Under Fire

October 15, 2012

Under Fire is that rarity: a major Hollywood release that is both a politically oriented film without self-righteousness, and a well-crafted entertainment that delivers the dramatic goods.

It travels to the dark heart of 1979 Nicaragua, where the rebellion that’s been smoldering for 50 years is about to topple the Somoza regime. We see the civil war through the eyes of some American journalists, who provide a very human reference point as we witness the various subterfuges and brutalities of the bloody war.

As Bogart said in Casablanca, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” It’s still the same old story in Under Fire. The romantic triangle is set against the backdrop of international conflict has always been good raw material for an exciting narrative, and Under Fire uses this device to draw us into its politically volatile story.

The triangle consists of Russell (Nick Nolte), a prize-winning photographer who arrives in Nicaragua and fulfills an old passion for Claire (Joanna Cassidy), a reporter who happens to be the longtime lover of one of Russell’s best friends and colleagues, Alex (Gene Hackman), who has just been offered a tempting network anchor post—a job that would take him off the road, and away from Claire.

Actually, the triangle is resolved fairly quickly. Alex heads off to New York, and Russell and Claire get involved with—well, with each other, of course. They also get involved with the growing mystery of the never-photographed rebel leader Rafael, whom the Somoza government claims is dead, but whose body—dead or otherwise—has not been seen.

As Russell and Claire get closer to finding Rafael, they are forced to question their code of journalistic ethics, and their responsibilities as human beings in the face of war’s horrors. Luckily, Under Fire does not present these heavy-duty moral quandaries as dry theorems. They’re part of an adventure movie, and the filmmakers don’t lose sight of that.

It’s as an action film that Under Fire works best. Director Roger Spottiswoode has given the film a lean, hard edge (aided by his great cinematographer, John Alcott, who shot Barry Lyndon).

Star power also keeps Under Fire burning. Nolte can apparently carry any movie on his hulking shoulders, and Cassidy is a real find; she brings a vibrant intelligence to this, her first leading film role.

Gene Hackman is too precious a commodity to have been missing from the screen for so long. Here, he perfectly captures the underlying torment of a man whose professional and personal worlds are in chaos. When he’s offscreen, the movie really suffers for it.

While Under Fire may not answer its ethical questions with much profundity, the film does tell a complicated story using good moviemaking sense. With its fast, jungle-fever momentum, it eventually packs quite a wallop.

First published in the Herald, October 20, 1983

Interesting movie, not much remembered. This film review ran with The Right Stuff as my first pieces for the Herald, a gig that has lasted through now (October 2012) and continues. How did that happen?

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Turner & Hooch

August 2, 2012

During his first-ever stakeout, a small-town cop sits in his car with the only witness to a murder. The witness is a dog, a big, ugly, smelly mastiff, and the cop’s only sanity-saving device is to free-associate on whatever subjects come to his mind, which range from some helpful advice on the dog’s drooling problem to fond remembrances of an almost-forgotten 1960s TV show with talking chimps.

That the actor who plays the cop is Tom Hanks has a lot to do with why this is the most appealing scene in Turner & Hooch, the latest grown-up variation of the boy-and-his-dog story. Hanks’s playing is so wonderfully fluid, so inventive, that he lends the scene an air of breezy improvisation.

The rest of the movie should be so inventive. It’s redundant in its very concept: Just a few months ago, we had K-9, a dreadful film about a cop who was partnered with a dog. The cop didn’t like the dog at first, but of course he grew to love the beast.

In Turner & Hooch, Turner (Hanks) isn’t partnered with the canine, but he does need to bring Hooch into his house and keep him around for possible culprit identification. The man-dog interaction has a familiar ring to it, despite Hanks’s best efforts (he taunts the hapless dog, “This is what you can do when you’ve got thumbs!”). The obligatory love interest, played here by Mare Winningham (as a sympathetic veterinarian), fares somewhat better.

The script bears the credits of some of Hollywood’s highest priced writers, who together have managed to create a property utterly without any personality. For instance, the Hanks character begins the film as a compulsive neatness freak; he learns to relax because of the dog’s friendly slovenliness. Only problem is, this feels like one of those conflicts that writers dream up in order to give a story bite; it’s artificial.

