An Offer You Can Take or Leave #13: Hoffa (dir by Danny DeVito)


The 1992 film, Hoffa, opens in 1975, with two men sitting in the backseat of a station wagon.  One of the men is the controversial labor leader, Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson).  The other is his longtime best friend and second-in-command, Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito).  The two men are parked outside of a roadside diner.  They’re waiting for someone who is late.  Jimmy complains about being treated with such disrespect and comments that this would have never happened earlier.  Jimmy asks Bobby if he has his gun.  Bobby reveals that he does.  Jimmy asks him if he’s sure that there’s a loaded gun in the diner, as well.  Bobby goes to check.

Jimmy Hoffa, of course, was a real person.  (Al Pacino just received an Oscar nomination for playing him in The Irishman.)  He was a trucker who became a labor leader and who was eventually elected president of the Teamsters Union.  He was a prominent opponent of the Kennedys and that infamous footage of him being interrogated by Bobby Kennedy at a Senate hearing seems to sneak its way into almost every documentary ever made about organized crime in the 50s.  Hoffa was linked to the Mafia and was eventually sent to prison.  He was freed by the Nixon administration, under the condition that he not have anything to do with Teamster business.  When he disappeared in 1975, he was 62 years old and it was rumored that he was planning on trying to take over his old union.  Everyone from the mob to the CIA has been accused of having had Hoffa killed.

Bobby Ciaro, however, was not a real person.  Apparently, he was a composite character who was created by Hoffa’s screenwriter, David Mamet, as a way for the audience to get to know the enigmatic Jimmy Hoffa.  Bobby is presented as being Hoffa’s best friend and, for the most part, we experience Jimmy Hoffa through his eyes.  We get to know Jimmy as Bobby gets to know him but we still never really feel as if we know the film’s version of Jimmy Hoffa.  He yells a lot and he tells Bobby Kennedy (a snarling Kevin Anderson) to go to Hell and he talks a lot about how everything he’s doing is for the working man but we’re never really sure whether he’s being sincere or if he’s just a demagogue who is mostly interested in increasing his own power.  Bobby Ciaro is certainly loyal to him and since Bobby is played by the film’s director, it’s hard not to feel that the film expects us to share Bobby’s admiration.  But, as a character, Hoffa never really seems to earn anyone’s loyalty.  We’re never sure what’s going on inside of Hoffa’s head.  Jack Nicholson is always entertaining to watch and it’s interesting to see him play a real person as opposed to just another version of his own persona but his performance in Hoffa is almost totally on the surface.  With the exception of a few scenes early in the film, there’s doesn’t seem to be anything going on underneath all of the shouting.

The majority of Hoffa is told via flashback.  Scenes of Hoffa and Bobby in the film’s present are mixed with scenes of Hoffa and Bobby first meeting and taking over the Teamsters.  Sometimes, the structure of the film is a bit cumbersome but there are a few scenes — especially during the film’s first thirty minutes — that achieve a certain visual poetry.  There’s a scene where Hoffa helps to change a man’s flat tire while selling him on the union and the combination of falling snow, the dark city street, and Hoffa talking about the working man makes the scene undeniably effective.  The scenes where Hoffa spars with Bobby Kennedy are also effective, with Nicholson projecting an intriguing blue collar arrogance as he belittles the abrasively ivy league Bobby.  Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to those scenes.  By the time Hoffa becomes a rich and influential man, you realize that the film isn’t really sure what it wants to say about Jimmy Hoffa.  Does it want to condemn Hoffa for getting seduced by power or does it want to excuse Hoffa’s shady dealings as just being what he had to do to protect the men in his union?  The film truly doesn’t seem to know.

Hoffa is definitely not an offer that you shouldn’t refuse but, at the same time, it’s occasionally effective.  A few of the scenes are visually appealing and the cast is full of character actors like John C. Reilly, J.T. Walsh, Frank Whaley, and Nicholas Pryor.  It’s not a disaster like The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  Hoffa is an offer that you can take or leave.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls

Avenging Force (1986, directed by Sam Firstenberg)


If you think this year’s elections are messed up, just watch Avenging Force and see what happens when two martial artists run against each other for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Steve James plays Larry Richards, a former military commando who is now running for the Senate in Louisiana.  His opponent is Wade Delaney (Bill Wallace), who is described as being “the South’s youngest senator” and who is also secretly one of the world’s greatest martial artists.  Wade is a member of Pentangle, a Neo-Nazi cult that is made up of wealthy businessmen and other politicians.  When Larry and his family are invited to ride a float in the most sedate Mardi Gras parade of all time, the Pentangle attempts to assassinate him.  While Larry escapes injury, his oldest son does not.

