April 12, 2012

When legendary freakazoid Dennis Hopper dried out and went straight a couple of years ago, his acting career understandably got back into long-delayed gear; for a while, it seemed as though every other Hollywood movie had Hopper in a juicy supporting role (Hoosiers, River’s Edge, Blue Velvet).

It was inevitable that Hopper would try to revive his directing career, which had blossomed with the epoch-making Easy Rider and then crashed and burned with one of the most notorious flops of all time, The Last Movie. Apparently it was Sean Penn’s idea to recruit Hopper to direct Colors, a cop movie about gangs in East Los Angeles.

This combination of card-carrying bad dudes would seem to promise a combustible collaboration, especially with Robert Duvall, himself a Hollywood renegade, added to the mix. As it turns out, given its already explosive subject matter, Colors has gobs of gutter-level power. It’s also often inarticulate, and it operates only under the loosest of structures.

Penn and Duvall play cops, partners in the war zone. Penn is a cocky young strutter who attacks petty criminals with overt sadism; his girlfriend (Maria Conchita Alonso) tells him, “You have a mean heart.” Duvall is a year away from retirement, and he takes a slower approach, content to throw the little fishes back in the water in hopes of making a really big catch.

These two cops could almost be seen as different parts of Dennis Hopper’s personality. Penn is the hot-blooded kid who thinks he needs “the edge” to do his job well; Duvall warns him that he went through the same kind of insanity himself once, “and what I remember most from that time is regrets.” Hopper directs this relationship with the authenticity of one who has been there and back.

The movie is so gritty and relentless, you may not notice how choppy the actual storytelling is. Hopper is stronger at finding the inside of individual moments, such as the terror of a bust that goes bad when the wrong man is shot, or a dying cop’s face bleached out by the harsh white light of a police helicopter. Overall, Colors may not quite hang together, but the devotion of the actors, the punchy music of Herbie Hancock, the late-afternoon cinematography of Haskell Wexler, all combine to create some heat. Dennis Hopper, it seems, has not made his last movie.

First published in the Herald, April 15, 1988

And it was even a box-office success. Hopper did direct again, and seemed to settle comfortably into his aging-celebrity role. This movie’s a mess, but on some level it got the job done, and became a key part of the man’s rehab.

Shanghai Surprise

March 16, 2012

During its production, Shanghai Surprise must have set a record for press coverage of a work-in-progress. The reason, of course, was the presence of its honeymooning co-stars, Sean Penn and Madonna, who quickly became America’s most notorious couple.

Fueling the media’s gung-ho interest was the shyness of the couple. This often found expression through Penn’s unofficial practice of dentistry, in which he forcefully removed the teeth of his least-favorite photographers. Such behavior soon earned the couple the nickname of The Poison Penns.

It also, very probably, created an atmosphere in which most people were eager to see the film fall on its face. As it turns out, that is precisely what has happened.

There’s not much that’s redeemable about Shanghai Surprise, although it probably won’t derail the careers of its stars too much. It should, however, dissuade them from pursuing projects too far afield from their strengths. They’re both out of water here.

Penn plays an opportunistic adventurer, in Shanghai, who looks to make a killing in garish pink-and-green girlie neckties. Madonna is a missionary who’s trying to find an illegal opium cache, in order to make it available to wounded soldiers. She enlists his help, for his connections and translating abilities. This leads them on a series of adventures, surprises, and naturally, romance.

Oh yeah, it’s set in 1938. This means that not only are Penn and the Missus cast against their strengths, they’re also outside their time zone. I sort of like Madonna, but she’s a completely contemporary figure; the ease and hipness she showed in Desperately Seeking Susan are denied her in Shanghai Surprise.

Penn showed himself to be the wiliest of the younger actors in such films as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Bad Boys, and The Falcon and the Snowman. He’s one of these actors who subscribe to the chameleon theory, and he works hard to disappear into each role.

Which is why he’s all wrong for this part. The film (based on a novel called Faraday’s Flowers, by Tony Kenrick) is a throwback to the sort of romantic adventure movie typified by Red Dust, Mogambo (both with Clark Gable), and His Kind of Woman (Robert Mitchum).

Gable and Mitchum could not play all the roles that Sean Penn is capable of doing; but Penn is hopeless when trying to re-create their no-sweat, self-confident poise. The film needs a solid center to counterpoint Madonna’s missionary, but Penn doesn’t provide it.

