No Mercy

December 10, 2012

nomercyNo Mercy is a derivative action movie that repeats geriatric clichés from almost every detective movie you’ve ever seen.

It begins with the renegade Chicago cop (Richard Gere) who follows a tip on his own, without his gruff-but-lovable chief’s permission. It proceeds to the death of his partner, in the line of duty. Naturally it follows that he must avenge his partner’s death, by looking for the icy blonde (Kim Basinger) with the tattoo on her shoulder.

So he goes to New Orleans, which prompts the fish-out-of-water stuff we loved so much in Witness. He’s actually offered a mint julep, eats crawfish, and walks down Bourbon Street, looking for clues. When he runs into the local police, they tell him—all together, now—to stay out of town, that they don’t need some smart guy from Chicago telling them how to do police work, etc. And somehow he finds the icy blonde.

At which point No Mercy reaches way back to Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and has the hero and heroine handcuffed to each other. This film seems designed to trash all the detective conventions.

It’s the work of scriptwriter James Carabatsos, who is also represented this month with the equally salty Heartbreak Ridge. Carabatsos seems to think that if he dresses his clichés in oddball language, no one will notice they’re clichés. Example: Gere walks into a restaurant full of expensive-looking women and remarks, “Most of these broads still got their price tags hangin’ from their noses.”

Directed Richard Pearce (Heartland) treats all of this as though it were good or something—and through sheer commitment he makes the opening 20 minutes or so fairly gripping. Eventually the script’s bozo contrivances take over, as when Gere and Basinger escape from under a dock teeming with bad guys, or when they drift into the bayou country, then improbably allow their canoe to drift away (after hanging on it it all night long).

Worst of all is the stagnant finale, which takes place in an old hotel and lasts a dull 20 to 25 minutes. It’s cramped, and Pearce can’t make the setting come alive.

Gere is barely adequate. He seems preoccupied with getting on to some other movie, perhaps one with more ambition. Basinger, having a busy year (9 ½ Weeks, Fool for Love), is also not all there. Together, in supposedly steamy love scenes, they only manage to muss each other up.

They both have the movie stolen from them by the villain, a pony-tailed snake who likes to carve people up with a gutting knife. He’s played by Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe (The Fourth Man), who easily outshines the protagonists. Under such circumstances, it’s not all that much to be proud of.

First published in the Herald, December 20, 1986

Dead, dead, dead—an absolute misfire. Interesting that Gere eventually did age into some good performances, including a fine turn in 2012’s Arbitrage.

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Power

August 27, 2012

Power is one of those behind-the-scenes peeks at the wheeling and dealing of political campaigns, always a ripe subject for movies (after all, so little madness needs to be invented). As it happens, Power is not an unusually distinguished essay on the cutthroat gamesmanship that we all know and love, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough.

The main player in this drama is Peter St. John (Richard Gere), a high-stakes public relations wizard with an 85 percent success rate with political candidates. He is introduced to us in a series of glimpses at his various projects.

First, he’s attending the speech of a South American candidate/client, whose rally is suddenly interrupted by a terrorist bomb. When the candidate gets a little blood on his shirt, St. John rushes over with his camera crew, fairly exultant with the public relations possibilities. He excitedly tells the candidate to wear the blood-stained shirt at every subsequent public appearance.

Next, St. John is off to New Mexico, where he oversees the candidacy of a Senate hopeful (Fritz Weaver), then to Seattle for a meeting with the incumbent governor (Michael Learned, once the mother on “The Waltons”). She needs special help in smoothing over her recent divorce, and its impact on the fall campaign.

But St. John’s most pressing public relations gig is the Ohio Senate race. The incumbent (E.G. Marshall), an old friend, pulls out of the running, abruptly. St. John is pursued by a mysterious power broker (Denzel Washington of “St. Elsewhere”) to back another Ohio candidate, one whose resources are vast, but whose intentions are suspect.

