An Innocent Man

December 6, 2012

innocentmanWhen the action heats up in the maximum-security prison of An Innocent Man, one con surveys the scene and says to another, “Tension in the Big House. Just like in the movies.”

That’s got it about right. Despite the fact that An Innocent Man was written by a first-time screenwriter (Larry Brothers) who has spent some time behind bars, it trots out the basic, familiar elements of a good prison melodrama. It’s solidly in a line from the wronged-justice movies of the 1930s (such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) to Stallone’s outing from a couple of months ago, Lock-Up. Not much changes.

As these things go, An Innocent Man is hard-nosed and effective. Tom Selleck plays a normal guy, with a good life and a happy wife (Laila Robbins), whose existence is messed up when two crooked cops mistakenly bust into his house and shoot him. In order to cover their error, they plant drugs in his home and, when he recovers, frame him for dealing.

Selleck goes up the river, where he learns that his ideas about fair play don’t exactly hold sway. He falls in with a wily con (F. Murray Abraham, the Oscar winner from Amadeus), who’s been in prison “since Jesus was a baby,” and learns the rules of the jungle. The hardest lesson is: Kill or be killed.

There as some clever lines along the way and Abraham gets a lot of the good ones. The occasional moment suggest writer Brothers’ knowledge of prison experience; when Selleck is paroled and picked up by his wife, he murmurs, “Riding in a car,” as though reminding himself of the phenomenon. That’s a telling line.

Peter Yates, whose work has ranged from Bullitt to Breaking Away, is a veteran director who knows what to do with this sort of thing. He keeps it moving, in his colorless fashion, with little wasted motion. The movie’s spikiest moments are not with Selleck, who presents a bland protagonist, but with the two sleazy cops who framed him. They are played by David Rasche and Richard Young, and they are as hissable as villains come these days. Rasche, who achieved some sort of glory on TV’s “Sledge Hammer” series, has a particularly evil romp.

The film is too clockwork; the latter half involves Selleck’s revenge, and it’s predictable. It works, of course, because the bad cops are doing everything but kicking puppies around, and we can’t wait to see justice served. We’re not disappointed.

First published in the Herald, October 6, 1989

Here’s another film, and not actually a bad one, that seems almost entirely without a profile. Does anyone remember this movie fondly, or at all?

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Her Alibi

June 28, 2011

Selleck’s back and Porizkova’s got him; it doesn’t really have a ring to it, does it? Her Alibi is a new film that would like to summon up some old-fashioned movie romance, but they just don’t make movies like that anymore, nor do they seem able to.

Tom Selleck, riding high off the success of Three Men and a Baby, evidently thought Her Alibi would be just the thing to exploits his talents as a light leading man. It may have looked that way on paper, too; as a blueprint, Her Alibi contains some attractive possibilities.

Selleck plays a writer of detective novels whose pen has dried up. He’s been blocked since his wife left him a few years back. But, hanging around the courthouse one day, he spots a murder suspect (Paulina Porizkova) and decides that she will be the subject of his new mystery.

It follows that he invents an alibi for her, which gets her out of jail and into his Connecticut house (and eventually into his bed). There’s supposed to be some tension in the possibility that she’s actually guilty and might try to kill her alibi, but I doubt that audiences will worry much about that. The big question, and nearly the only question, is how long it’s going to take for Tom and Paulina to get into a clinch. (The answer is, not long.)

At one point, Selleck’s editor (William Daniels) takes a look at the chapters Selleck has written about this encounter and declares that the characters display “cretinous” behavior. I’d have to agree with that assessment. Almost every character acts like a moron: “Do I look like an idiot?” Selleck asks. Yes, in this movie, he does.

The script (by Charlie Peters) is so flimsy, it’s amazing anyone could have thought it ready to be filmed. But the most disturbing thing is that a respectable director, Bruce Beresford, would fall for this. Beresford, who made Breaker Morant in Australia and Tender Mercies over here, is strictly doing hack work. There’s nothing that suggests he’s interested in the material.

He doesn’t even get good work from Selleck, who never quite finds the groove. Paulina Porizkova, of course, is a model—excuse me, supermodel—turned actress. She made her acting debut in Anna a couple of years ago, and acquitted herself well. In Her Alibi, she doesn’t have anything to do except look fabulous, so there’s no problem. But there really isn’t much heat between the two stars.

Her Alibi even sells short its hero. Selleck is supposed to be a best-selling author, and the film is narrated with snatches of his new novel. Based on these, he’s a terrible writer, clichéd and obvious. So the movie doesn’t merely make him look like a schmuck, it makes him look worthless. The guy never had a chance.

First published in the Herald, February 1989

Selleck finally got the bigscreen thing going with Three Men and a Baby, and then he went right back into bad choices. This is an absolute stiff. It came out a few months before Beresford’s other 1989 movie, Driving Miss Daisy, which worked out a little better (I’m not sure why I expressed surprise at Beresford’s falling for the project; he’d already made a few clunkers). Charlie Peters, by the way, also wrote Blame It on Rio, a very difficult memory for me. My opening phrase was meant to conjure up the tag line for Adventure with Clark Gable and Greer Garson, which evidently I felt enough people would recognize in order to make the reference worthwhile.


Dune/Runaway

March 21, 2011

Freddie Jones and Sting, a la Dune

I had been warned that Dune was confusing, so I was set to pay close attention from the very beginning. Surprisingly enough, I found that, on the plot level, Dune was rather easy to follow. There is a lot of information discharged in the first half hour, but the main movement of the story, and the many characters, are pretty easily identifiable. Oh, there’s the occasional weirdness–the bit with the potion that makes the user’s lips turn red went by too quickly for me to catch, so that when Brad Dourif came on muttering an incantation and applying the nectar to his mouth, I wasn’t sure what it all meant. But any frustration I felt due to ignorance of that particular detail was overruled by my delight with Dourif’s wacked-out performance (which unfortunately ends much too early in the film).

