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Shortcut to Happiness (2001/2004/2007?)

When I saw Shortcut to Happiness in this month’s cable listings, I thought, What? A comedy with Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, and Jennifer Love Hewitt, and I’ve never even heard of it? I figured, at the bare minimum, I would have seen a couple of reviews when it was released in 2004. How could a movie with such well-known actors, produced and directed by star Alec Baldwin, slip through the cracks?

It’s impossible to review this movie without acknowledging its troubled production history. After all, its most significant problems—editing and music—are rooted in post-production, and Baldwin had left the project and removed his name from the director credit long before post-production was completed. So here it is in brief: principal photography was completed in 2001, but the investors lied about having enough money to make the film. Consequently, according to Baldwin, the investors were investigated for bank fraud and “the Feds” took the film away from him. Once the Feds released the film, a rough, incomplete cut was screened at film festivals in 2004, in the hopes of securing funds to complete it. When that didn’t work, Baldwin left the project. It languished because, in the midst of the chaos, the film’s production company had gone through all sorts of splitting, merging, and absorbing, so half a dozen companies claimed ownership, each cutting their own versions of the film. Thanks, one assumes, to Baldwin’s high-profile, Emmy-winning role in 30 Rock, producer Bob Yari picked the film up in 2007 and sold one of the many cuts to Starz, sandwiched between more well-known movies like The Illusionist and Find Me Guilty. There it remains, playing regularly on Starz, unavailable on DVD.

Buried within the mediocre end result is a fairly compelling comedy about the meaning of success—should one sell out for money and fame or commit to a more spiritually rewarding but less lucrative path? Baldwin plays Jabez Stone, a struggling New York writer who believes he’s finally writing something worthwhile. Unfortunately, nobody will read his first novel, much less his incomplete second novel. Desperate, he sends the first manuscript directly to high-profile editor Daniel Webster (Anthony Hopkins). To Stone’s surprise, Webster actually reads it, but he does not like it. One fateful night, muggers steal Stone’s laptop—which contains the only copy of his new novel—and his typewriter breaks. Enraged, Stone hurls his typewriter out the window of his apartment and kills an elderly woman.

This is the film’s crossroads. It could have developed into a much more interesting movie had they continued down this path. However, Jennifer Love Hewitt shows up as a variation on the Devil, and it starts to adhere rigidly to the basic plot of “The Devil and Daniel Webster”: Stone trades his soul for 10 years of fame and fortune but quickly finds the price—loss of friends (both literally and figuratively), loss of time, and loss of dignity—is too high. Stone is forced into the position of hired hack, pumping out beach reads quickly and efficiently. In one of the funniest running gags, the titles of Stone’s novels suggest the vacuous redundancy within its pages: A Loss of Feeling, Remembrance of a Loss of Feeling, and (my personal favorite) A Certain Numbness of the Extremities.

As expected, the third act revolves around a trial for Stone’s soul, with Webster arguing on his behalf in front of a jury populated by famous authors and presided over by Stone’s successful former friend (Dan Aykroyd), who was killed in order for Stone to achieve his success. In a film that contains many sharp jokes aimed at the entertainment industry, and strong performances by everyone (including, surprisingly, Hewitt, who is cute but generally the weak link in every film she’s in), this third act feels like a bit of a cop-out. Since its 1937 publication, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” has had so many spoofs, homages, and adaptations, the trial for Stone’s soul lacks suspense and emotional punch through sheer overuse. The screenwriters have multiple opportunities to stray off the beaten path of their source material, but every time it seems like the story will head in a more interesting direction, it snaps back to a story that has, unfortunately, become a cliché.

Although the third act can be blamed on Baldwin and his screenwriters, it’s not the film’s biggest problem. The film’s stilted editing causes each shot to hang a half-beat too long, which is the death knell for a comedy. The dialogue has a vaguely screwball patter that sort of works when both actors are in the same shot. Whenever the film cuts back and forth between two or more characters, the timing gets thrown off. Compounding the problem are the ill-fitting musical selections, which seem haphazard and almost never fit the tone of the scene. It feels like somebody involved in the production owned the rights to a handful of pop songs and tossed them in because it was cheaper than composing original music.

Better choices may have salvaged this film, but it’s a moot point. What matters is how the film turned out, and the answer is, unfortunately, “Not well.” I can lament the wasted cast or the troubled production destroying the possibilities of a good film, but that doesn’t change what it is: a mediocre curiosity that’s ultimately not worth seeing.

