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Freejack (1992)

Riding high on the success of the complex, surprisingly thought-provoking Total Recall, writer/producer Ronald Shusett shepherded another heady sci-fi oddity into production. Like the best sci-fi, Freejack uses genre tropes to tackle weightier themes of mortality, greed, corruption, and social decay. Like the worst sci-fi, it relies far too much on trippy, 2001-esque visual effects and melodramatic monologues. Consequently, the quality lands somewhere in the middle, but I’m edging it up to a three-star review because it’s a very watchable, entertaining thriller despite its problems.

Could anyone imagine a film with a premise as convoluted as Freejack getting made today? Here are the basic beats: F-1 racer Alex Furlong (Emilio Estevez) is madly in love with Julie Redlund (Rene Russo). He crashes during a race and wakes up 18 years in the future. A group of “bonejackers,” led by Vacendak (Mick Jagger—seriously), have pulled his body through time a microsecond before death, with the intention of jamming the soul of a wealthy man into Alex’s body. See, in the future, there’s something called the “spiritual switchboard” (seriously), where the souls of the recently deceased can be held for up to three days before moving on. If, in that time, bonejackers shove them into younger, healthier bodies, the souls can continue living indefinitely.

“Why do they have to pull people through time?” you might ask. “Why couldn’t they just use the bodies of younger people in their own time?” Answer: the world has turned into a cesspool in which the super-wealthy live in isolated high-rises, and the literally unwashed masses have to dodge bullets while feasting on rat entrails and suffering from chronic asthma and cancer caused by a toxic atmosphere. (Yes, Freejack was big on tackling hot-button early-’90s issues, from the panic about the hole in the ozone layer to the video billboards advertising assisted suicide.) Those who can afford to bonejack will not pay premium prices for the body of a disease-ravaged street urchin.

Set against this backdrop, Freejack is pretty much a standard on-the-run thriller. After escaping from the bonejackers, Alex seeks out Julie, discovers she’s a high-powered executive working for the company that rules the world, and begs for help. He has a rapidly increasing bounty on his head, and his ability to avoid the bonejackers quickly makes him a legend among the lower class—a symbol of fighting The Man and winning, something they’d all like to do but can’t. While on the run with Julie, Alex slowly pieces together exactly what is happening—a complex conspiracy involving Vacendak and his bonejackers, Julie’s boss McCandless (Anthony Hopkins), and McCandless’s sniveling toady Michelette (Jonathan Banks).

Easily the most engaging thing about Freejack is the fact that everyone has their own agenda. Scenes are thick with a paranoid sense that nobody’s telling the truth. Nothing’s black and white, not even the motives of de facto villain Vacendak. This adds to Alex’s disorientation and manages to make every character stronger than what one might expect from this sort of sci-fi/action flick. The attention to character allows for even the script’s silliest moments (such as the trippy adventure through the spiritual switchboard) to fare better than they should.

Freejack boasts excellent production design and good early-’90s visual effects. The future looks alternately grim and beautiful. Atlanta stands in for post-Apocalyptic New York City, and the fact that the city looks virtually nothing like New York is to its benefit. The unfamiliarity of this futuristic city enhances the heightened reality the filmmakers want to achieve. Veteran action director Geoff Murphy (Young Guns II, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory) knows his way around car chases and shootouts. He lacks the fever-dream flair Paul Verhoeven brought to Total Recall, but Freejack is still a slick, well-made “cyberpunk” thriller.

Freejack was released in theatres at the height of Emilio Estevez’s stardom, shortly after Rene Russo and Anthony Hopkins became household names with, respectively, Lethal Weapon 3 and The Silence of the Lambs. Even Shusett had just come off a big hit with Total Recall. The talent pool combined to make a pretty good movie, but not quite a great one. I suspect its box-office failure has more to do with the difficulty of marketing such a weird story than with the quality of the film itself. It’s worth a second look.

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Touch (1997)

“It’s all a matter of tone,” says ex-revivalist/low-grade con artist Bill Hill (Christopher Walken) midway through Touch. If only writer-director Paul Schrader had taken this statement to heart. The screenplay, adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1987 novel, has the witty dialogue and inconceivable plot twists of a screwball comedy. In his direction, however, Schrader plays everything at a lugubrious tempo, eschewing the frenetic pace of a typical screwball comedy for something solemn and dignified. “Solemn and dignified,” in this case, are polite euphemisms for “dull.”

