Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: A Soldier’s Story (dir by Norman Jewison)


Set during World War II, 1984’s A Soldier’s Story opens with a murder.

On a rural road outside of a segregated army base in Louisiana, someone has gunned down Sergeant Vernon Walters (Adolph Caesar).  At the time, Walters was staggering back to the base after a night of heavy drinking.  Both the local authorities and Watlers’s fellow soldiers assume that the murder was the work of the Ku Klux Klan.  Captain Richard Davenport (Howard Rollins) isn’t so sure.

Captain Davenport is the officer who has been assigned to investigate the murder.  From the minute that he arrives at the base, the soldiers stare at him.  As Cpl. Ellis (Robert Townsend) explains it, the enlisted men are shocked because they’ve never seen a black officer before.  Some of the soldiers admire Davenport while other view him with suspicion, wondering what Davenport must have done or who he must have sold out to earn his commission.

Meanwhile, the other officers (who are all white) view Davenport with a combination of condescension and hostility.  Col. Nivens (Trey Wilson) only allows Davenport three days to wrap up his investigation and assigns the polite but skeptical Capt. Taylor (Dennis Lipscomb) to work with him.  Taylor suspects that Walters may have been murdered by the openly racist Lt. Byrd (Wings Hauser!).  Davenport, however, isn’t so sure.  Even though the official story is that Walters was a tough but fair sergeant who was respected by his company, Davenport suspects that one of them may have killed him.

Davenport and Taylor start to interview the soldiers who actually had to deal with Walters on a daily basis.  Through the use of flashbacks, Walters is revealed to be a far more complex man than anyone knew.  We see that Walters was a man who was bitterly aware of the fact that, even after a lifetime of military service, he was destined to always be treated as a second-class citizen by the nation that he served.  Unable to strike out at the men who the army and society had placed over him, Walters instead struck at the men serving underneath him.  While the man in Walters’s company wait for word on whether or not they’ll be allowed to serve overseas, Davenport tries to determine if one or more of them is a murderer.

A Soldier’s Story was adapted from a play but director Norman Jewison is careful to prevent the material from becoming stagey.  Effortlessly transitioning from the film’s present to flashbacks of the events that led to Walters’s murder, Jewison crafts both an incendiary look at race relations and a compelling murder mystery.  He’s helped by a strong cast of predominately African-American actors.  In one of his earliest roles, Denzel Washington plays Pfc. Peterson with a smoldering intensity.  David Alan Grier and Robert Townsend, two actors known for their comedic skills, impress in dramatic roles.  Seen primarily in flashbacks, Adolph Caesar turns Walters into a complex monster.

And yet, with all the talent on display, it is Howard Rollins who ultimately steals the movie.  As  a character, Captain Davenport has the potential to be a rather thankless role.  He spends most of the movie listening to other people talk and, because of his status as both an officer and a black man in the rural south, he’s rarely allowed to show much anger or, for that matter, any other emotion.  However, Rollins gives a performance of such quiet intelligence that Davenport becomes the most interesting character in the movie.  He’s the ultimate outsider.  Because of his higher rank and his role as an investigator, he can’t fraternize with the enlisted men but, as an African-American, he’s still expected to remain separate from and differential to his fellow officers.  As the only black officer on a segregated base, Davenport is assigned to stay in an empty barrack.  One of the best scenes in the film is Davenport standing alone and surveying the stark layout of his temporary quarters.  The expression on his face tells you everything you need to know.

(Towards the end of the film, when Davenport finally gets a chance to drop his rigid facade and, if just for one line, be himself, you want to cheer for him.)

A Soldier’s Story was nominated for best picture but it lost to another theatrical adaptation, Milos Forman’s Amadeus.