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Quigley Down Under (1990)

In the ’80s, the U.S. experienced a short-lived fascination with Australian culture. I chronicle this fleeting obsession in detail in my 3500-page nonfiction book Why the ’80s Should Hold Nostalgia for No One: Essays on Unpopular Culture. Quigley Down Under came at the tail-end of this cultural shockwave, right around the time Americans started to pay attention to Australia’s dark side and lost interest in the country. A well-made if unexceptional western, the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does tweak the conventions just enough to remain compelling and avoid the most obvious clichés of the genre.

The story revolves around Matt Quigley (Tom Selleck), an American sharpshooter who arrives in Australia to work for Marston (Alan Rickman). Immediately after his arrival, he encounters Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo) being forced onto a wagon to work as a prostitute for Marston. When Quigley discovers Marston has hired him to kill the aborigines on his land (“They always manage to remain just out of rifle range,” he laments), he reacts by tossing his new employer through a glass door. Not surprisingly, Marston has his men take Quigley and Cora (who is convinced Quigley is her husband, Roy) out into the desert to kill them. That Quigley manages to escape from certain death and rescue Cora comes as no surprise.

The remainder of the story focuses mainly on developing the difficult relationship between Quigley and Cora. This is the film’s major strength, as it allows Quigley to have more depth than the traditional taciturn outlaw, and it allows Cora to become one of the western genre’s great female characters, on par with Jill McBain from Once Upon a Time in the West or, I don’t know, Cat Ballou. When finally revealed, her backstory is heartbreaking, and the way it shapes her current actions (including mental illness that may or may not be affected to keep others at a distance) makes the development of her relationship with Quigley a treat to watch.

The battle of wits between Quigley and Marston is almost relegated to “subplot” status, but that’s okay because it’s a little disappointing. Selleck and Rickman both do fine work in their roles, but the screenplay has them separated for nearly the entire film, which makes their mutual disdain less than palpable. Marston’s only solution to the Quigley problem is sending more men after him. Considering the ease with which Quigley keeps killing his men, it seems like Marston would think outside the box a little. Nevertheless, the final showdown—which, true to Marston’s wide-eyed obsession with American cowboys, echoes the quick-draw cliché of many westerns—is satisfying.

Director Simon Wincer does a great job showing off his native Australia. Despite the story’s somewhat unsavory, anti-Aussie bent, he makes every shot look like an inviting, panoramic postcard. Although he does a fine job with the banter-laden romantic scenes between Quigley and Cora, Wincer struggles—as I imagine any director would—to make the action sequences truly exciting. When the protagonist’s main method of dispatching the bad guys consists of shooting at them from great distances, there’s only so much he can do to make it a thrill-ride. Luckily, the story focuses more on the romance than the action, so these awkwardly orchestrated sequences pass by quickly enough to continue enjoying the movie.

All in all, Quigley Down Under is not a perfect movie. The hero hides behind rocks and shoots at people from ¾ of a mile away, the villain is marginalized throughout most of the second act, and the direction is competent but uninspired—yet the performances and the presence of Crazy Cora make up for the movie’s other flaws. It’s a fun, consistently engaging neo-western.

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Thirteen Days (2000)

Docudramas are a precarious high-wire act. A filmmaker must take an event well-known by the general public and pack it with the drama and suspense necessary to make a quality film. A writer must manipulate facts in order to create a dramatically satisfying narrative without straying so far from the truth that it might as well be fiction. Actors must portray well-known figures without coming across like a Saturday Night Live impressionist—impeccable, yet soulless. In all cases, even the tiniest misstep can cause the whole film to fall apart instantly.

Despite Kevin Costner’s attempt at a Boston accent, Thirteen Days doesn’t make those missteps. It takes place largely in three rooms within the White House and focuses primarily on “special assistant to the President” Kenny O’Donnell (Costner) and the Kennedy brothers (Bruce Greenwood as the President, Steven Culp as Bobby—both excellent), but it manages to have a sweeping, epic quality. The film gives audiences a fly-on-the-wall view of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 13 days in which the U.S. and Soviet Union hovered on the precipice of nuclear war. Like the film itself, the events depict a diplomatic dance, and any tiny misstep could have potentially destroyed the world. Stakes don’t get higher than that.

The story wisely presents itself as a talky political thriller. It avoids melodramatic pitfalls by emphasizing the work, not the personal lives of the people doing the job. It defines the characters by how they react to the discovery of incomplete Soviet missiles on Cuban soil, rather than showing their family lives. Only O’Donnell’s family is seen, but writer David Self and director Roger Donaldson handle these moments with appropriate restraint. Even O’Donnell’s desperate warning for his family to leave town doesn’t go over-the-top. The dialogue (much of it allegedly taken directly from recordings Kennedy made during this time) crackles with tension without being too showy or clever.