The film opens with a brutish redneck throwing dishes at his blind wife. Family friend Bill and rehab counselor Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich) arrive to defuse the situation. Before leaving, Juvenal touches the blind woman, and her sight is immediately and miraculously restored. From there, Juvenal is torn between exploitation on two fronts. Bill senses the opportunity to publicize Juvenal’s apparent gift and make back all the money he lost faking the same gift in a church revival. Pious print-shop owner August Murray (Tom Arnold) has the same desire: he wants to use Juvenal’s gift to bring attention to his church, which attempts to practice 1300s-style Catholicism. August’s subtle hypocrisy could have juxtaposed nicely with Bill’s overt exploitation, but Schrader’s direction lacks the energy for this rivalry to get off the ground.

Instead, Schrader focuses more on Juvenal, arguably the film’s dullest character. This is not a problem with Ulrich, who turns in a fine, nuanced performance. The issue rests in the screenplay, which spends too much time on an enigmatic character who never quite stops being an enigma. Even his love story with Bridget Fonda’s Lynn Marie (initially Bill’s partner in crime, she legitimately falls in love with Juvenal) doesn’t do much to reveal who he is or why anyone watching should care. Other than his ability to heal (which manifests by giving him the stigmata), Juvenal’s main trait is apathy. He knows both Bill and August want to exploit him, but he doesn’t really care. He doesn’t seem to have much interest in anything, including using his gift to help people. Not surprisingly, this does not make him a compelling protagonist.

Ushering Juvenal to the background to focus more on the rivalry between Bill and August (and, to some extent, Lynn Marie, who wants to defend her new lover against these predators) could have made this film much more effective. Walken and the perpetually sped-up Arnold have the energy Schrader’s direction and Ulrich’s laconic performance lack. When the tug-of-war over Juvenal reaches its boiling point in the third act, Bill and August both do some bizarre things that don’t seem motivated by anything earlier in the film. Concentrating on them would heighten the conflict enough to make these over-the-top actions seem perfectly in character.

As it stands, Touch is a deeply flawed disappointment. It’s too reverent to work as satire, too soporific to work as a comedy, and too goofy to work as a sober character study. Alfonso Arau’s 2000 film Picking Up the Pieces shares some of Touch‘s flaws (notably, focusing on the wrong character as its protagonist), but it’s essentially what this film should have been: a dark, brutal religious satire played at the frantic pitch of screwball comedy.

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Steel and Lace (1991)

Steel and Lace is a curiosity from a glorious time when every action/horror movie had a cyborg in it. About half the movie seems like campy exploitation, particularly those scenes that focus on rapist/mobster Danny Emerson (Michael Cerveris) and his mullet-adorned pals. From the sleazy wink he gives Gaily (Clare Wren) after a jury acquits him of raping her to the blood-red “clawed fist clutching the earth” logo of his company, Danny is portrayed as so cartoonishly evil, it’s impossible to take him seriously.

While I’d love to judge the movie on the merit of a campy thriller that doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s hard to reconcile the silly, over-the-top moments with the more subdued, introspective moments. Cyborg Gaily questions how much humanity she has left. Courtroom sketch artist Alison (Stacy Haiduk) finds herself so emotionally affected by Gaily’s story, she becomes consumed and starts putting a case together against Danny. Director Ernest D. Farino lets these scenes play with sensitivity that doesn’t mesh well with the patent absurdity of the rape flashback (which resembles a Whitesnake video more than a horrific act of violence) or the carnage cyborg Gaily inflicts.

The plot is a typical early-’90s take on the standard revenge thriller: Gaily, haunted by Danny’s goofily staged rape (which involves his four best buddies taunting her while Danny does his thing), is so distraught when the verdict comes back “not guilty,” she jumps off the roof of the courthouse. Five years later, Danny’s buddies—now equal partners in his shady business ventures, thanks to sticking by him during the rape trial—start to die, one by one. Her brother (Bruce Davison) worked as a NASA robotics scientist before retiring to focus on bringing his sister back as a revenge-seeking cyborg.