Larry’s best friend, Col. Matt Hunter (Michael Dudikoff), is also in town and Hunter just happens to be another one of the world’s greatest martial artists.  (This film leave you wondering if there’s anyone in Louisiana who isn’t secretly a ninja.)  Matt tries to protect Larry and the remaining members of his family from Pentangle.  Matt fails miserably.  With Larry and the entire Richards family now dead, Matt goes deep into the Louisiana bayou, seeking both to rescue his sister (who has been kidnapped and is set to be sold at some sort of Cajun-run sex auction) and avenge Larry’s death.

As you probably already guessed, Avenging Force is a Cannon Film and it’s crazy even by that company’s fabled standards.  It’s not often that you come across a movie about a U.S. Senator who is also a neo-Nazi ninja who spends his spare time stalking people through the bayous.  What makes this plot point even more memorable is that no one in Avenging Force seems to be shocked by it.  Matt isn’t surprised in the least when an elected official suddenly lunges out of the fog and attempts to drown him in swamp water.  Of course, Senator Delaney isn’t the only villain in the film.  In fact, he’s not even the main bad guy.  That honor goes to Prof. Elliott Glastenbury (John P. Ryan), who lives in a huge mansion and who sees himself as a real-life version of The Most Dangerous Game‘s General Zaroff.  He not only wants to secretly rule the world but he also wants to hunt human prey in the bayou.  When Matt shows up at Glastenbury’s mansion, he is greeted by a butler who complains that Matt hasn’t bothered to wipe the blood off his shirt before showing up.

Avenging Force was originally planned as a sequel to Invasion U.S.A., with Chuck Norris reprising the role of Matt Hunter.  When Norris declined to appear in the film, the connection to Invasion U.S.A. was dropped and Michael Dudikoff of the American Ninja films was cast in the lead role.  (Of course, they didn’t bother to change anyone’s name in the script so the hero of Avenging Force is still named Matt Hunter, even if he’s not meant to be the same Matt Hunter from Invasion U.S.A.)  What Dudikoff lacked in screen presence, he made up for in athleticism and Avenging Force features some Cannon’s best fight scenes.  The plot may be full of holes but the idea of ninjas in the bayou is so inherently cool that it carries the film over any rough patches.

The critics may not have loved Avenging Force when it was first released but it holds up well as a fast-paced and weird action film.  It is perhaps the best Cajun ninja film ever made.

Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection (1990, directed by Aaron Norris)


Cocaine is flooding the United States and only one man is to blame!  Ramon Cota (Billy Drago) is so evil that, after killing a group of DEA agents, he appears on closed-circuit television just so he can taunt their superior, John Page (Richard Jaeckel).  When Ramon drives through his home country of San Carlos, he kills the peasants, rapes their women, and murders their babies, just because he can.  He’s one bad dude.

Ramon is untouchable as long as he stays in San Carlos but occasionally he does have to leave the country so he can conduct business.  A frequent flyer, Ramon always buys every seat in first class so that he and his bodyguards can have privacy.  However, what Ramon didn’t count on, was Delta Force’s Col. Scott McCoy (Chuck Norris!).  McCoy and his partner, Maj. Chavez (Paul Perri), aren’t intimidated by that curtain separating first class from the rest of the plane.  As soon as Ramon’s flight enters American air space, they burst out of coach, knock out Ramon’s bodyguards, and then toss Ramon out of the plane.  Being an experienced skydiver (not to mention that he’s also Chuck Norris), Col. McCoy is able to catch up to Ramon and grab him before he plummets all the way to the Earth.

Unfortunately, arresting Ramon in America means that you run the risk of a liberal, Carter-appointed judge setting a low-enough bail that Ramon can go free.  Having taken advantage of America’s own legal system, Ramon murders Chavez and returns to San Carlos, leaving Col. McCoy and the rest of the Delta Force to seek vengeance for their fallen comrade.

Only Chuck Norris returns for this sequel to the greatest movie ever made.  Unfortunately, Lee Marvin died shortly after the release of the first Delta Force.  Even though John P. Ryan (as General Taylor) and Richard Jaeckel both seem to be attempting to channel Marvin’s grim, no-nonsense spirit in their performances, it’s just not the same.  What made the first Delta Force so memorable was the mix of Marvin’s cool authority and Chuck Norris’s general badassery.  Norris is as tough as always but the film still has a Lee Marvin-size hole in the middle of it and, without Marvin glaring at the bad guys and barking at the Washington pencil pushers who think they know how to keep America safe, Delta Force 2 could just as easily be a sequel to one of Norris’s Missing In Action films.  This is a Chuck In The Jungle movie, with drug dealers replacing the usual Vietnamese POW camp commandants.