More than anything, Thirteen Days is a film about strained working relationships—within the federal government, between the U.S. and the Soviets, between the Kennedys and O’Donnell—trying to remain civil during a difficult time. The drama and suspense comes from these long-existing tensions finally boiling over. Excellent acting across the board helps to convey the characters’ thinly veiled hostility without spelling everything out. Every role has a lived-in feel, including what amounts to glorified cameos by Christopher Lawford and Charles Esten as pilots who sense danger when they keep getting calls from the President and his inner circle. Even Costner, despite his struggles to maintain a working-class “Southie” accent, does a terrific job as O’Donnell, who effectively serves as the conscience for the Kennedy brothers.

Despite his varied career, Donaldson has never made as good a film before or since, which is disappointing. He manages the nearly impossible feat of making the familiar Cuban Missile Crisis into an unpredictable, nail-biting thriller. He also shows great skill at working with actors that doesn’t really shine through in films like Species or Dante’s Peak.

Thirteen Days holds up as one of the most well-made docudramas of recent years. It’s well worth seeing for anyone interested in the Cuban Missile Crisis but not quite interested enough to pick up the daunting 800-page book on which the film is based.

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The Professionals (1966)

The Professionals has all the elements of a classic western: an all-star cast, excellent production values, interesting characters, sweat-inducing location shooting in Death Valley, and a plot with a few genuine surprises. All these elements, while solid individually, just don’t hang together as well as they should. Don’t get me wrong—it has its moments, but as a whole, it’s unsatisfying.

The plot begins with a simple setup: the new wife of a wealthy man (Ralph Bellamy) has been kidnapped by Mexican revolutionary Jesús Raza (Jack Palance with a tan and an awful Frito Bandito accent), so he offers $100,000 to a team of “professionals” to kidnap her back. These include Rico Fardan (Lee Marvin), a serious-minded weapons expert and general leader of the pack; Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), a skirt-chasing explosives expert whose shady past gives him a personal connection to Raza; Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), a horse wrangler; and Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), a badass with Apache tracking and bow-and-arrow skills.

What follows is basically a mash-up of The Magnificent Seven and Ocean’s Eleven: a Wild West heist to retrieve Mrs. Maria Grant (Claudia Cardinale, not dubbed for once) from her captor. The heist sequence is engaging and incredibly well done. The only problem is, it’s too short, taking up about 10 minutes of the film. The preparation for and execution of the heist goes by quickly enough to be disappointing. Writer/director Richard Brooks spends a slow hour with the professionals moving through Mexico toward their destination. In between lengthy gunfights with Mexican banditos, Brooks takes his time establishing the characters, their contributions to the team, and the minutiae of what they do. The attention to detail would be admirable in a more exciting film, but the characters all seem bored with each other and the work they do. This isn’t necessarily the fault of Brooks or the actors—this is a professional crew of people who know each other, know how to work together, and have pulled similar jobs before. The aloofness toward each other and the complexities of the plot fits the characters, but it doesn’t make them engaging.

Aside from establishing the characters, very little of what occurs in the first hour pays off in the second. The second half is generally more engaging than the first, focusing on the messy aftermath of the heist and throwing in unexpected plot twists to keep things interesting. Still, Raza doesn’t have the screen time or character development to work as an effective villain. Hell, the sultry/trampy Chiquita (Marie Gomez) has more depth than Raza does. Brooks should have done a better job of building him up in the audience’s mind, making us fear him long before he makes an appearance. Early references to his skills as a soldier don’t cast that needed pall over his character, making the climactic shootout feel more like an unneeded distraction than the clashing of titans.

Maybe it’s my fault. I go into every western expecting it to blow my mind the way Once Upon a Time in the West did, but few films (western or otherwise) live up to that towering cinematic achievement. Whatever the reason, The Professionals just didn’t work for me. Fans of Brooks (and Lancaster) would do better to check out Elmer Gantry. It’s not a western, but it’s fantastic.

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Zero Effect (1998)

In many stories, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is described by longtime business associate Watson as a disorganized bohemian, a man who lives in chaos of his own making and refuses to adhere to “social convention.” And yet, in what appears to be the mess of his personal life, Holmes hides an expansive knowledge of human behavior and an unparalleled attention to detail that, to modern audiences, might make him seem like both a walking contradiction and a cartoon character. In Zero Effect, writer/producer/director Jake Kasdan accomplishes the fairly monumental task of bringing Holmes into the modern era through the character of Daryl Zero.