St. John’s main business is image-bending. As he tells the hopeless Weaver (a rich city boy whom St. John puts in a cowboy suit before a herd of cattle), “We’ve got to align perception with reality.”

In other words, quit worrying about the issues and concentrate on the makeup and the hair. St. John creates the kind of devious TV commercials and publicity ploys with which we’ve become all too familiar over the years.

But strange things are happening: St. John’s rooms are bugged, his plane is searched, and his ex-wife (Julie Christie), a reporter, is finding some fishy finances connected with Marshall’s wife (Beatrice Straight).

It all sounds complicated, and it is, but it’s enjoyably mounted. Sidney Lumet (and his fine photographer, Andrej Bartkowiak) can orchestrate this sort of intricate setup with clarity, if little subtlety (The Verdict and Prince of the City are other examples). And he recognizes the satire of much of David Himmelstein’s script.

Gere is well-cast as the shallow media hypester, although he does less well with the character’s moral awakening. Gene Hackman does some tasty work as Gere’s friend/competitor. Kate Capshaw is attractive decoration as Gere’s assistant.

An irony surrounds the film that may or may not be apparent to the people who made it. Power is being marketed in just the way Peter St. John might market a film that was a hard sell. It’s a teasing, uninformative ad campaign that doesn’t really tell you what the movie’s about, but merely suggests something sexy and glittering along the lines of “Dallas” or “Dynasty.” (You know: “Power—the ultimate aphrodisiac.” That sort of thing.)

It’s the kind of aggressive slickery that, by rights, ought to make Lumet, Himmelstein, and co., just a bit queasy.

First published in the Herald, January 1986

It didn’t land like Network, that’s for sure. The political stuff looks like child’s play from a perspective 25 years on, and sort of looked like child’s play then. Karl Rove, where were you in ’86?


The Cotton Club

July 27, 2012

A few years ago, Robert Evans, the producer of films such as The Godfather and Chinatown, needed a script rewrite for a project about new York’s famous Cotton Club, a place where white audiences paid top dollar to see black entertainment during the height of the Jazz Age.

Evans had worked with larger-than-life director Francis Coppola on The Godfather, and he called Coppola to get some suggestions for a good script doctor. Coppola, ever alert (and coming off a string of commercial disasters), quickly suggested himself. Thus commenced a series of events that probably made Evans wish he’d never heard of Coppola or the Cotton Club.

Before long, Coppola had thrown out the original screenplay (the film’s “story” credit goes to Mario Puzo) and written a completely new script with Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy. Then Coppola assumed the mantle of director, and the production of the film itself was beset by rising costs and constant script rewrites.

And somewhere in the midst of this Robert Evans went bye-bye. The lawsuits are now flying, but it’s hard to imagine they will have any effect on what is already an incredibly expensive movie (something between $40 and $50 million, at last count).

Coppola seems to be attracted by this kind of guerrilla moviemaking, but whether or not it agrees with him is another matter. The films he produced while he played at being the mogul of his own hectic studio were almost wholly uninvolving.

With The Cotton Club, he’s gotten himself interesting again. This film, which whips up a blend of gangsterism and musical comedy, clips along at a confident pace and has enough flavorful characters to fill a speakeasy.

Richard Gere plays a cornet player (and Gere plays his own horn solos, by golly) whose trajectory through the Jazz Age—in the film, from the late ’20s through the early ’30s—places him in close contact with such figures as gangster Dutch Schultz (rivetingly played by unctuous James Remar), the Dutchman’s moll (Diane Lane), and the men who run the Cotton Club (Bob The Long Goodbye Hoskins and Fred “The Munsters” Gwynne, who make a great comedy team).

Gere’s brother (Nicolas Cage, Coppola’s cousin) is a hothead swept into the violent world around the Cotton Club, with bloody results. This story of the brothers is paralleled by a pair of dancing brothers (Gregory and Maurice Hines) who work their way up through the Cotton Club to different levels of stardom.

