Red Dawn

November 16, 2012

Red Dawn is a trashy, silly movie that seeks to whip up a little bloodlust in all of us. It proposes that the Soviet Union has invaded the United States, and concentrates on the efforts of a small group of renegades in the Colorado mountains to overthrow the invaders.

The group consists of a bunch of teenagers who fled to the hills the morning of the attack. Their hometown of Calumet becomes a village controlled by the Russkies, where insurgents are rounded up in the local drive-in movie theater and “re-educated.” From their mountain command post, the teens develop guerrilla skills and strike back.

This sounds like nutty stuff, and it is, but the first few minutes of the film are promising. We see the high-schoolers going to classes, everything normal, except maybe for the sound of distant planes. Then we casually notice that some paratroopers have landed, and then—suddenly—it’s on, folks, World War III, the big one.

It’s an exciting sequence, with battle action aplenty as the kids jump in a pickup truck and speed away. The movie quickly degenerates into a collection of different methods of blowing up those Commie rats, with not much time out for the felicities of characterization.

Red Dawn is the work of John Milius, a renegade figure in Hollywood. He’s a film-student pal of many of the young directors (he co-wrote Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), and he showed some interesting directorial moves in his debut film, The Wind and the Lion. (He showed little of anything, though, in his most recent movie, Conan the Barbarian.)

Milius is notorious for his conservative politics, his reverence for guns, and his predilection for hard action. All of these concerns are well served in Red Dawn, almost to the point of hysteria.

The Milius philosophy may be presented most clearly in the moment when the guerillas decide to execute one of their own guys (he betrayed their location). Faced with the prospect of shooting down a former comrade in cold blood, someone points out that if they do this, “What’s the difference between us and them?” The hero turns a beady eye to this. “Because,” he says, cocking the gun and aiming it, “we live here.”

Milius serves notice every now and then that he’s not unaware of the ambiguities of this sort of statement, but still the movie works best as a rave-up revenge piece.

The most recognizable of the guerillas are Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell, who seem to have some sort of tandem acting agreement, since they were together in The Outsiders and Grandview, U.S.A., too. The rest of the Wolverines—they take their name from the high-school sports mascot—consist of stock types from war movies, although there are a couple of pleasantly hard-nosed girls (Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey), given to the Wolverines for protection by their uncle (Ben Johnson).

By the way, Red Dawn is the first film released with the new PG-13 rating, which suggests more stringent parental watchfulness over their sub-teen children. The new rating went into effect after the hue and cry over the comic-strip violence in Indiana Jones and Gremlins. Unfortunately for the huers and criers, the system seems to be backfiring already: Red Dawn might previously have gotten an R rating for its violence, but now it fits right into the PG-13 category—after all, it’s got no sex or foul language in it. And so the war goes on.

First published in the Herald, August 13, 1984

I forgot about the PG-13 milestone. Nice to see that the system was already completely flawed. This movie looks pretty accomplished next to the remake, which opens a few days from when I type this.

Uncommon Valor

October 16, 2012

Uncommon Valor joins the list of movies that work primarily on formula rather than inspiration. This time, it’s the impossible-military-mission routine, updated from countless World War II escape or spy movies, and set in the rice paddies of Laos.

Gene Hackman plays an Army colonel whose son is still listed as missing in action 10 years after American soldiers came home from Vietnam. When he identifies a prison camp in Laos that has some Americans in it, he takes his evidence to his son’s old Army buddies, and recruits them for a wholly unauthorized mission to storm the camp and retrieve the prisoners.

Actually, the mission is authorized by the money put up by an oil tycoon (Robert Stack) who also has a son missing. Once Hackman gathers his men together, he puts them through the paces in a mock battlefield constructed with Stack’s money. Next destination: Southeast Asia.

With this kind of movie—think of The Dirty Dozen—you need strong personalities among the fighting men. The group dynamic is the element that really carries the movie, and the challenge is to work with stereotypes and make them something more.

The men of the fighting unit in Uncommon Valor never become anything more than cardboard cutouts. At some point in the production, it must have been decreed that the emphasis would be more on action than character.

So, you get to see a lot of things blow up in this movie. You even get to see some things blow up twice, since the men demolish their phony camp first, and then repeat the job—with a few last-minute variations—on the real thing.

All that noise and fire seemed to satisfy the preview audience that watched the film, but it doesn’t leave you with much to remember, or a reason to care about whether the mission is successful or not.

The lack of depth in the characterizations is not really the fault of the actors. In fact, they’re a pretty good lot. Fred Ward is suitably hard and tough as the claustrophobic master of stealth; Reb Brown gives a funny slant to his surfer who just loves to make bombs go off; and heavyweight boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb does just fine as the slightly loony, mountain-size biker.

They’re simply not given enough to work with. If somebody told me that a half-hour had been cut out of this film before its release, I’d believe it; Uncommon Valor has that kind of by-the-numbers approach to a certain formula.