The film balances this storyline’s murderous shock moments with Alison’s investigation. Her ex-boyfriend, Detective Dunn (David Naughton), is also on the case, but nobody has any idea who could be killing Danny’s friends, or why. Danny’s company has made a lot of enemies, but few humans can kill a man by draining all his blood out through his penis (I am not making that up). Alison has a strong enough intuition to suspect Gaily’s brother Albert of being up to something nefarious—but what?

The film focuses more on Alison and Dunn than Danny and Gaily, and that’s a problem. On some level, it seems like the filmmakers wanted to appeal to women, so they hedged their bets by having a live woman—not a cyborg controlled by a man—as the lead character. However, neither Alison nor Dunn add much, and their presence detracts from potentially more interesting material involving Gaily, Danny, and Albert. The murders make Danny and his friends paranoid, but none of them really seem to consider the moral or karmic ramifications of what they’ve done. They’re all too evil to be believed. As a result, the murder sequences—while inventive and disturbing—don’t feel like a deserved comeuppance so much as a cheap shock.

Cheap shocks are all well and good in a dopey action movie, but the filmmakers here spend a great deal of time questioning the moral and karmic ramifications of what Gaily is doing. Are her actions just? Are her actions even her own? Albert had the plan to build a cyborg version of his sister that can shapeshift (sort of—she’s not exactly the T-1000, but she has a lot of skill with wigs and latex) and enact revenge. Should Gaily be considered a pawn in unjust actions, or a tool for carrying out just desserts? The film really does ask all these questions, but it doesn’t provide any clear answers or a strong point of view. It seems like they’re just trying to be deep, man.

When camp and philosophy duke it out, nobody wins. Steel and Lace could have been a tight, suspenseful thriller about bad men facing the consequences of a horrible action. Instead, it ended up a wildly uneven mixed bag full of extraneous characters and silly shock killings.

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Toy Soldiers (1991)

What happens when film executives decide to combine a teen-angst dramedy with over-the-top action? If we’re lucky, it’ll turn out like Red Dawn, a grim, paranoia-inducing thriller that allows goony teens to embody the American spirit. If we’re unlucky… Well, you’ll just have to wait for us to tackle Demolition High to know the true horrors of the teen action flick. Toy Soldiers doesn’t quite reach Red Dawn‘s heights, but it’s a solid thriller.

Billy Tepper (Sean Astin) and Joey Trotta (Wil Wheaton) are prep school thugs. Billy is smart and resourceful, the kind of kid who concocts a vodka drink that’s indistinguishable from mouthwash and uses $10 worth of Radio Shack parts to hack the school’s phone line and prank-call 976 numbers (remember those?). Louis Gossett, Jr., and Denholm Elliott turn in fine performances as, respectively, dean and headmaster. They treat Billy and Joey with a combination of tough love and appreciative amusement. It’s not exactly uncharted territory in a teen movie, but it’s always nice when the adults are played as more than simpering boobs.

Before long, the school is invaded by Luis Cali (Andrew Divoff, in a typically scenery-chewing performance), son of a Colombian druglord. Why would he choose a prep school in the U.S.? Luis’s father was arrested by a Colombian judge and extradited to the U.S. to face his crimes. The judge in question has a son who attends the Regis Academy. After Luis murdered the judge and fled the country, the State Department whisked his son away to a secret location. Luckily, Luis’s über-creepy partner in crime, Jack (Michael Champion), points out a better strategy: holding the students for a ransom their wealthy parents can afford.

From there, it pretty much unfolds like Die Hard: The Teen Years. Billy and Joey enlist the aid of friends (Keith Coogan, T.E. Russell, and George Perez) in hatching plans to foil the terrorists and communicate with the FBI and military hovering off-campus. Part of the fun of the movie is watching them coming up with schemes and putting them into action, so I won’t spoil much more of the plot. Just know that writers Daniel Petrie, Jr. (who also directed), and David Koepp do a nice job of crafting a believable story. On a certain level, it’s a ridiculous concept, but the writers never overplay their hand. There’s no war paint or slow motion Dirty Dozen badass-walks. They keep it at a level that clever teens could conceivably pull off.