 

A Movie A Day #262: Downtown (1990, directed by Richard Benjamin)


Alex (Anthony Edwards) is a patrolman assigned to the nicest neighborhood in Philadelphia but, after he gets in trouble for pulling over a wealthy businessman (David Clennon), he is told that he can either be suspended or he can take a transfer downtown, to the Diamond Street precinct.  Alex takes the transfer, even though everyone on the force says that “not even the Terminator would go to Diamond Street.”  Alex gets assigned to work with seasoned Sgt. Dennis Curren (Forest Whitaker), who is still emotionally scarred by the death of his former partner and does not want to have to babysit a naive white cop from the suburbs, especially one who is obsessed with the Beach Boys.  At first, Alex struggles with his new assignment and his new partner but, when an old friend is murdered by a notorious hitman (Joe Pantoliano), Alex is determined to crack the case and bring the killer to justice.

Downtown is a combination of other, better cop films: Alex’s situation is Beverly Hills Cop in reverse and his partnership with Dennis is lifted straight from Lethal Weapon.  Art Evans is the captain who is always yelling at Alex and Dennis and telling them to drop the case and the character is so familiar that I had to check to make sure that Evans had not played the same role in Lethal Weapon.  As the bad guys, Clennon and Pantoliano could just have easily been replaced by Beverly Hills Cop‘s Steven Berkoff and Jonathan Banks and no one would have noticed.  The only real difference is that Downtown is neither as exciting nor as funny as those two films.  Downtown was directed by Richard Benjamin, who will never be known as a particularly versatile filmmaker and who struggles to balance the fish-out-of-water comedy with some surprisingly brutal violence.  Beverly Hills Cops had Eddie Murphy and Lethal Weapon had Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.  Downtown has Anthony Edwards and Forest Whitaker, who are both good actors but who both seem to be woefully miscast here.  (If Downtown were made today, Whitaker could play Dennis but, in 1990, he was too young to be the cop who was “too old for this shit.”)    Of the many Lethal Weapon ripoffs that came out in late 80s and early 90s, Downtown is one of the most forgettable.

 

A Movie A Day #81: The Great White Hype (1996, directed by Reginald Hudlin)


The Rev. Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson) has a problem.  He is the richest and the best known fight promoter in America but the current (and undefeated) heavyweight champion is just too good.  No one is paying to watch James “The Grim Reaper” Roper (Damon Wayans) fight because Roper always wins.  Sultan has a plan, though.  Before Roper turned professional, he lost a fight to Terry Conklin (Peter Berg).  Conklin has long since retired from boxing and is now a heavy metal, progressive musician.  Sultan convinces Conklin to come out of retirement and face Roper in a rematch.  Since Conklin is white and Roper is black, Sultan stands to make a killing as white boxing fans get swept up in all the hype about Conklin being the latest “great white hope.”

In the days leading up to the fight, crusading journalist Mitchell Kane (Jeff Goldblum) attempts to expose the crooked Sultan before getting seduced into his inner circle.  Meanwhile, boxer Marvin Shabazz (Michael Jace) and his manager, Hassan El Rukk’n (Jamie Foxx), unsuccessfully pursue a match with Roper.  Conklin gets back into shape while Roper eats ice cream and watches Dolemite.

In its attempt to satirize boxing, The Great White Hype runs into a huge problem.  The fight game is already so shady that it is beyond satire.  This was especially true in the 90s, when the The Great White Hype was first released.  (Even more than the famous Larry Holmes/Gerry Cooney title fight, The Great White Hype’s obvious inspiration was the heavily promoted, two-minute fight between Mike Tyson and Peter McNeeley.)  The Great White Hype is a very busy film but nothing in it can match Oliver McCall’s mental breakdown in the middle of his fight with Lennox Lewis, Andrew Golota twice fighting Riddick Bowe and twice getting disqualified for low blows, or Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear.

The Great White Hype has an only in the 90s supporting cast, featuring everyone from Jon Lovitz to Cheech Marin to, for some reason, Corbin Bernsen.  Damon Wayans is the least convincing heavyweight champion since Tommy Morrison essentially played himself in Rocky V.  The Rev. Sultan was meant to be a take on Don King and Samuel L. Jackson was a good pick for the role but the real Don King is so openly corrupt and flamboyant that he’s almost immune to parody.

When it comes to trying to take down Don King, I think Duke puts it best.