Kasdan introduces Zero before we ever meet him, through dueling monologues by the same character—Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), his “messenger”—who first tries to sell Zero’s services to wealthy client Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal), then complains relentlessly about him to a friend. Essentially a recluse, Zero lives in a penthouse suite protected by a mammoth vault security door (beyond which is another door containing six individual bolt locks) that would disgust the people featured on Hoarders. He subsists on canned tuna and Tab, writes terrible folk songs, doesn’t bathe or shave, and abuses Arlo for no apparent reason.

When Zero gets on a case, he becomes a different person. As he himself puts it (narrating his own story as he writes a memoir that will be read by no one), he blends in by “looking at what normal people do and trying to copy it.” That’s not to say he’s not still eccentric. He employs an astonishing, increasingly hilarious number of cover identities and disguises as a result of deep-seated paranoia. He even brings Arlo to the Portland airport just to tell him to go back to L.A., via pay phones a few feet away from each other, because he refuses to use long-distance lines (“They listen, you know.”).

Zero’s working method consists of what he calls “the two obs”: objectivity and observation. He refuses to meet with clients, which is why Arlo serves as his messenger to the outside world, because he doesn’t trust them. They always have something to hide, and the only way Zero can objectively assess them is by donning a disguise and watching. He has mastered the art of detachment. He also gives names to all his cases, such as “The Case of the Hitman Who Made Way, Way Too Many Mistakes.”

The film balances three central ideas: the crumbling working relationship between Zero and long-suffering Arlo, a blossoming romance—possibly Zero’s first ever—with paramedic Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), and a mystery plot that rivals classic film noir. Gregory Stark hires Zero to find a set of missing keys but refuses to tell Arlo anything useful, which strikes them both as suspicious. The search for a set of keys leads to extortion and a tangled murder plot. One of the great joys of the film is watching the way this mystery unfolds in tandem with the character study. The web gets more and more tangled until Zero finally puts all the pieces together—but the solution could jeopardize the relationship he has formed with Gloria. Will Zero forsake “the two obs” for love?

It amazes me that a movie starring Bill “President Independence Day” Pullman and Ben “There’s Something About Mary” Stiller did a box-office belly flop and became a footnote in cult-film history. The always reliable Pullman has never been better than Zero, an extremely difficult character to pull off (why do you think most Holmes films omit the seeming contradictions of his personal life?). Stiller turns in a great, conflicted performance as Arlo, who knows how much Zero depends on him but feels the need to break away and resume living his own life. I’ve always felt Stiller is underrated generally, because so many of his memorable roles take him a few shades over the top, and anyone who disagrees with me should watch this movie. Dickens has the role of femme fatale, but she plays Gloria as a real person, not Jessica Rabbit. Her performance alone adds a needed layer of complexity to an often thankless, one-note archetype. The only thing I can say about the slimy weasel played by Ryan O’Neal is that I wish O’Neal worked more. Has he been less than great in anything?

Zero Effect has convinced me that Jake Kasdan should have the same sort of career Jason Reitman (another second-generation director) has: an accolade-garnering studio-backed-indie darling. Although he’s done some great work, particularly in TV, he’s never lived up to this debut, and that’s a shame.

Nevertheless, we’ll always have Zero Effect, one hell of a great film. Anybody who enjoys comedy, “quirky” characters, and well-crafted mysteries will love it.

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All the Right Moves (1983)

All the Right Moves has all the earmarks of a sports movie, but it isn’t one. It’s telling that the epic football game usually saved for the climactic sequence occurs in the middle of the film. The ragtag, diverse students populating the team have already learned to work together and support each other. Although it falls into some of the trappings of the teen-angst genre, All the Right Moves defies clichés at almost every turn. It’s not a great film, but it’s a very good one.

In one of his earliest roles, Tom Cruise stars as Stefan “Stef” Djordjevic. In a rare defiance of the super-cool Tom Cruise persona—defined in Risky Business, two short months prior to this film’s release—Stef’s cocky grin and wise-ass attitude get him into major trouble. See, Stef comes from Ampipe, a depressed steel town outside of Pittsburgh named for the steel mill that created it: American Pipe & Steel. Everyone Stef knows works at a mill that sees more layoffs every day. As one of the best players on the Ampipe High football team, he has a chance to do exactly what he wants to do: get out of Ampipe and make something of himself. One would assume he wouldn’t risk everything to condescendingly tell the only interested recruiter (Terry O’Quinn in what could be considered a cameo, except nobody knew who the hell he was in 1983) that he’s looking at other colleges first, but that’s just who he is: a justifiably arrogant kid who thinks he’s untouchable.

