Heather Locklear, who develop certain telekinetic powers. Their eventual offspring (Drew Barrymore) is even more gifted: She can start fires just by concentrating.

This makes the little girl a target of interest for the fiendish government agency (called The Shop) that started the whole experiment in the first place. One doctor (Freddie Jones) wants to expunge the kid’s talent before she passes through adolescence and develops nuclear capabilities. Naturally, he’s not long for the world.

The Shop would rather exploit her abilities. The head honcho (Martin Sheen) sends his most fearsome hit man, a psycho named Rainbird (George C. Scott), out to bring back the girl and her father (mother having been killed in a flashback).

Some of this gets a bit murky. We don’t really know what kind of powers Keith has, for instance, or why, if he can control people, he doesn’t just manipulate an effective solution. And, when Barrymore is eventually imprisoned, it should occur to her that she could burn her way out. Evidently it doesn’t.

Plot holes such as these don’t stop the movie from being a fairly good, professional job. Director Mark L. Lester doesn’t have a very clean visual style, but at least he doesn’t let the film become a guts ‘n gore epic. And the star-heavy cast, presumably bankrolled by the inexhaustible executive producer Dino De Lau rentiis, makes it watchable.

Oscar-winners Art Carney and Louise Fletcher have the kind of supporting roles that could have been played by almost any actors. Scott, however, makes the most of Rainbird, who insinuates himself into a friendship with the child, then reveals his despicability in the climactic scene. As he stalks Barrymore through a stable, toting a pistol and wearing an eye patch, he looks like a deranged version of John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn – truly a child’s dream turned into a nightmare.

Someone had the canny idea to cast cherubic Drew Barrymore – the little sister from E.T. – as the tiny heroine. Her naturally likable presence plays well against the reality of her terrifying power. Every few minutes, she gets to burn something to the ground, which she does with deadpan intensity.

All through the film, we’ve been made aware that all the girl wants to do is live a normal life. At the end, after The Shop gets its just reward, our heroine doesn’t quite fade into the general populace. Instead, she finds herself at the front door of the New York Times, ready to reveal all. Good grief. Out of the frying pan . . . .

First published in the Herald, May 1984

I never saw it again, and don’t have much recollection of it. You’d think the George C. Scott stuff would be memorable, but I honestly had no memory that he was in this movie until just now. To say nothing of Heather Locklear, of whom we will say nothing.


Commando

July 4, 2012

After muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger’s initial forays into the cinema—namely, Pumping Iron and Stay Hungry, in which he basically played himself—people wondered just how this awesomely constructed fellow with the thick German accent would ever find his niche in films.

Well, perhaps not that many people wondered. In fact, Schwarzenegger was not taken seriously at all—although the Hollywood folk who laughed at him way back when may be kicking themselves now.

Schwarzenegger seems to know what he’s capable of, and he knows how to package himself (if you’ve ever seen him on talk shows, you know he’s not stupid). He’s been bankable since the first Conan movie, but his real success may lie not with that centuries-old character but with a very hip, modern kind of action hero.

In last year’s The Terminator and the current Commando Schwarzenegger is playing almost the same role, with just a few technical differences (the Terminator was not human; the Commando is, so we’re told). The two films share a sardonic sense of humor that approaches nihilism: Arnold cracks jokes as he walks away from the bad guys he’s just blown away.

In Commando, that’s quite a sizable number of corpses. Arnold mows down more enemies than you can shake a stick at, all the while catching a few scratches on his own considerable torso.

He’s mad because the bad guys (led by Dan Hedaya) have kidnapped his daughter to blackmail him into performing a Third World assassination. Arnold escapes their clutches by dropping out of the bottom of a plane just as it’s taking off (this may be a movie first). He then has to find the villains within a few hours, and the trail leads him to a ritzy Los Angeles shopping mall (great shootout), a sleazy motel room, and finally a secluded island fortress where Arnold paints his body and wipes out the final couple hundred adversaries.

His last confrontation is with an old Army buddy who was drummed out of Arnold’s fighting unit. He’s played by Vernon Wells, who displayed formidable fearsomeness as the mad, Mohawked Wez in The Road Warrior. He still makes a good emissary of evil.

Commando is certainly nothing great—not even on a pulpy level, as The Terminator, a lively movie, was—but it does have a sense of humor about itself. Schwarzenegger is not quite as believable as a human being as he was as an android, and they’ve given him too many lines of dialogue.

To the film’s credit, there is a rather nice love interest for the big guy in the figure of Rae Dawn Chong, as a stewardess accidentally drawn into Arnold’s chase. Much of the time she’s crouching behind tables, shrieking as Schwarzenegger dukes it out with someone, but she also gets to hang around and get off some one-liners. When Arnold is mixing it up with a particularly nasty opponent, Chong makes the pointed aside, “These guys eat too much red meat.” The people who cooked up Commando share those dining habits.

First published in the Herald, October 10, 1985

Still early in the Schwarzenegger breakthrough—early enough so that he’s working with directors like Mark Lester. I recall this one having far too many awkward lines—you just want him to shut up and be Arnold.