Director Roger Spotiswoode has shown an offbeat comic touch in the past (check out The Best of Times on video), but he can’t do much more than make this slick package look good. When the introduction of Hooch is accompanied by slow motion and the strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (aka the 2001 theme), you know it’s a desperate moment. Hooch, for his part, performs like a champ. In real life a De Bordeaux named Beasley, he is a frightful creature.

First published in the Herald, August 3, 1989

Hanks said somewhere that this was a key film for him, in the sense that it forced him to truly be inventive and original (or something like that) in his acting, because his co-star was an animal, and that he was proud of his work here. That doesn’t mean I have to like the movie.


The Best of Times

July 29, 2011

Ever since 9:22 p.m., November 15, 1972, there has been an overriding reality in the life of an otherwise ordinary man from the small town of Taft, California. It was at that very moment, 13 years ago, that Jack (Robin Williams) dropped a last-second pass that would have given the Taft Rockets their first-ever victory over the hated Bakersfield Tigers.

Instead, Jack muffed the catch, Bakersfield won the high school rivalry again, and Jack was doomed to a life as The Man Who Dropped the Ball.

This is the situation for the protagonist of The Best of Times, a spunky, endearing slice-of-life comedy. As the film begins, Jack is recounting a brief history of the town of Taft, which has never seemed to win at anything. In a way, he’s like the town itself—small, unassuming, bloody but not bowed.

Jack gets it into his head that he can remove the nagging memory of that dropped ball—extricate himself from “the bowels of hell,” as he puts it—by replaying the game; that is, gathering all the now-paunchy players from the two squads and going through it all again.

But he’ll need the help of the greatest high school quarterback in the history of Taft: Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell). Reno resists, but a terrorist attack by a man dressed in a tiger suit—everyone thinks it’s a Bakersfield bad buy, but it’s actually Jack, trying to whip up enthusiasm for the game—changes Reno’s mind, and the preparations for the battle begin.

These are amusing; but at least as important to the heart of the film are the marital tribulations of Jack and Reno. Jack’s wife (Holly Palance) has thrown him out of the house because of his insistence on the replayed game. And long-standing problems have driven Reno’s wife (Pamela Reed) to temporary residence at the Top Hat motel.

A sequence with the two couples coming together for a reconciliation dinner is the comic centerpiece. The wives swig wine from the bottle in anticipation, the husbands try to bolster themselves with a game plan (“Be bland, but strong—careful, but with a touch of reckless”).

The women have deliberately scheduled the dinner for a Monday night, with the attendant televised football game; the dinner is a test to see whether the boys can resist the temptation. If that that setup seems a bit familiar, the results are funny nevertheless.

It all builds up to a conclusion that is also familiar and predictable: Every person who watches this movie knows that the big rematch will come down to a single play in which Jack will either redeem himself or become the goat of all time.

The plot may strike some as formula—how many movies can we take with a big sporting event as the finale? And yet The Best of Times has a wonderful freshness; it combines humor and heartache in a beguiling combination—in scenes such as Reno’s off-key rendition of “Close to You” at his wife’s motel room door, or the touching entreaty Jack makes to his wife in the gymnasium restroom during a pregame sock-hop.

Director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire) has a keen sense of how people talk, and behave; and he’s well-served by his actors. Williams and Russell have nice chemistry, and Palance (currently appearing in the Seattle Rep’s The Real Thing) and Reed (The Right Stuff) are attractively unglamorous.

The Best of Times doesn’t break new ground, and it’s a decidedly self-effacing work. But it’s a tremendously agreeable movie, and very easy to enjoy.

First published in the Herald, January 29, 1986

Lovely movie. I didn’t mention its screenwriter, because like most people I didn’t know who Ron Shelton was; Bull Durham was still a couple of years in the future. But of course Shelton’s spirit is all over this film, in the best ways. As for the director, this seemed like the moment Spottiswoode was going to settle onto the A-list, which didn’t happen although he did get some high-profile jobs, including a Bond picture. He was married to Holly Palance (yes, daughter of Jack), who didn’t really stick with the movie thing. This film just radiates a good feel, and everybody’s doing top-line work; of course, it didn’t do anything at the box office.