Although the film mines a fair amount of clichés – including an untimely death that forces Billy to question his competence to foil Luis’s plans – they pay off in inventive, often entertaining ways. For instance, during the “exposition dump” portion of the first act, Petrie and Koepp go to great pains to show Billy hacking the school phone with his cheap Radio Shack components. Because of the nature of cinema, the instinctive thought is, “This will pay off later – they’ll use this phone trick to contact the authorities or something.” They don’t, but this isn’t an unsatisfying letdown. It’s a defiance of a cliché: they use the phone sequence to show Billy’s cleverness, resourcefulness, and skill with electronics, all attributes of his character that do pay off later. They don’t need to go back to the phone trickery – in fact, Billy’s flight from the prep school to warn the authorities in person is the film’s most suspenseful sequence.

For a teen-oriented action movie, Toy Soldiers succeeds admirably. What could have been a ridiculous, eye-rolling exercise in exploitation turns out to be an effective, entertaining film. The credit for that goes partly to Petrie, who wisely keeps the action grounded in something resembling reality. However, the success of the story really falls on the shoulders of Astin and Wheaton, whose capable performances lend credibility to a far-fetched premise. It’s definitely worth a look.

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Armed and Dangerous (1986)

Armed and Dangerous opens with two very funny sequences that it never quite lives up to. In the first, beat cop Frank Dooley (John Candy) catches some LAPD detectives robbing an electronics store. When he refuses to cooperate with the theft, they arrest him as the fall guy for their crimes. In the second, inept public defender Norman Kane (Eugene Levy) tries to get out of defending a Manson-like psychopath with the world’s worst plea bargain (“In exchange for a guilty plea, we will accept a life sentence with no opportunity for parole”).

As a result of these opening scenes, Dooley and Kane end up working as security guards, turning the movie into a standard mismatched-buddy story that never lives up to its early potential. Dooley and Kane spend the bulk of the movie trying to stop and/or expose a security guard crime ring supported by their corrupt union. From this barebones story, screenwriters Harold Ramis and Peter Torokvei attempt to craft numerous comedic situations that never take off. When Dooley and Kane try to fight the union, they’re reassigned to a toxic-waste dump. When Dooley and Kane attempt to gather evidence of a criminal conspiracy, they’re forced to elude sinister union cronies by ducking into a porn shop and “borrowing” clothes from a cross-dresser and a leather boy. In most cases, the writers use these wacky sight gags as the punchline. Maybe these sight gags were clever in 1986, but they don’t hold up the way a well-written script would.

They should have spent more time crafting the banter between Dooley and Kane. Candy and Levy have an undeniable chemistry, on top of being very funny individuals. The script just doesn’t do a great job of exploiting the chemistry, relying too much on the aforementioned tepid sight gags instead of strengthening the dialogue. It’s no surprise that the funniest scene after the opening is simply Dooley and Kane in a peepshow booth, trying to figure out the conspiracy while Dooley leers at a stripper (“It helps me think!” he shouts to a disgusted Kane, who quickly becomes engrossed in the show himself).

As expected, the movie devolves into a series of cliché-ridden gunfights, explosions, and car chases. Again, the writers expect to mine lazy laughs from the mere fact that two well-known comedians (not action stars) have gotten themselves into these situations. They never do the heavy lifting of actually making these action sequences funny beyond that fish-out-of-water disparity.

Ultimately, the movie is a combination of elements that should work but don’t: Candy and Levy work well together, the villains (headed by Robert Loggia and Jonathan Banks) are comically hostile, and the serviceable plot provides ample opportunity for amusing, memorable gags. The lazy script doesn’t help much, but perhaps director Mark L. Lester bears some of the blame. Mostly known for action movies (prior to this, he directed Commando and Firestarter), Lester’s work here is competent, but it’s possible he didn’t bring enough comedic energy or invention to the set.

You could do worse to while away the hours than Armed and Dangerous, but you’re better off investing in SCTV DVDs if you want to see John Candy and Eugene Levy at their best.

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SnakeEater (1989)

SnakeEater is a schlocky action movie gone bad. Great examples of the genre (Die Hard, Speed) manage to combine genuine, visceral thrills permeated by an overall sense of fun, despite the terrorist acts, murder, and rampant disregard for police protocol. Even middling examples of the genre usually retain the sense of fun, creating forgettable but eminently watchable movies. So what happens when the whimsy is creepily misguided, the action sequences are inept, and the acting is comically awful? SnakeEater.