This drives Coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) crazy. He sees Stef’s potential, but he knows no college will want a kid with an attitude like his. Stef frequently undermines Nickerson’s authority on the practice field, doesn’t take his studies or his game very seriously—in short, he doesn’t live up to his potential. He coasts on natural talent, when Nickerson sees someone who could achieve greatness if only he’d apply himself. It’s a credit to the movie that my description of these conflicts are much blander and more on-the-nose than anything in Michael Kane’s script.

The film drastically shifts tones after the aforementioned epic game. Its first half feels like a cheery teen flick with a few dark edges (enhanced by the permanently rainy Pennsylvania autumn), but Ampipe’s narrow loss to Walnut Heights (those rich bastards!) jeopardizes possibilities for everyone. Stef’s lashing out gets him thrown off the team (with one game left) and in hot water with his girlfriend, Lisa (Lea Thompson). Nickerson may lose the opportunity to coach a college team. Stef’s best friends—with whom he intended to go to college—obliterate their chances of getting out of Ampipe: Brian (Chris Penn) impregnates his girlfriend, and Salvucci (Paul Carafotes) desperately robs a liquor store to support his struggling family.

Director Michael Chapman handles the tonal shift well, never overplaying the drama even as the dialogue veers into melodramatic territory. He keeps the actors restrained and keeps the conflict focused on Stef and Nickerson more than any other character. The others get their moments—for instance, Lisa eventually admits her anger stems less from Stef’s mistreatment of her (and overwhelming desire to deflower her) than the fact that he’ll get out of town and she’ll never have a better opportunity than grocery clerk in Ampipe—but this is a story about both Stef and Nickerson learning humility from each other. The construction of this conflict is astoundingly nuanced for a teen-movie era defined by Porky’s. Overall, All the Right Moves has more in common with Diner or Breaking Away. In fact, it has a lot in common with the latter, without really feeling too derivative.

Another great strength of Chapman’s direction (and possibly Kane’s script) is the focus on the smaller details. Eternal pep assemblies that even bore the players, pre-game rituals (like touching a game ball from 1960, which one assumes—but the film never says—was the last time Ampipe won a championship), endless bus rides to rival schools, and the muck and mire of the post-game locker room lend refreshing authenticity to the proceedings.

All the Right Moves does a wonderful job making a familiar story seem like uncharted territory. It boasts strong performances (even typical weak-link Thompson is elevated by the film surrounding her), a sharp eye for detail, and a compelling teen-angst story that remains relatable twenty-five years later. It’s much more than an early curiosity from one of the biggest stars of his generation.

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Modern Problems (1981)

The title and opening scenes of Modern Problems suggest an absurd yet deft satire of modern life. Air traffic controller Max (Chevy Chase) seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he struggles to make it through a day in a heightened universe where dead pilots are commonplace, coworkers light their cigarettes off the flaming remains of a damaged radar screen, street thugs key employee cars in the airport parking lot, and traffic that makes Chicago look like Cedar Rapids plagues New York City. At the end of the day, Max discovers via an answering machine message that longtime girlfriend Darcy (Patti D’Arbanville) has left him, prompting him to wallow in self-pity. This is a great setup for a sly (if slightly cartoonish) comedy about, well…modern problems. Unfortunately, Max develops telekinesis, which ruins everything.

See, Max’s emotional state further deteriorates when he runs into an old friend, Brian (Brian Doyle-Murray), a wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet who’s far more successful than Max. Max takes his ex-wife (Mary Kay Place) to a party Brian’s publishing company is throwing at a gay bar and gets frustrated when she’s attracted to Brian. He gets more frustrated when Darcy shows up with a new boyfriend. On his way home, Max tailgates a leaking tanker truck filled with radioactive waste, and when he wakes up in the morning, he has telekinetic powers.

This development could have been a golden opportunity for Modern Problems, but it causes the movie to lose steam in a hurry. The inspired satire of the first act disappears when the big telekinesis set pieces take over. Max tries to win Darcy back by giving her new boyfriend a gushing nosebleed and ruining a ballet the new boyfriend has produced. Believe it or not, this actually works, so Max uses his powers to give Darcy the best sexual experience of her life. All of these sequences pretty much fall flat, in part as a result of Chase’s relentless mugging during the mostly silent telekinesis.

