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.

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Winter People

June 1, 2012

Winter People is a sincere and almost total misfire. A curiosity, it doesn’t quite fit any single genre—which, generally speaking, is not a bad thing—but Winter People is just too weird and clunky to create its own niche.

The film is set in the 1930s. In the opening scenes, a gentle, widowed clockmaker (Kurt Russell) and his young daughter pull up stakes to search for better job opportunities for him. They get as far as a country hollow, where his car breaks down and he seeks shelter from a woman (Kelly McGillis) who lives alone in a small house in the backwoods.

This woman has a baby but no husband, a scandalous state of affairs that has led to her exile from the rest of her family, although she is still on speaking terms with her father (Lloyd Bridges) and her brothers. Russell, of course, ends up staying in the small community and building a clock tower for the town.

In doing so, he gets dragged into one of those classic backwoods family fights, because McGillis’s family is a-feudin’ with some ornery folk across the river. (They have long hair and beards, so we spot them for villains right away.) This brings about the movie’s main confrontations, although they turn out to be not quite as violent as you might expect.

It’s a very handsome film, with director Ted Kotcheff getting a nice feel for the woods and the small town. Kotcheff, unfortunately, is a colorless director, and he doesn’t shape or pace the material at all; some scenes seem to go on endlessly (and dourly—not a lot of humor here).

But even a better director might not have been able to conquer some of the thumping dialogue of Carol Sobieski’s script. For instance, McGillis is forced to say to her old flame, the hairy brute who is the father of her child, “I beat my head on the barn door once for you.” No wonder she seems so confused.

Winter People groans slowly along, losing steam as it goes. Both Russell and McGillis, two watchable actors, are in deliberately low gear, and the movie gets stolen by Lloyd Bridges, Don Michael Paul (as McGillis’s garrulous youngest brother), and a large bear that is sacrificed by a point-blank gunshot to the head. All are equally hammy.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1989

Sobieski wrote a lot in a foreshortened life (she died a year after this film was released), including co-credit on a favorite TV-movie from my childhood, The Neon Ceiling. Kotcheff does everything. Among his many stops was Weekend at Bernie’s, which I believe gets more hits than any other movie on this site.


Weekend at Bernie’s

January 6, 2011

Terry Kiser: a signature role

The predicament at the core of Weekend at Bernie’s can be grasped if you understand that Bernie is dead. This puts a damper on the weekend from the start.

That’s the basic idea in this new summer comedy, which takes its black humor from Bernie’s demise. Bernie (played, alive and dead, by Terry Kiser) heads a large Manhattan corporation. He invites two young go-getters in his employ, one a tidy yuppie (Jonathan Silverman), the other a slovenly nerd (Andrew McCarthy), to his beach house for Labor Day. For these guys, getting an invite to Bernie’s is like being called “up to the mountain top.”

Bernie means to have these two schmucks killed by underworld friends, because they’ve discovered Bernie’s profit-skimming system. But the underworld types decide to kill Bernie instead, which they do. So when our lads arrive, Bernie is beyond even his usual weekend comatose state. He’s really, well, dead.

Our guys, once they figure out that Bernie has indeed left this world, realize that, for a variety of reasons too complicated to explain here (though Robert Klane’s script works hard to make it seem logical), it’s best to pretend that Bernie is still alive. At least for the weekend.

So, the guys dust Bernie off, prop him up, and make sure his toupee is watertight. (A staple gun does the trick.) Trouble is, Bernie’s friends on the beach have the habit of dropping in unannounced, and Bernie himself is prone to disappearing, only to wash up later.

This movie gets some laughs out of its tasteless situation, even though the concept seems to take forever to set up. Klane has obviously used some classic comedies as his inspiration, not to mention Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, in which the trouble with Harry was that he was dead (but given to getting in people’s way). Unfortunately, the director, Ted Kotcheff, is not famous for his light comedic touch, and he probably won’t be any more famous after this film is released.

More damaging is the casting. Silverman is okay, but McCarthy is unconvincing. And together they have no chemistry. Mary Catherine Stewart, who plays Silverman’s budding romance, neither adds nor subtracts anything to the movie. How could she? Her role is window dressing.

Terry Kiser, it must be said, does bravura work as the corpse. At least someone connected with this movie has left a mark: Kiser will probably be hereafter known as the actor who “you know, played that dead guy in that stupid summer comedy.”

First published in the Herald, July 6, 1989

A signature 1980s film, this one. I mean it has Mary Catherine Stewart in it, which pretty much sets the era in stone. I know Terry Kiser has made a lot of movies and TV shots since this film, but he is still the dead guy from Weekend at Bernie’s, right? And I insist that he was, in fact, very skillful in a tricky part. (Also fondly remembered: his multi-episode arc on “Hill Street Blues” as a hapless stand-up comedian named Vic Hitler.)