A solid revenge story exists within the awful screenplay, but this movie is so full of incoherent distractions, the narrative verges on surreal. It opens with our hero, “Soldier” (a smug yet surprisingly affable Lorenzo Lamas), working undercover on a drug bust. After spouting some on-the-nose dialogue explaining his backstory (once part of a special Marine task force known as “the SnakeEaters,” now annoyed that he’s a cop), Soldier does three things meant to endear that actually repel: first, he convinces an attractive drug peddler to strip naked; second, he has sex with her while his superiors listen on the wire; and third, he rigs the floor with a latch that causes a bed of spikes to shoot up from the floorboards, pinning two other drug peddlers. Soldier smirks while they shriek in pain and try to clutch their bleeding feet. I know drugs are bad and all, but this is a few notches over-the-top, even for an action hero.

Now that we know our hero, it’s time for the plot to kick in. The action cuts to a totally unknown elderly couple boating down a river in an unnamed, hillbilly-infested state. A group of those hillbillies, led by Junior (Robert Scott, delivering easily the worst performance in the history of cheesy action movies, and believe me, that’s saying something), descend on the boat. The camera leers as Junior and his cronies torment the husband and wife, and it leers even more when Junior discovers their attractive daughter (Cheryl Jeans) and claims her as his own. He kills the couple, sets the boat on fire, and chains the daughter inside a shack near his broken-down home.

Turns out, the slain couple were Soldier’s parents, which obviously makes the kidnapped daughter his sister. When Soldier learns of the mysterious accident, he travels to investigate. In pretty much the only unique turn, Soldier encounters the hillbilly platoon almost immediately after arriving, and they kick his ass. Actually, the script has some other surprises in store, but they’re more inexplicable than inventive: Soldier is nursed back to health by father-daughter marina attendants (Ronnie Hawkins and Josie Bell), who first convert Soldier’s motorcycle into a jet ski (I wish I could make up something like that), then decide to help him take down Junior and his gang.

Lamas never reached the heights of Schwarzenegger or Stallone (or even Seagal), but he’s a solid, charismatic action star. The flaws in the performances rest less with him than with the uniformly terrible supporting cast (which includes Ron “Horshack” Palillo in one of the weirdest cameos in film history), ranging from “dull-eyed stare” to “cartoonishly over-the-top.” In addition to its bizarre, borderline-Kafkaesque storyline, the screenplay boasts more rape-based comedy than Yellowbeard. I know it’s a bold position to take, but I don’t find rape hijinks funny.

This leads to a larger question: are we supposed to laugh? The film portrays the hillbilly characters with all the sensitivity and nuance of The Hills Have Eyes, which is fine for an action movie, but their scenes are off-putting and tonally questionable. One could argue the scenes in which Junior repeatedly threatens to rape Jennifer, only to get interrupted, should maybe be a little suspenseful. Instead, it’s directed like a sitcom gag. You know the one: all Jack Tripper wants to do is sit down and have a sandwich, and just when he’s about to, everyone in the cast interrupts him, to increasingly hilarious effect.

George Erschbamer directs with all the flash and artistry of a snuff film, leaving the movie to be defined by the disjointed screenplay and incredibly silly actors. Erschbamer brings nothing to the table—nothing to build suspense, nothing to rein in the actors, not even anything to tie one strange scene to the next. His total lack of directorial style has a dire effect on the action sequences, as well. It’s not every director who can make raucous shootouts and barfights watch-checkingly tedious.

With most action movies, I’d shrug and say, “It’s a fun way to pass an hour and a half.” Not so with SnakeEater—it’s the sort of movie that audiences should avoid at all costs. How it managed to spawn two sequels, I’ll never know. (I’ll also never see the sequels.)

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Liberty Heights (1999)

Barry Levinson never gets better than his slice-of-life Baltimore films. Don’t get me wrong—he’s made some amazing studio films (Sleepers, The Natural) and some ambitious misfires that suggest a born filmmaker (Toys, Jimmy Hollywood), but nobody does wry, observational slice-of-life like he does. Liberty Heights stands out from his other work (Diner, Tin Men, and Avalon) because it brings the race component into it. It finally shows the darkness brimming under the typically idealized façade of Levinson’s other Baltimore films.