No, those unexplained details didn’t bug me too much. The most confusing thing about Dune is: What does this movie think it’s doing? Dune may be the most bewildering movie of the year, and not because of its plot. What was David Lynch thinking about when he decided to have people provide voiceover explanations of events we’ve just seen? “The spice…the worms…is there a relationship?” Of course there is, you bonehead, how could there not be, based on the information already provided to us?

These voiceovers are just one symptom of what’s wrong with Dune; the main problem would seem to be that Lynch has tried to be overly faithful to Frank Herbert’s novel. But that’s conjecture, since a) I haven’t read Dune, and b) I can’t hear what’s going on in Lynch’s mind, thank heaven. But there are things in the film that cry out for capsulization. For instance, Lynch got Sting to play one of the bad guys; given that, why not combine his role with that of the other bad guy played by big Paul Smith? Any reason that couldn’t be just one character, who could do twice as many mean, nasty things, thus providing a strong opposite number for the hero? (To be crass about it, that would make commercial sense too, since Sting is a big rock star and a certain audience is going to come to this film just to see him.)

As it is, Der Stingle is barely in the film at all, and the climactic knife battle with hero Paul Atreides is ho-hum time. But more than that, Sting, who has proven himself a fairly dynamic performer elsewhere, is out-and-out bad in Dune—he glowers and rolls his eyes without a trace of subtlety (and thus without a trace of menace). Or take the case of the University of Washington’s own Kyle MacLachlan, who plays the main character. MacLachlan is physically right for the part; he’s all heroic chin and hair, and he looks as though he’d have the necessary stamina to housebreak a sandworm. But he’s a bit on the stolid side, and there’s no humor in his performance. That I blame on David Lynch, who doesn’t seem to have conceived of the tone that his performers—or that the film itself—should carry. That uncertainty combined with a lack of rhythm and forward motion doom this Dune to be scattered to the winds.

After I saw Dune and Peter Hyams’ ridiculous 2010, was I ever in the mood for Runaway, the Tom Selleck vehicle about murderous robots in the near future. It is, to be sure, substantially inane; but it also has a friendly, funky spirit. Besides, it’s basically a cop movie in sci-fi trappings, as Selleck is out to catch a madman (Gene Simmons of KISS) bent on ruling the world through robot domination. Doesn’t that sound great? I thought so too. Add to that some killer spider robots, who clatter noisily before they exterminate their prey, and add Selleck’s partner, Cynthia Rhodes, the blond dish from Staying Alive, who sweats very appealingly in the scene where Tom removes an explosive bullet from her shoulder. When you mix in Simmons’ performance, which consists entirely of curled lip and bug-out eyes, you step back in time about three decades or so, and settle comfortably into the realm of chewy B-cinema. As such, Runaway works just fine. Writer-director Michael Crichton has a few good uses for Vancouver, B.C., and he gives us a shot from the point of view of a heat-seeking bullet. He also stages a genuinely exciting top-of-a-skyscraper finale (compounded by Selleck’s vertigo—say, where have I seen this before?). What’s it all add up to? Not much, really, but when you’ve been assailed by hours of pretentious science fiction hoohah, this sort of thing is a tonic.

First published in The Informer, January/February 1985

Still haven’t read Dune, and I haven’t been tempted to follow up this original experience with seeking out any alternate cuts or anything like that. Well, maybe during that sabbatical year. Sorry to say that I didn’t review Crichton’s crazy Looker at the time it came out, and thus can’t reprint anything on this Eighties website, but I did write an editorial review for Amazon.com, which can be accessed here.


High Road to China

January 3, 2011

The reigning king of TV hunkdom, Tom Selleck, has gotten his first crack at a starring vehicle. The clunky machine they’ve dusted off for him is called High Road to China, and it’s about a brat heiress (Bess Armstrong) who must find and present her rich-but-flaky father to the civilized world, else the bad guys (led by Robert Morley) declare the old boy legally dead. To this end, she hires a boozing pilot (Selleck) and his mechanic (Jack Weston) to fly her all over hellangone, chased (none too stealthily) by the heavies, and bring Dad back in time to protect her inheritance. From this, we can be sure of two things: upon finding daddykins, the heiress will discover she really wuvs him, not just his money; and, though she and the pilot loathe each other through most of the film, they’re gonna end up in a tight clinch. I’m afraid this makes High Road to China sound more fun than it is. Selleck is all right, but the movie does his character a disservice in his big scene: jawing with some of the boys, knocking back whiskys and brandishing a cigar, Selleck goes serious in the midst of their Great War stories. Seems the Kaiser ran short of adult flyers in the last days of the war, so young German boys were sent up to dogfight the experienced enemy; Selleck describes the sick feeling of taking target practice on these kids. It’s his dark secret, and the reason for his isolation and inebriation—except that it’s not a secret; and here he is blabbing it to everybody. Now, if sidekick Weston had been given these lines, delivered when Selleck was absent, an entirely different kind of resonance would be given to Selleck’s character; his inability to talk about it would give depth to this inner pain. Weston, in the Walter Brennan-Thomas Mitchell role, is wasted, and Bess Armstrong is a Strong-Willed Heroine to make Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn roll over in their graves. If they were dead, that is.

First published in the Informer, April 1983.

The memory bank has been wiped clean of this movie, except as an example of Selleck’s early inability to get off the dime with his TV stardom. I can’t help but think of it with The Aviator, Christopher Reeve’s flying movie set in a similar era, and another DOA attempt to give a vehicle to a hunk. I was surprised when reading this to realize that Robert Morley was still around, and Ralph Richardson too.