The film is obviously chock-full; unfortunately, as enjoyable as much of this is, Coppola has a tendency to rush past the building blocks of characterization. He has atmosphere (kudos to designer Richard Sylbert) and rat-a-tat action down pat, but once the smoke clears, I was left with the nagging feeling that the sound and fury didn’t amount to too much.

The scope of the film calls for the three-hour Godfather sprawl, and Cotton Club clocks in at barely over two. Characters meet, split, and kiss and make up with not much validation for their behavior. Coppola asks you to take a lot for granted.

I wish the extra hour might have had more song-and-dance in it, too; although the film is full of terrific music, few numbers are presented in their entirety (Coppola enjoys cutting routines in pieces rather than letting them develop on their own). Still, Lonette McKee’s “Ill Wind” is a stand-out, and the brothers Hines tread the boards with grace.

Coppola likes to describe himself as a ringmaster/magician of chaos. He may not quite prove that the hand is quicker than the eye in The Cotton Club, but at least he keeps all three rings of the circus busy at once.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1984

As anybody who’s ever seen this movie knows, you can forget about Gere and Lane: Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne are where the action is.


An Officer and a Gentleman

March 9, 2012

In the first scene of An Officer and a Gentleman, Richard Gere is up to all of his mannered tricks: he twitches, he mumbles, he wearily stares off into space. The signals are discouraging; it’s not going to be another one of those performances, is it? Amazingly, about the time Gere gets his hair cropped—his character has entered military school, training to be an officer and a jet pilot—he seems to relax, probably because he starts playing against some pretty interesting people (namely David Keith, Debra Winger, and Louis Gossett, Jr.).

I don’t know if director Taylor Hackford or Gere was aware of this softening and deepening of the actor’s style, but it turns out to be very appropriate to the character’s story: Gere plays a distant, private man who enlists in the officers’ training program as a way to hoist himself above an unhappy life; in the thirteen-week-long process of earning his wings, he discovers—as much to his surprise as anyone else’s—that he can allow himself to be a human being.

This sounds like pretty basic stuff, and I guess it is, but a good deal of it is very entertaining. Gere’s duels with his hardboiled drill instructor are superb; there is the sense that he is battling against the dark demons in himself that tempt him to quite the grueling training and backslide into the rootless existence that came before. Louis Gossett’s fine, cunning performance as the D.I. has a lot to do with this, even if the movie occasionally skirts sentimentalizing his character.

Off the base, Gere spends his time with a woman who has her sights set on becoming an officer’s wife. Debra Winger triumphs over the script’s condescension toward her character; she isn’t just slumming, and it rings true. This goes for David Keith, too, as Gere’s grinning Okie buddy; the tragic-best-friend bit can get pretty sticky if an actor doesn’t believe it, and Keith throws himself into it with his whole heart. We can believe that Winger and Keith are capable of thawing out the cool, isolated Gere.

An Officer and a Gentleman is the kind of movie in which the unsuccessful sequences tend to be forgotten, while a few keenly realized scenes linger fondly in the mind. There’s a nice moment after Gere has had a first dinner with Winger’s family, and the couple reels out of the parental house, staggering from the amusingly frigid and uncomfortable reception they’ve had. As they are parting, Winger brings up the previously-hinted-at subject of marriage rather bluntly. Gere stiffens, by reflex; Winger senses his iciness, and her desperation rises to the surface. There’s an exact feel for a decision and an event not quite happening here—it will have to wait for a while, until Gere finishes his training and becomes an officer. And, importantly, a gentleman.

First published in The Informer, August 1982

An early review from the Seattle Film Society’s monthly newsletter. The movie was shot in Port Townsend, Washington, where locals still recall the colorful behavior of the participants (I got to do the onstage interview with Winger when she returned to Port Townsend for a film festival appearance , but I’m not sure AOAAG was her primary interest). The movie turned into a steamroller, with the ending and the song and all, but the review was written in relative innocence of that.