The 1987 film, Best Seller, tells the story of two men, both equally capable of violence but with two very different moral codes.
Dennis Meechum (Brian Dennehy) is a cop who also writes true crime. In the early 70s, he was the one of several cops who were attacked by a group of gunmen who were all wearing Richard Nixon masks. Though he was shot, Meechum survived and he even managed to stab one his assailants. 15 years later, Meechum is still haunted by the incident. Meechum is a brawler who doesn’t have much time for nonsense but he also has a strong moral code (or so he thinks).
Cleve (James Woods) talks fast and always seems like he’s a little bit nervous. He has a quick smile and a joke for almost every occasion. He’s also a professional assassin, a sociopath who is very interested in Dennis. Cleve has spent the majority of his life working for a powerful businessman named David Madlock (Paul Shenar) but he’s recently been laid off. Cleve wants revenge and he thinks that Dennis can help him get it.
Together …. THEY FIGHT CRIME!
Well, actually, they kind of do. Madlock’s done a lot of illegal stuff and Cleve and Dennis are exposing him, his crooked corporation, and all of his powerful connections. However, what Cleve really wants is for Dennis to write a best seller about his life. Cleve wants Dennis to write his story and most importantly, he wants Dennis to make him the hero. Dennis is still a cop and says that once all this is over, he’s going to have to arrest Cleve. Of course, eventually, he discovers that Cleve was the man who shot him 15 years earlier. At that point, Dennis says that he’s going to have to kill Cleve once all of this is over.
As a crime thriller, Best Seller hits all of the expected beats. As soon as we find out that Dennis is a widower and that he has a teenage daughter, we know that she’s eventually going to be taken prisoner by the bad guys. For that matter, we can also guess that there will be a few scenes where Cleve insists that Dennis is just like him. When Cleve starts telling people that Dennis is his brother, it’s a fun scene because it’s well-acted by both Woods and Dennehy but it’s not exactly surprising.
But no matter! Though the the overall plot may be predictable, there’s enough clever little twists and details that the film holds your interest. For instance, there’s an extended sequence where Dennis insists that Cleve introduce him to his family. For the next few minutes, the film stops being an action thriller and instead becomes a bit of a domestic comedy as Dennis meets Cleve’s friendly family, none of whom are aware that Cleve is a ruthless killer. The stuff with Cleve’s family doesn’t move the plot forward but your happy it’s there because 1) James Woods gives a great performance in those scenes and 2) it suggests that the film (which was written by Larry Cohen and directed by John Flynn, who was previously responsible for the brilliant Rolling Thunder) has more on its mind than just shooting people.
The main reason why Best Seller works so well is because the two leads are perfectly cast. Brian Dennehy was born to play tough cops while James Woods gives one of his best performances as the unstable but likable Cleve. I’ve actually had people get made at me for saying that James Woods is a good actor, simply because they disagree with his politics. But, when it comes to art and talent, I don’t care about anyone’s politics. (I mean, if I only watched movies starring people whose politics where approved by Film Twitter, I would end up spending the entire pandemic watching romantic comedies starring Alec Baldwin and Rosie O’Donnell and why should I suffer like that?) James Woods is a good actor and he’s great in Best Seller.
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