The Hard Way (1991, directed by John Badham)


Lt. John Moss (James Woods) is a cop with a problem.  A serial killer who calls himself the Party Crasher (Stephen Lang) is killing people all across New York and he has decided that he will be coming for Moss next.  However, Moss’s captain (Delroy Lindo) says that Moss is off of the Party Crasher case and, instead, he’s supposed to babysit a big time movie star named Nick Lang (Michael J. Fox)!

Nick is famous for playing “Smoking” Joe Gunn in a series of Indiana Jones-style action films.  However, Nick wants to be taken seriously.  He wants to play Hamlet, just like his rival Mel Gibson!  (That Hard Way came out a year after Mel Gibson played the melancholy Dame in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.)  Nick thinks that if he can land the lead role in a hard-boiled detective film, it will give him a chance to show that he actually can act.  To prepare for his audition, he’s asked to spend some time following Moss on the job.  Mayor David Dinkins, always eager to improve New York’s reputation, agrees.  (David Dinkins does not actually appear in The Hard Way, though his name is often mentioned with a derision that will be familiar to anyone who spent any time in New York in the 90s.)  Of course, Moss isn’t going to stop investigating the Party Crasher murders and, of course, Nick isn’t going to follow Moss’s orders to just stay in his apartment and not get in his way.

The Hard Way is a predictable mix of action and comedy but it’s also entertaining in its own sloppy way.  Director John Badham brings the same grit that he brought to his other action films but he also proves himself to have a deft comedic touch.  Most of the laughs come from the contrast between James Woods playing one of his typically hyperactive, edgy roles and Michael J. Fox doing an extended and surprisingly convincing impersonation of Tom Cruise.  Woods and Fox prove to be an unexpectedly effective comedic team.  One of the best running jokes in the film is Woods’s exasperation as he discovers that everyone, from his girlfriend (Annabella Sciorra) to his no-nonsense boss, are huge fans of Nick Lang.  Even with a serial killer running loose in the city, Moss’s captain is more concerned with getting Nick’s autograph.

Woods and Fox are the main attractions here but Stephen Lang is a good, unhinged villain and Annabella Sciorra brings some verve to her underwritten role as Moss’s girlfriend.  Viewers will also want to keep an eye out for familiar faces like Penny Marshall as Nick’s agent, a very young Christina Ricci as Sciorra’s daughter, and Luis Guzman as Moss’s partner.

With its references to David Dinkins, Mel Gibson’s superstardom, and Premiere Magazine, its LL Cool J-filled soundtrack, and a plot that was obviously influenced by Lethal Weapon, The Hard Way is very much a period piece but it’s an entertaining one.

Horror Film Review: Dracula (dir by John Badham)


I have to admit that, when I first sat down to watch the 1979 version of Dracula, I wasn’t expecting much.  I hadn’t even heard of the film until I came across it on Encore and, when I considered that it was made in 1979, I immediately assumed it would be a disco Dracula film.

And, let’s be honest — a disco Dracula film sounds kinda fun.  But still, it’s Halloween.  Dracula is an icon of horror.  And somehow, the idea of watching disco Dracula just was not appealing.  It would be appealing in November or September.  BUT THIS IS OCTOBER!

Well, despite my misgivings, I watched the film and I quickly discovered that it wasn’t a disco Dracula at all.  This Dracula takes place in 1913 and there’s actually very little about it that would lead you to suspect that it had been made in the 1970s.  Instead, it feels more like a tribute to the colorful and lushly erotic Dracula films that Hammer produced in the 60s.  Except, oddly, the Hammer films were far more bloody than the 1979 version.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  There’s a few gory scenes in 1979’s Dracula.  Towards the end of the film, there’s a rather bloody impaling.  Dracula graphically breaks another character’s neck as we watch.  But, even with those scenes in mind, the 1979 Dracula feels oddly restrained at times.

In this version of Dracula, the title character is played by a youngish Frank Langella.  I have to admit that it was a bit odd to see Langella playing someone other than a corrupt authority figure.  Dare I say it, Langella is almost sexy in this film and his somewhat feral features are perfect for a character who considers wolves to be “the children of the night.”  Langella’s performance falls between the haughty charm of Bela Lugosi and the animalistic fury of Christopher Lee.  And while Langella’s performance never quite reaches the heights of those two actors, he’s still effectively cast.

As for the film itself, it starts with a shipwreck near a local asylum.  One of the passengers on that ship is the charming but mysterious Count Dracula.  Dracula introduces himself to the head of the asylum, Dr. Jack Seward (Donald Pleasence, stealing almost every scene in which he appears).  There’s an immediate attraction between Dracula and Seward’s daughter, Lucy (Kate Nelligan).  That does not amuse Lucy’s fiancee, Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve, who is perhaps the whiniest Harker in film history).