The second half of the film focuses on Max and Darcy spending the weekend at Brian’s beach house, along with Max’s ex-wife and Brian’s star author, Mark Winslow (Dabney Coleman). Winslow is a deluded womanizer so convinced of his own righteousness that he’s turned himself into a sleazy self-help guru eerily reminiscent of Dr. Phil. Coleman manages to find the humanity in this shallow, underwritten character, making him pretty much the only reason to watch the second half.

By the time Max has turned into a full-blown monster, it’s hard to still care about him or his romantic life. It seems like he has bigger problems than that, but director/co-writer Ken Shapiro insistently keeps everything too focused on Max and Darcy. I would ordinarily consider this a strength—usually the problem I have with films is that they lose focus on the characters in favor of goofy plot twists—but the writers never show why Max and Darcy got together in the first place or why Max feels they need to stay together. The only thing said about their relationship is that Darcy left Max because he gets too jealous. This is underscored by the way Max handles Darcy’s other love interests, but he never overcomes the problem, yet (predictable-movie spoiler alert) he still gets the girl. The film shovels a happy ending down our throats that feels frustratingly unearned.

Overall, Modern Problems qualifies as a serious missed opportunity. Early on, Shapiro tries to bring the same dark-edged, anarchic absurdity he brought to his only other directorial credit, 1974’s ambitious but uneven The Groove Tube. However, the film gets so distracted by its high-concept goofiness, it never takes the time to make us care about any of the characters, including Max. Even Chevy Chase fans will want to skip this one.

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Death Hunt (1981)

Inspired by the real-life 1931 manhunt for “The Mad Trapper,” Albert Johnson, Death Hunt takes a grim, gray look at the idea of heroes and villains in the last frontier: the Yukon. Although the film has a phenomenal pedigree (including director Peter R. Hunt, known for editing the first half-dozen James Bond movies and directing that franchise’s most underrated entry, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), the film gets too distracted by the manhunt to work as a moody character study. Unfortunately, the manhunt itself is much less interesting than the people involved in it. This makes Death Hunt a well-made disappointment, with a great first half and a dull second half.

Charles Bronson stars as Johnson, a stoic loner who runs afoul of Hazel (Ed Lauter, continuing his tradition of playing the most unpleasant character in whatever movie he’s appearing in). Hazel sets up dogfights for the enjoyment of the local miners, and Johnson does not like dogfights. He beats the holy hell out of Hazel, then buys one of the bloodied, mangled dogs and nurses him back to health. Hazel complains to the local mounted police, led by Sergeant Edgar Millen (Lee Marvin). If you think the idea of Lee Marvin as a Canadian Mountie is surreal, you’re not alone. It gets more surreal when Carl Weathers shows up as Millen’s right-hand man, Sundog. The new recruit, Constable Alvin Adams (Andrew Stevens), finds the illegal dogfights more disconcerting than the alleged dog theft, but as Millen grimly foreshadows, “It’s better than them fighting each other.”

Hazel assembles a posse of mostly comic-relief characters to take down Johnson, but he’s a better shot. He kills one of Hazel’s men, which forces the reluctant Millen to finally act. Fully aware that Johnson acted in self-defense, Millen comes to his isolated cabin to reason with him. He gets through to Johnson, but everything goes to hell when Hazel and his men open fire. Johnson immediately loses his trust in Millen, and what follows is a ridiculously violent standoff followed by a lengthy manhunt through the Canadian Rockies.

The early parts of the film revel in the characters and environment. I went into the experience knowing nothing about the plot or its real-life basis, and I thoroughly enjoyed the way it established characters, setting, and tone without tipping its hand about the plot’s direction. When the plot finally gets going, though, it’s a disappointment. It seems as if the first act wants to pit Johnson against Hazel, with Millen and his men trying to keep the peace in a largely lawless town.

Instead, the film brings in an Air Force captain (Scott Hylands) to challenge Millen’s competence, shifting the conflict in a different, unsatisfying direction. In addition to relying on endless biplane footage, the film starts to ignore the characters and conflicts it set up in the first act. Maybe that would have succeeded if the new ideas it brought in were more interesting than what it left behind. One could argue that these flaws exist because the filmmakers wanted to stick to the facts of the Mad Trapper manhunt, but apparently they didn’t. The true story does not paint Johnson as terribly sympathetic: Rather than rescuing a poor, defenseless dog from a sinister man, Johnson was reported to the constabulary for springing competitors’ traps, and he murdered most of the Mounties who pursued him (including Edgar Millen, at whom he laughed when his shot killed him) long before they desperately brought in expert trackers and bush pilots to aid in the search.