Ted Kotcheff directed it; he was probably chosen on the strength of having guided Sylvester Stallone through the non-stop jungle hunt in First Blood. Here, as with that movie, Kotcheff seems to know how to push all the right buttons to get the right effects, and that’s not a bad thing in itself. But you don’t get the impression that he ever wonders why he’s pushing the buttons. That makes Uncommon Valor resolutely common.

First published in the Herald, December 1983

Not much of a review, but the movie was an indication of the subgenre of return-to-Vietnam pictures that proved popular at the time. Patrick Swayze was also in there.

Road House

August 24, 2012

Let’s get the official tsk-tsking out of the way: Road House is a violent, tasteless, unbelievable movie that has no redeeming social value whatsoever. With that said, we can talk about how much fun it is.

Road House is shameless, but it’s also irresistible. Patrick Swayze, who hasn’t had a film released to theaters since he struck gold with Dirty Dancing two summers ago, stars as “the best cooler in the business.” Translation: he’s a glorified bouncer who gets hired at bad clubs and bars and turns them around. He weeds out the deadbeats, throws out the drunks, chases the dope dealers.

But this fellow is a bit odd. As he’s fond of pointing out, he has a degree in philosophy. He instructs his burly crew of bouncers to be nice to troublemakers, “until it’s time to not be nice.” And when he’s insulted, he simply comments, “Opinions vary.”

After an opening sequence in which we see his brand of Zen pugilism (he sews up his own wounds), Swayze is hired to manage a rundown roadhouse in a small town outside Kansas City. After he arrives and begins to clean the place up, he comes to realize that the town is run by an evil landowner (Ben Gazzara), who has his hands in everybody’s pockets and his goons on everybody’s backs. Inevitably, Swayze is going to have to teach this guy a lesson and make the town safe.

Does this sound a little bit like a Western? It should, because Road House is unabashedly a Western in modern dress, with plenty of elements of Shane and High Noon. As if we couldn’t tell, Swayze’s new girlfriend, a blond gorgeous doctor, greets him with, “So you’re the new marshal in town.”

Swayze receives a bit of help from his mentor, the now-graying king of the bouncers (Sam Elliott, who has played a few cowboys over the years, in a sly performance). The movie skillfully mixes Swayze’s martial arts, his philosophizing (“Pain doesn’t hurt,” “Nobody wins a fight”), some kissy face, good roadhouse music, as well as at least one fistfight every six minutes. It doesn’t come close to being respectable, but Road House is a brawling good time.

First published in the Herald, May 18, 1989

I know what you’re thinking: I underrated it. True. Some movies hit the sweet spot where the ridiculous becomes sublime; Road House, you are it.

Grandview, U.S.A.

June 15, 2012

Grandview, U.S.A. is one of those frustrating films that deserve to be much better than they are. On the surface, there’s a lot to like about it.

It has a good cast in fine form, for one thing. Jamie Lee Curtis continues her recent string of vivid parts, with her role as the gritty owner of a demolition derby park (inherited from her father). Curtis, the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, showed signs of intelligence even in her days as the scream queen of Halloween, The Fog, et terrifying al.

Coming off her impressive comedy turn in Trading Places and her moving lead performance in the steamy Love Letters, she’s hooked into another good role. Actually, the role itself is not too original—the tough-but-tender gal who imparts wisdom to a younger man. But Curtis’s direct, humorous style makes this character something special.

The younger boy is C. Thomas Howell, a well-to-do kid from the right side of the tracks, just graduated from high school and the next Jacques Cousteau—that is, if he can get away from the small Midwestern town of Grandview and hit the coast. Howell develops a crush on Curtis. Plot conflict, aside from their 10-year age difference: His father wants to wrest the demolition derby arena away from Curtis and build a swanky country club in its place.

Then there’s the demolition driver (Patrick Swayze, from Uncommon Valor) who works off his frustrations about his philandering wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by cracking up cars. He digs Curtis, too. Swayze, beefier than in his previous films, is convincing and funny as the perpetual loser.

From this, you can almost hear the clichés lining up to be answered. And line up the do: complications, coincidences, resolutions are all predictable.

The screenplay, by Ken Hixon, bears the formula scent of a debut script—and indeed it is. Probably a good director couldn’t have licked it completely, and Randal Kleiser, the man who brought us Grease, The Blue Lagoon, and Summer Lovers, is not a good director.

Kleiser’s adolescent sensibility permeated his first films, and it continues to dominate here. At one point, there’s a rock dream sequence that exists solely as a free advertisement for MTV. At least Kleiser tries to make a joke out of this. But this is definitely his best whack at a good movie, and he may get to be a grownup yet. Certainly the performances by Curtis and Swayze are nothing to be ashamed of.

Oh yes. Another casting inspiration: As the washing-machine repairman who wins Swayze’s wife, Kleiser cast none other than Troy Donahue, the aging heartthrob of the late ’50s-early ’60s. Donahue, draped with gold chains and clad in polyester, is pretty funny. Too bad he doesn’t get more to do.

And too bad the movie doesn’t make the grade. It’s still a fairly painless 90-minute diversion, made interesting by the devotion of its actors.