The three intersecting storylines follow the Kurtzman family as they attempt to expand beyond their Jewish neighborhood into the world of gentiles and African-Americans. High schooler Ben (Ben Foster) develops a crush on black classmate Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), who attends his school now that it’s integrated; 20-something Van (Adrien Brody) chases a gorgeous gentile blonde (Carolyn Murphy); and patriarch Nate (Joe Mantegna), who runs a failing burlesque house as a front for a numbers racket, has some trouble when Little Melvin (Orlando Jones) hits the number and expects a prompt $100,000 payout.

Like life, the story ambles and takes a variety of unexpected turns. In fact, what starts as a peppy, laugh-out-loud slice-of-life quickly turns into a grim yet powerful drama. Levinson presents a large ensemble of deeply flawed characters but doesn’t preach or pass judgment. They’re all bigoted, but once the characters are thrust together, they find a new understanding of the people they once feared and distrusted. If there’s a sermon to take away, it’s the notion that forced interaction is the best way to overcome bigotry and see others for what they are: people. Wisely, Levinson doesn’t spell this out.

Slice-of-life films can sometimes be a gamble. The filmmakers essentially say, “Any audience would love to watch these characters simply hang out.” Levinson has always been a master of deceptively complex plotting, giving his films the feel of characters just hanging out while a legitimately compelling story unfolds. His screenplay does a wonderful job of vividly rendering these characters.

The excellent cast aids Levinson’s screenplay enormously. Ben Foster and Adrien Brody have never been better (not even Brody’s Oscar-winning turn in The Pianist), and the veteran supporting cast (including Bebe Neuwirth, David Krumholtz, and James Pickens, Jr.) create fully realized characters despite their limited screen time. However, the real finds here are Johnson and Murphy. They both do a fantastic job with difficult, nuanced characters. It surprised me to discover neither of them did much acting before or after Liberty Heights.

Simply put, Liberty Heights is a great film. It may not be as flashy as Spike Lee’s similar (but angrier) Do the Right Thing, or as harrowing as the class warfare in something like City of God, but it’s both a great exploration of 1950s race relations and a great slice-of-life.

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Talk Radio (1988)

Why does Talk Radio feel so bland and lifeless? Eric Bogosian anchors the film with a great performance as Barry Champlain, a Tom Leykis/Howard Stern-style shock jock. Oliver Stone, an energetic filmmaker who never shies away from going a few hundred degrees over the top, directed. Yet the film itself is oddly hollow.

Could it be that time has not been kind to Talk Radio, that the nature of the callers and Barry’s reaction to them no longer hold any shock value? This will undoubtedly sound strange, but I have a sense that the main problem with the movie stems from opening it up beyond its stage roots. The film is actually at its best when it focuses on Barry and the callers, and the backstage melodrama surrounding a media conglomerate (represented by the intriguingly ineffectual John Pankow) syndicating Barry’s Dallas-based show nationally. Whenever it strays away from that, attempting to turn into a study of Barry’s many character flaws, it becomes watch-checkingly tedious.

The grueling “character study” portion of the film revolves mainly around Barry’s relationships with two women: Laura (Leslie Hope), the attractive producer he’s currently sleeping with, and Ellen (Ellen Greene), his ex-wife. Once Ellen arrives on the scene, the film grinds to a screeching halt for an extended flashback, contrasting Barry’s rise to radio prominence with the collapse of his marriage. Even though a few moments tied to these flashbacks occur in the third act—notably program director Dan (Alec Baldwin) dismissing Barry as a disposable “suit salesman” (a reference to his pre-radio job) and Ellen trying to liven up the show by calling in, resulting in caustic Barry verbally abusing her—the sequence is very long and adds little to the story beyond seeing Bogosian in a somewhat hilarious Howard Stern wig.

Similarly, the film centers on recurring threats from various redneck callers, many of who are involved in neo-Nazi organizations and have big problems with Barry’s Jewish heritage. Barry reveals himself as surprisingly well-versed in their propaganda, able to easily poke holes in their arguments and dismiss their threats as silly hoaxes. The conversations themselves are lively and engaging, but they have the unfortunate side effect of turning Talk Radio into a “message movie,” leading to an obvious, over-the-top ending that’s frustratingly unearned. The movie’s over 20 years old, but I still have reservations about ruining the ending. Let’s just say the last five minutes could have used the disinterested restraint of latter-day Oliver Stone, not the frothy melodrama of his heyday. With a more subdued ending, the bigotry subplot could have succeeded in tackling its issues subtly.