Despite the film’s overall problems, Bronson and Marvin do great work in the lead roles. In particular, Bronson shines in a surprising scene in which Johnson finds himself seriously affected by “My Darling Clementine.” The film doesn’t delve into his backstory, but Johnson’s reaction to it communicates deep-seated pain and vulnerability that pretty much says everything we need to know about this character. Bronson rarely has opportunities to express such emotional depth in his characters, but he manages to make the pain resonate despite us not knowing the details of its genesis. Marvin doesn’t have any standout scenes like this, but he’s reliable as ever as the tough yet conflicted peacemaker.

I can’t help feeling disappointed in Death Hunt. Its combined elements could have made it great, but the script lets the film down. What it gets right almost makes it worth watching, but it’s just not quite good enough to recommend.

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The Detective (1968)

The Detective drops an ethical, tough-as-nails film noir antihero into a mystery story designed to tackle every conceivable issue plaguing late-’60s New York City: police/political corruption, corporate greed, racism, sexism, homophobia, divorce, psychiatry, hippies, casual sex, and even-more-casual drug use. It’s a good but not great film that earns some bonus points for not biting off more than it can chew, despite its expansive social agenda.

Frank Sinatra stars as Joe Leland, an NYPD detective who pretty much hates everything and everyone around him. Of course, he has reason to: everything surrounding him is in moral and ethical decay, starting with the alarming killing that opens the film. They find the victim, a wealthy homosexual, splayed on the floor of his posh apartment. The killer has bashed in the man’s face and removed his penis and a few fingers. A cursory investigation leads them to a mostly harmless nutjob (Tony Musante) whose coerced confession gets him the electric chair (in record time, it would seem). Needless to say, Leland never quite believes the confession, even though he’s the one who coerces it, and his success lands him an unwanted promotion to lieutenant.

Some time later, beautiful Norma MacIver (Jacqueline Bisset) asks Leland for help. Her husband’s recent death was ruled a suicide, but she refuses to believe it. Leland investigates, and if you think this case has no relation to the film’s opening murder, you’ve never seen a detective movie.

The script by Abby Mann balances the mysteries with frequently depressing dalliances into Leland’s personal life. He tries to reconnect with his estranged ex-wife, Karen (Lee Remick), a sex-addicted hippie whose constant cheating led to their divorce. His efforts work about as well as you might expect, but I appreciated this glimpse into the hoary aftermath of a relationship gone south. Usually hardboiled detective fiction revolves around femme fatales—the detectives fall for them and get betrayed, so the relationship doesn’t last long enough collapse naturally. Leland’s relationship with Karen hints at a vulnerability rarely explored in this sort of character.

Frank Sinatra gives what should have been considered a career-defining performance, if not for the fact that he made only a few more films after The Detective. Aside from his deserved Oscar-winning turn in The Manchurian Candidate, Sinatra rarely showed much range as an actor, capitalizing more on charisma and his built-in popularity as a singer than commitment to character and trying to deliver the best possible performance. The Detective came at a strange time in his career, though: after the explosion of Beatlemania, he found both his singing and acting careers waning. Supporting my personal theory that adversity breeds real art, in the late ’60s Sinatra dared to star in a wild, gritty detective movie (which makes Dragnet the series look like Dragnet the movie) and record a great, depressing concept album about divorce (1970’s Watertown).

Sinatra plays Joe Leland as the consummate hardboiled detective: a cynic who follows his own internal set of rules and doesn’t much care what anyone else does—so long as it doesn’t interfere with his investigation. The film presents him as a man both out of touch with the modern age but ultimately more progressive than those around him: he’s not interested in the race or sexual preference of suspects, leading him to clash with other detectives (notably a young Robert Duvall). Still, he can’t understand things like psychiatry and sexual addiction, and he really doesn’t want to. Such things don’t fit with the way he sees the world. He’s less angry and frustrated than disenchanted and world-weary.

Though the film is driven by Sinatra’s remarkable performance, a terrific supporting cast surrounds him. Remick does some of her best work as Leland’s conflicted yet resentful ex-wife. The film depicts their relationship (from beginning to end) through sometimes awkward flashbacks that present an unusually balanced portrait of a relationship that was doomed from the start. Jack Klugman gives an alternately funny and tragic performance as the only cop Leland trusts, Lloyd Bochner chews scenery as perhaps the world’s sleaziest psychiatrist, and Duvall manages to play a dirty cop with an intensity that makes his over-the-top dialogue believable. Bisset doesn’t have much to do besides look pretty, but she’s quite good at that.