First published in the Herald, August 2, 1984

Yes, I seem to have liked Jamie Lee Curtis in this one. Is it still Kleiser’s best film? The discussion rages!


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.

Dirty Dancing

September 20, 2011

Most of Dirty Dancing is a pretty bad coming-of-age movie about a girl (Jennifer Grey) who undergoes some major rites of passage during a summer spent with her family at a Catskills-like resort. This much of the movie is labored and familiar.

The film goes completely out of whack by including liberal doses of really wild dancing scenes (choreographed by Kenny Ortega). Teen-age Grey falls in with the resort’s entertainers, led by a chap (Patrick Swayze) who has definitely, shall we say, waltzed across the floor a few times. Thus the film is punctuated by repeated scenes of crazily lascivious dancing, the kind that Grey’s parents are always warning her about (the film is set in the 1960s).

I suppose these dancing scenes are no less ridiculous than the rest of the movie, but at least some of the dancing’s exhilarating. Patrick Swayze, who has had tough-guy roles in such films as Red Dawn, actually is a former ballet dancer, so he needs no stunt doubles for the dance sequences. He seems to take the rest of the movie a bit too seriously, however; he glowers meaningfully through much of the film.

The thing that holds what there is of the movie together is Jennifer Grey (daughter of Joel Grey), who was funny as the hapless littler sister in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She has a likably “normal” screen presence, unaffected and smart, and she tries endearingly hard in the dancing scenes.

The other actors are at sea, because the film, directed by Emile Ardolino, doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Jerry Orbach plays Grey’s father, a doctor who expects his little girl to be a princess at all times. Cynthia Rhodes, another ex-dancer (she was one of the unfortunates stranded in the Travolta-Stallone travesty, Staying Alive), has to simper as an entertainer who undergoes the obligatory pregnancy and back-alley abortion.

That’s typical of the cliché plot twists in Eleanor Bergstein’s script. What isn’t typical in Dirty Dancing is the sometimes genuinely giddy back-and-forth between the outrageous dance scenes and the regular dramatic stuff. The audience that saw the film at the latest Seattle International Film Festival had no idea what to do with the movie, but they seemed to enjoy it. Which was an understandable reaction.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

It became a phenomenon, for some justifiable reasons. A lot of the film’s nuttiness and zest can be ascribed to Emile Ardolino, who came out of TV and especially dance documentaries; he subsequently directed Chances Are, a very nice comedy that had some similarly happy qualities, and had another hit in Sister Act. I interviewed him at the time of Chances Are and the guy was a mensch. He died at the age of 50, from AIDS-related causes.

Next of Kin

December 9, 2010

Kinfolk: Bill Paxton, Patrick Swayze, Liam Neeson

Patrick Swayze has been riding the unexpected success of Dirty Dancing for two years now, which is more than can be said for the studio that produced the film (Vestron Pictures went belly-up some months ago). A follow-up, Road House, was a modern Western that horrified critics and didn’t charm Swayze’s female fans; it faded quietly from screens earlier this summer. (I still count it as one of the year’s guiltier pleasures.)

The new one, Next of Kin, is another action movie, toned down a bit, but unlikely to provide another hit. Swayze puts on an accent for this outing: He’s a good ol’ boy from Kentucky, transplanted to Chicago and working as a cop. When his little brother is killed, apparently by members of the Mafia, Swayze has to mollify his enraged kinfolk and settle the score with the mob.

This isn’t easy, for as Swayze learns when his visits home, all of his relatives are sitting around holding their Bibles, pronouncing in low tones that passage about an eye for an eye. In particular, he has to stop his brother (Irish actor Liam Neeson, who really had to put on an accent) from going to Chicago with a sawed-off shotgun and laying waste to people.

Which, in fact, is what his brother does. There is a side plot amongst the bad guys, in which the trigger man (Adam Baldwin) is setting up the son (Ben Stiller) of the Mafia don. These threads come together in a big shoot-out, featuring not only guns but also bows and arrows, in a Windy City cemetery.

Director John Irvin seems frustrated about how to make the material work. He labors over some lighthearted, loving moments between Swayze and his wife (Helen Hunt), but these fall flat. (She is a concert violinist, although Swayze persists in calling the instrument a fiddle.) Then there’s some peculiar low comedy surrounding a couple of the mob henchmen, which suggests that a life of crime is often a barrel of laughs.

Otherwise, characters say the usual things: “When you set up my brother, you forgot to kill me.” Things like that. Swayze delivers these lines with his customary denseness; he always seems to be a step behind everybody else in the movie. Perhaps that’s the secret of his appeal.

Originally published in the Herald on October 27, 1989. 

Next of Kin is one of those 80s pictures that vanished from sight and mind very quickly. And yet: Neeson, Helen Hunt, and Ben Stiller as a mob boss’s son? I have no memory of that whatsoever. Maybe I’m a little hard on Swayze here; he had a real niceness on screen; the curious thing was how he floundered to find fitting vehicles after hitting the Dirty Dancing gusher. Still, there’s Point Break and the deranged Road House and To Wong Foo—the latter a very precise comic performance.