Although the film spans several days, Bogosian’s stage play takes place over the course of a single night of Barry’s show. Film and theatre are, obviously, different media, and generally straight-up “let’s just film the play”-style adaptations don’t translate well. However, Stone’s directorial style lends itself to a more straightforward adaptation, as evidenced by his skillful handling of the call-in segments that do appear in the film. (Although, on a boring technical note, Stone’s abuse of the split diopter, instead of taking the time to set up proper deep-focus shots, gets distracting—certain shots make it appear as if the background characters have paid a visit from Heaven.) Stone could have easily taken a cue from the play and made a visually compelling, emotionally energetic slice-of-life showing the inner workings of a late-night radio show. Instead, the film breaks up the radio-show scenes, surrounding them with the aforementioned redundant flashbacks, as well as scenes bluntly foreshadowing the ending.

Talk Radio has a number of great moments, and it may be worth seeing for Bogosian’s performance alone. However, the film itself is a disappointment. Fans of Bogosian would do better to check out Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (that’s not sarcasm—he’s really great in that movie).

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The Package (1989)

Andrew Davis, director of one surprisingly great Chuck Norris film (Code of Silence) and two of Steven Seagal’s best efforts (Above the Law and Under Siege), made two films that contained the story beats of a typical ’80s action flick in a much more subdued, realistic fashion. One is probably his most well-regarded work, 1993’s The Fugitive. The other is the much less well-known The Package, a Cold War relic that packs a satisfying punch despite its relative lack of action.

Gene Hackman stars as Johnny Gallagher, a Green Beret tasked with transporting a soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) back to the U.S. for a court martial. The soldier escapes, and Gallagher quickly discovers the soldier assumed the identity of a different man. However, Gallagher himself gets arrested for losing his “package,” which hinders his quest to track down the soldier and learn his true agenda. With the help of his lieutenant colonel ex-wife, Eileen (Joanna Cassidy), Gallagher escapes from military custody and tracks the unknown soldier to Chicago and quickly unravels the plan: he’s a hired assassin who needed to get into the U.S. without a passport to carry out his mission—the assassination of the President.

Here’s where the Cold War politics enter into it: the President and the Soviet General Secretary intend to sign a treaty at the site of the first nuclear reaction, the University of Chicago. The treaty will ultimately lead to total nuclear disarmament on both sides. Mysterious forces within both the U.S. and Soviet militaries don’t want this treaty to happen. Gallagher, Eileen, and ex-Green Beret-turned-Chicago cop Delich (Dennis Franz) work together to unravel this conspiracy and find the soldier—eventually identified as Boyette—before he can carry out his plan.

Like Above the Law, The Package seeks to expose corruption within the U.S. military. This puts it at odds with the majority of thrillers at this time, which painted our military as unstoppable badasses. Portraying the Army as a vast, complex organization that contains some heroes, some villains, and a hell of a lot of people occupying a tricky gray area instantly makes the film more compelling than one might expect from a Cold War thriller. Obviously, because it’s a movie, the heroes prevail, but Davis and screenwriter John Bishop never make the story as black-and-white as, say, The Delta Force.

Davis’s directorial restraint is the film’s biggest strength. From a story standpoint, The Package could have easily starred Seagal and featured long gunfights, big explosions, and trademark aikido beatings. Everything about the story screams, “Big, ballsy action movie.” Instead, Davis eschews the big spectacle in favor of quiet character moments. For instance, an early scene in which Gallagher and Eileen reflect on their divorce casts a strain over their relationship throughout the rest of the movie. Moments like these lend credibility to the outlandish conspiracy plot, giving it almost a Day of the Jackal docudrama feel.

That’s not to say the movie lacks for action. It’s fairly subdued, but it does have some well-choreographed stunt sequences—car chases, shootouts, a few explosions here and there. However, the focus on characters over squibs lends authenticity even to these sequences. In addition to that, Davis—a Chicago native—has a keen eye for the details of our miserable winters. The streets and alleys are not thoroughly plowed, causing the cars to fishtail awkwardly on turns and fail to stop. It lends the action sequences a believable sloppiness.