Although it has some unfortunate choices typical of late-’60s cinema (particularly the trippy focus effects used to take us into and out of flashbacks), the film’s frank, bordering-on-disinterested handling of the shocking crimes and the gritty, vérité-style production is a precursor to bona fide classics like The French Connection and Serpico. Although a hit when it came out in 1968, The Detective has not endured like those films. That’s a real shame.

Random Movie-Nerd Trivia: In The Detective, Lloyd Bochner played sleazy Dr. Wendell. Twenty years later, Bochner’s son, Hart, played sleazy Harry Ellis in Die Hard. You remember him—the coke-snorting yuppie who famously declared, “Hans, bubi, I’m your white knight”? Well, it gets weirder: Roderick Thorp wrote the novel on which The Detective was based. In 1979, he wrote a direct sequel called Nothing Lasts Forever. This novel became the source for Die Hard.

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Monster Dog (1984)

Camp can’t be created in a lab. This is why I don’t particularly like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the musical remake of Reefer Madness, or the work of John Waters. Filmmakers setting their sights on a campy tone will invariably fail. Camp stems naturally from a combination the filmmakers’ utter seriousness and incredible incompetence. I say this to justify giving Monster Dog a three-star review: it’s a poorly made, remarkably stupid movie that manages to entertain through laughable attempts at scares and gore.

Rock star Alice Cooper stretches his acting muscles as rock star Vincent Raven, who has returned to his hometown for the first time in 20 years. Vincent’s unofficial exile came as a result of an angry mob of townspeople blaming his father for wild packs of dogs murdering locals. See, they thought Vincent’s dad was a werewolf, capable of controlling the minds of all dogs and leading them to murder along with his big, bulky werewolf self. Vincent never believed the rumors, but the crimes never had a more logical explanation and mysteriously stopped after the mob killed Vincent’s father.

As Vincent and his pals roll into town to shoot his latest music video, the sheriff stops them to announce that wild dogs have resumed their killing spree. The sheriff suspects Vincent and alludes to his family’s origins. So does a mysterious old man covered in blood who shambles out of the woods to warn them to stay away. So does Angela (Pepita James), Vincent’s sexy psychic friend. She has prophetic, gore-filled dreams of Vincent turning into a werewolf and killing everyone. This leads Vincent to question himself and his family, and it also leads his longtime girlfriend, Sandra (Victoria Vera), to do the same.

The introspection doesn’t last long, however. They have a music video to shoot. Their arrival at Vincent’s childhood home might be the moment that defines this movie’s campiness. You see, Vincent’s childhood home is terrifying, reminiscent of Carfax Abbey in the 1931 Dracula, but nobody seems to notice it. In fact, they arrive at the huge, ominous structure and cheerfully praise the huge WELCOME VINCENT sign flapping eerily in the wind.

In this age of irony, characters would have commented on the ridiculous, over-the-top horror-movie castle as looking like something out of a bad horror movie. But Monster Dog actually is a bad horror movie, so its characters simply accept the setting. Overall, the movie is pretty humorless, aside from an intentionally silly music video for Cooper’s “Identity Crisis” bookending the film to pad its runtime. Yet, writer/director Claudio Fragasso (who made the notorious Troll 2, another camp classic) approaches the subject matter with a heady blend of sincerity and stupidity. This makes a movie that could have been dull and agonizing into a charming, briskly paced unintentional comedy.

Cooper and Vera deliver surprisingly credible performances, but there’s more to the story than that. When I first heard Cooper speak, his voice seemed eerily familiar, and not because I’ve seen Wayne’s World about 900 times. Something about his folksy speech pattern made me first think, “Who does his voice remind me of?” and then, “Wow, he missed his calling as a voiceover guy.” Turns out, he didn’t: it’s not Alice Cooper’s voice. All of Cooper’s dialogue was dubbed by legendary voiceover artist Ted Rusoff, who dubbed voices in an inordinate amount of bad European exploitation films, from Cannibal Apocalypse to Black Emmanuelle 2. I have no idea who dubbed Vera (who is Spanish, like the rest of the cast), but like most dubbed movies, the incongruity of voice and action/expression adds an additional layer of goofy charm.

Make no mistake: this is not a good film. It entertained me, but not because of any of its redeeming qualities. Those who enjoy silly horror/exploitation films could do a lot worse than Monster Dog. Those who think life is too short to spend 80 minutes watching a bad (but smile-inducing) film should stay away.

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