Relentless

April 6, 2020

relentlessArriving home in L.A., an ordinary guy listens to the message on his answering machine. “I called to see if you were home,” the calm voice says. “I have to kill you tonight.”

Sooner than you can say “Sorry, wrong number,” the ordinary guy has indeed been killed and the plot of Relentless has been set in motion. It’s a basic city-held-in-­the-grip-of-a-serial-killer movie, with Brat Packer Judd Nelson as the mad murderer. The creepy phone message is just about the last interesting touch in the movie, which quickly deploys itself in search of any kind of unpleasantness it can find.

Mostly it goes in the direction of buddy-cop formula. The two cops on the mad killer case are, of course, enjoying their first week as partners. And, wouldn’t you know it, they are exact opposites. One is an LA veteran (Robert Loggia), who’s gotten soft from all the sunshine and tofu; when he checks out a murder scene, he’s busy sizing up the layout. (Stepping over a body, he wonders, “What do these condos go for?”)

His new younger partner (Leo Rossi) is recently moved from New York, where they do this with a bit more zeal. His laid­ back wife (Meg Foster, wasted as usual) coaxes him into being more agreeable, by urging him to take out his hostility by talking nasty to plants, but the serial killer sends him into full Bronx throttle.

Much of the film is taken up with the leaden banter between tile two cops. Loggia and Rossi are good character actors, but director William Lustig, who recently weighed in with Maniac Cop, appears to have no touch with the lighter material.

As for the heavier material, well, it takes care of itself. Judd Nelson walks around looking a bit like Conrad Veidt in the silent classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, his eyes buggy, his cheeks sallow, his arms held out from his sides. He also runs around the edges of building roofs.

Flashbacks reveal that the problems are the fault of his father, a brutal policeman who tormented his son. Rossi tries to unravel this psychological tangle by consulting a police psychiatrist. The doctor offers a refreshing opinion on the profile of the killer: “Maybe he’s just crazy.” The way Nelson plays the guy, that’s good enough.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

I know Lustig has a following, but obviously I was not into this one. I am intrigued by one sentence here: “He also runs around the edges of building roofs.” It must have been distinctive, or absurd, enough for me to mention it. But is it one of Judd Nelson’s signature things here? The film was written by Phil Alden Robinson, who used a pseudonym, presumably because Field of Dreams was already in theaters at this point.


Big

January 31, 2012

Hanks and Zoltar: Big

When a 13-year-old New Jersey boy confronts an automated carnival fortune-teller called Zoltar the Magician, the kid confesses his most fervent wish: to be big. It’s a natural desire; he’s been hurting because his secret crush is a good foot-and-a-half taller than he. Next morning, when the boy rolls out of bed, he’s 6 feet tall and has stubble on his chin. He’s big, and he looks like Tom Hanks.

Big is the latest movie about a personality transplanted to a new body (a craze that includes Like Father, Like Son, and Vice Versa). Evidently Big was in the works before those other films, and it is the slickest of the three—and, in Tom Hanks, it has a most engaging leading man.

As a newly big person, Hanks can’t convince his parents that he is indeed their little son (they think he’s a kidnapper), so he head to New York to try to find Zoltar and reverse the process. During his search, he gets a low-level job with a toy company and, in the manner of Being There, soon rises to the top through his uncomplicated enthusiasm for toys.

His innocence also captures the eye of a jaded executive (Elizabeth Perkins). Admittedly, they aren’t quite on the same level; while riding in the company limo, she’s sensitively telling him, “I’m really vulnerable right now,” as he’s sticking his head out the sunroof and shouting, “Ejector seat!” But they get along.

Up until the point that it has to resolve itself, Big is a regularly funny movie. The director, Penny Marshall (who used to play Laverne in “Laverne and Shirley”), has a nice way of letting comedic scenes develop; Hanks’s introduction to the niceties of hors d’oeuvres at a fancy company party may be the best slapstick scene of the year (he daintily chews the kernels off a cob of baby corn).

Marshall has a real touch with scenes of liberation. There’s a marvelous moment when Hanks bumps into his boss (Robert Loggia) in a toy store and the two of them play “Heart and Soul” on a huge electronic keyboard activated by their feet. And when Hanks gets Perkins back to his apartment, which is littered with inflatable dinosaurs and wind-up toys, he loosens her up by inviting her to jump on his trampoline—a giddy touch.

The finish, which Marshall plays as sentimental, isn’t nearly as inspired as the earlier anarchy. When the movie goes soft, the wind comes out of the comedic sails. But Hanks does a wonderful job throughout, and continues to be our most energetic light leading man. He was not, apparently, the first choice for the part: When Elizabeth Perkins was in the area recently on a publicity tour, she said that Robert De Niro was originally slated to play the lead role, a fascinating if unlikely sounding possibility. Fascinating, but not necessarily funnier.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The De Niro thing apparently should be “previously,” not “originally,” because some say Hanks was offered the part first but had scheduling problems. This is one of those movies that have the right elements so agreeably in place that the audience agrees to overlook a series of whopping issues (including the sheer weirdness of having a family experience the disappearance of their kid for a few weeks). In any case, Hanks is pretty glorious, and I enjoyed interviewing Elizabeth Perkins.