Meanwhile, Lucy’s best friend, Mina (Jan Francis), has been taken ill and it might have something to do with the two puncture marks on her neck.  After Mina dies, her father (played by Laurence Olivier) comes to investigate.  Her father’s name?  Abraham Van Helsing.

As I said, I was not expecting much from this version of Dracula so I was actually pleasantly surprised during the first hour of the film.  This version gets off to a nice start, with director John Badham giving us a mix of lush romanticism and gothic moodiness.  I’ve already talked about Langella’s performance but  Donald Pleasence and Laurence Olivier also distinguish themselves.  It’s obvious that these veteran performers enjoyed playing opposite each other and there’s a lot of pleasure to be found from watching Pleasence and Olivier compete to see who can steal the most scenes.

Unfortunately, after that strong first hour, Dracula slows down.  Once Seward and Van Helsing know that Dracula is a vampire, the whole movie becomes about finding excuses for them to not do anything about it.  The final 40 minutes feel almost like filler and, at one point, you’re required to believe that an elderly man, who has been seriously wounded, could still find the strength to swing a hook into a much stronger person’s back.

In the end, the 1979 Dracula is more of an intriguing oddity than a definitive version.

4 Shots From 4 Films: James Earl Jones Edition


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films is all about letting the visuals do the talking.

Happy Birthday to the man with the imposing presence: James Earl Jones

4 SHOTS FROM 4 FILMS

The Hunt for Red October (dir. by John McTiernan)

The Hunt for Red October (dir. by John McTiernan)

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (dir. by John Badham)

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (dir. by John Badham)

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #57: Saturday Night Fever (dir by John Badham)


Saturday_night_fever_movie_posterHere’s a little bit of trivia about the iconic 1977 film Saturday Night Fever.

First off, according to the imdb, Saturday Night Fever was the first mainstream Hollywood film to ever use the term “blow job.”  That actually took me by surprise.  I mean, with all of the risks that the major studios took in the 70s, it still took them until 1977 to have someone say “blow job” in a movie?  But somehow, it seems appropriate that it would turn up in Saturday Night Fever.  We tend to think of Saturday Night Fever as being a movie where the soundtrack is nonstop disco and John Travolta dances in that iconic white suit.  But actually, Saturday Night Fever is a film about four guys who neither understand nor respect women.

When Tony (John Travolta), Joey (Joseph Cali), Double J (Paul Pape), and Bobby (Barry Miller) go down to that disco, it’s because they want to get laid.   Joey and Double J take turns having sex with insecure Annette (Donna Pescow) and, afterwards, Tony scornfully ask her if she‘s proud of herself.  When Bobby discovers that his girlfriend is pregnant, he is so terrified of having to be a father that he becomes suicidal.  As for Tony, he looks down on the women who are so eager to dance with him.  When he enters a dance contest with Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), he can’t handle the fact that she wants more out of her life than just being his latest partner.

So, it makes sense that this would be the first mainstream movie to feature someone talking about a blow job because that’s what these boys are obsessed with.  Sexually primitive, hypocritically puritanical, and emotionally repressed, a blow job is all the intimacy that these boys can handle.

Another piece of trivia: while John Travolta was always the first choice for Tony Manero, several actors were seen for the roles of Joey and Double J.  At one point, both Ray Liotta and David Caruso were nearly cast in the role of Tony’s friends.  Imagine this: in some alternative universe, while white-suited John Travolta rules over the dance floor, Ray Liotta and David Caruso are standing in the background and cheering him on.

Of course, if Liotta and Caruso had been cast, it would be a totally different movie.  Whenever you watch Saturday Night Fever, you’re surprised by how much John Travolta totally dominates the film.  Even though the film devotes a good deal of time to Annette, Stephanie, Bobby and to Tony’s brother who has recently left the priesthood, Tony Manero is the only character that you remember.  That’s largely because Travolta is the only one of them who gives a truly memorable performance.

In theory, it’s easy to laugh at the thought of Travolta in that white suit, striking a dramatic pose on that cheap-looking dance floor.  But then you watch the film and you realize that Travolta truly did give a great performance.  And, to your surprise, you don’t laugh at Tony with his white suit because you know that the only time Tony has any control over his life is when he’s dancing.  He may work in a paint store.  He may regularly get slapped around by his family.  He may not be very smart or sensitive.  But when Tony’s dancing, he’s a king and you’re happy that he at least has one thing in his life that he can feel good about.

Even if he is kind of a jerk.

Of course, it helps that Tony is a really good dancer.  There’s actually a lot more going on in Saturday Night Fever than you might think but ultimately, it’s a dance movie and it’s one of the best.