Davis takes full advantage of his superior cast. Hackman and Cassidy do great work at creating their uneasy relationship. Hackman plays a tough guy with more conviction than Stallone or Schwarzenegger. His menacing glare can strike more fear than all the chiseled biceps in the world. Cassidy manages to find the vulnerability in a stoic, career military woman. Although everyone in the cast does a solid job, the most noteworthy supporting players are Franz as a cheerful family man and John Heard playing a huge douche-nozzle (who, not surprisingly, plays a key role in the conspiracy).

The Package may seem like an artifact of a forgotten war against a forgotten enemy, but the skillful direction and great acting allow it to transcend its era. It remains a suspenseful, well-crafted thriller.

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Three O’Clock High (1987)

Three O’Clock High seeks to answer a question that has plagued moviegoers for generations: what would happen if John Hughes made a movie out of Franz Kafka’s The Trial? The answer is alternately funny, surreal, surprising, and suspenseful. It could have easily come apart at the seams, but director Phil Joanou and star Casey Siemaszko maintain an air of emotional honesty throughout. No matter how strange the circumstances get, it’s easy to relate to the increasing anxiety of Siemaszko’s character, Jerry Mitchell.

Jerry is pretty much a high school Everyman. He edges toward nerdy (he writes for the student paper and runs the school store), but one of the nice surprises of Three O’Clock High is its willingness to eschew the obvious high school stereotypes. Jerry never faces relentless mockery or bullying. He merely has the misfortune of crossing paths with a genuine psychopath, Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson).

Buddy has just transferred to Weaver High, after expulsion from various other local schools. Rumors swirl immediately. Buddy is most notorious for hospitalizing a dean who dared to touch him. Buddy, you see, does not like to be touched. At all. By anyone. When Jerry is tasked with interviewing him for the newspaper, he makes the mistake of playfully clapping a hand against Buddy’s shoulder. It doesn’t go over well: the comically menacing Buddy challenges Jerry to a fight after school.
 Terrified, Jerry spends the rest of the day trying to get out of it, but none of his plans work. Buddy makes short work of the hulking jock Jerry hires to fight on his behalf. He also tears the alternator out of Jerry’s car. Even Jerry’s bizarre attempt to get detention—thus preventing the showdown “honestly”—fails, for hilarious reasons I won’t spoil.

As the day drags on, Weaver High School becomes a playground for strange, colorful characters (which include Mitch Pileggi as a security guard who takes his job very seriously and Anne Ryan as Jerry’s off-kilter, psychic-obsessed girlfriend). The quirkiness of the characters contributes to the gradual fever-dream feeling that permeates the second half of the film. Everyone feels a few ticks off-center, including Jerry, and the heightened reality lends a strangely epic quality to the fight itself.

Tonally, Joanou pulls off quite a feat in portraying high school as both horrifically nightmarish and patently absurd. He trots out every trick in the slick, stylish director’s book—long Steadicam takes, perfect match cuts, super-low angles, camera movements that defy description. Flashiness like Joanou’s can get annoying when it feels like it’s overcompensating for a shallow story, but Joanou manages to make his stylistic abuse both match the action and enhance the dreamy feel of the narrative.

The story combines deft satire with an encapsulation of the average high school experience: fear, confusion, and anxiety intermingling with increasingly serious interactions with the foreign world of adults. Jerry is a kid in over his head, and Three O’Clock High ultimately reveals itself as a goofy coming-of-age story, with his decision to fight instead of run away symbolizing his ascent into manhood. Its aversion to stereotypes reveals the strange characters as deceptively complex, which again underscores the coming-of-age themes: Jerry starts to realize the cracks in the façade of the adults around him, and he realizes his classmates—and even Buddy—aren’t as boring and predictable as they may seem.

Like many ’80s high school movies, the hair, fashions, and Tangerine Dream soundtrack may seem a little dated. However, the story and characters hold up remarkably well. This is the sort of movie any teen can enjoy and relate to, but it also manages to capture the alternately fond and frustrating memories most adults feel when looking back on their high school experience. Why Three O’Clock High isn’t held in the same regard as the John Hughes oeuvre, and why the bulk of its teen cast didn’t move on to bigger and better things, mystifies me.

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