Shanghai Surprise was directed by Jim Goddard, who has done much work in British television. He should probably lick his wounds and try again, under less insane circumstances.

George Harrison’s Handmade Films produced the movie. The end credits claim that Harrison appears somewhere in the film, as a singer. I may be a dyed-in-the-wool fan of certain British music groups from the 1960s, but even the prospect of Beatle-spotting could not convince me to watch this movie, ever again.

First published in the Herald, September 27, 1986

It’s always nice when a production plagued by controversy turns out to be rather good after all; but in this case, it was just as gratifying somehow that the obnoxious twosome had driven their own movie into the ground. Or maybe it was a misbegotten project from the beginning. Now, if they’d switched roles, and Madonna played the quick-talking hustler and Penn played a nun – then, right there, maybe you got yourself a picture.

The Falcon and the Snowman

December 26, 2011

Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn are the cream of Hollywood’s hot young actors. They didn’t get there through cuteness or pandering or doing the right talk shows; they got there because they’re very good at what they do.

They’re dedicated actors who seem to deliberately eschew the more commercially sensible movies they could make in favor of difficult, challenging projects. Hutton, who took home the best supporting actor Oscar for Ordinary People, has had a couple of box-office duds in a row, Daniel and Iceman, both of which were interesting.

Penn, who enjoys looking completely different from one role to the next, scored in Fast Times in Ridgemont High, delved into the harsh prison world of Bad Boys, then appeared as a more-or-less normal human being in Racing with the Moon.

They became friends on the set of Taps and decided to make a movie together. In The Falcon and the Snowman, they’ve picked out what must be their most commercially risky work yet: it’s the true story of two Americans, Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee, played by Hutton and Penn respectively. The two sold government secrets to the Soviets (Boyce was captured a couple of years ago near Port Angeles). Hutton and Penn obviously are not worried about appearing unattractive to their audience.

Boyce and Lee are childhood chums (they were altar boys together), sons of wealthy Los Angeles families. Boyce, who owns a falcon (thus his code name), leaves the seminary at the film’s beginning and takes a job where he is exposed to state secrets; Lee is a two-bit drug dealer (and soon-to-be-addict) who spends a lot of time in Mexico.

Boyce gets it into his head that the best way to register disapproval against the immoral behavior of the CIA is to sell information to the Soviets. He enlists Lee as the bagman for the process, and Lee establishes a relationship with the Russian Embassy in Mexico City; he brings them documents and film, they give him money.

This set-up effectively provides suspense, with the amateurish spy efforts of Boyce and Lee rubbing up against the efficient espionage systems of the world’s great superpowers.

While that situation makes the film sufficiently watchable, there are many problems. It’s always hard to cozy up to a film with traitors as its main characters, even though Hutton and Penn are interesting actors. Hutton plays it straight and suggests plenty of anguish (but not a lot of motivation) for his misdeeds; Penn is pretty off-the-wall, with a characterization that resembles, physically and behaviorally, Robert De Niro’s uncouth lout in The Kind of Comedy (when the Russian agents tensely inform him that he’s been transferred to a less conspicuous Mexico City hotel, Penn looks at them blankly and says, “Does it have a swimming pool?”).

Although it gets off to an intriguing start, I liked the film less and less as it went on. British director John Schlesinger, who has long been one of the more overrated figures in world cinema, loves to satirize America (Midnight Cowboy, The Day of the Locust), and he’s up to it again here. In the process, he provides trivializing portraits of the boys’ parents, whose main sin seems to be that they are wealthy.

He also establishes a potentially fascinating environment in Hutton’s top-security job, then lets it dribble away—and let’s not even mention Hutton’s girlfriend (Lori Singer, of Footloose), mere window dressing.

It’s ironic that Schlesinger should blow it so badly, since he’s just come off his most highly regarded work in years: the BBC production An Englishman Abroad, a charming tale in which Alan Bates plays the real-life figure of—yes—a spy who deals secrets to the Soviet Union.

First published in the Herald, January 1985

I don’t sound keen on it here, but I have thought of certain scenes from this movie once in a while, and it has a curiosity value somehow. Hutton and Penn hitting golf balls into the ocean—boys of privilege playing games with things they don’t understand. An Englishman Abroad, though, is wonderful. Weirdly, Penn later (years later) hired the real Daulton Lee to serve as his assistant, after Lee was released from prison.