If you can see past the absence of Lee Marvin, Delta Force 2 is an okay Chuck Norris action movie.  It’s typical of the movies that he made for Cannon but the fight scenes are well-directed by Chuck’s brother and Billy Drago is a loathsome drug lord who gets what he deserves.  Chuck gets a few good one-liners and you’ve got to love the film’s final shot.  Delta Force 2 never comes close to matching the original but at least it’s got Chuck Norris doing what he does best.

It’s No Westworld: Futureworld (1976, directed by Richard T. Heffron)


Two years after the Westworld “incident,” (in which a group of robots malfunctioned and murdered hundreds of humans), Delos Amusement Park has reopened and is accepting guests.  Westworld has been permanently shut down but guests can still go to Romanworld and Medeivalworld (despite the fact that it was in Medievalworld that the whole robot rebellion started in the first place).  Delos has added two new worlds: Spaworld and Futureworld.  Spaworld is a spa for people who want to think young and Futureworld is the world of the future, which looks much like 1976, the year that this film was made.

Two reporters, Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda) and Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner), have been invited to cover the grand reopening of Delos and to hopefully generate some good publicity.  Chuck, however, has reason to believe that there’s something sinister happening at Delos.  While Tracy is busy fantasizing about Yul Brynner, Chuck discovers that Delos is using Futureworld to clone diplomats.

At the end of Futureworld, Peter Fonda gives everyone the finger and that’s really cool but otherwise, this is a forgettable sequel to Westworld.  The whole point of the original Westworld was that the robots didn’t know they were robots but, in Futureworld, the robots not only know what they are but they’re also superfluous to the plot.  There’s no robot revolution in Futureworld nor is there any of Crichton’s concerns about technology run amok.  Instead, it’s all about clones and a predictable political conspiracy.

The main issue facing the makers of this film was how could they do a sequel to Michael Crichton’s unexpected hit when Westworld‘s main attraction, Yul Brynner’s robot gunslinger, was thoroughly destroyed at the end of the first film.  It would not make any sense for anyone to have reactivated the robot.  Their solution was to bring Brynner in for a cameo in which he appeared in one of Tracy’s dreams.  Sadly, why they thought it was a good idea to have Tracy develop an erotic fixation on a killer robot and then, just as abruptly, abandon the idea is not for us to know.  They would have been better off leaving Brynner out of the film entirely because his presence just reminds us that Futureworld is no Westworld.

Robots With A Cause: Class of 1999 (1990, directed by Mark L. Lester)


The year is 1999 and John F. Kennedy High School sits in the middle of Seattle’s most dangerous neighborhood.  Teenage gangs have taken over all of the major American cities and just going to school means putting your life in danger.  However, Dr. Bob Forest (Stacy Keach!), the founder of MegaTech, has a solution.  He has taken former military androids and reprogrammed them to serve as educators.  JFK’s principal, Miles Langford (Malcolm McDowell!!), agrees to allow his school to be used a testing ground.  Soon, Miss Conners (Pam Grier!!!) is teaching chemistry.  Mr. Byles (Patrick Kilpatrick) is teaching gym.  Mr. Hardin (John P. Ryan) is teaching history.  When they’re not teaching, these robots are killing truant students and manipulating two rival street gangs into going to war.

Imagine mixing Rebel With A Cause with The Terminator and you get an idea of what Class of 1999 is like.  Two of the only good teenagers (played by Bradley Gregg and Traci Lind) figure out that the teachers are killing their classmates but they already know that they won’t be able to get anyone to listen to them because they’re just kids who go to school in a bad neighborhood.  Meanwhile, the teachers have been programmed to do whatever has to be done to keep the peace in the school.  Why suspend a disruptive student when you can just slam his head into a locker until he’s dead?  Director Mark L. Lester (who previously directed Class of 1984) is an old pro when it comes to movies like this and he’s helped by a better-than-average cast.  Any movie that features not only Stacy Keach and Malcolm McDowell but also Pam Grier is automatically going to be cooler than any movie that doesn’t.

When Class of 1999 was made, 1999 was considered to be the future and, in many ways, the movie did prove to be prophetic.  We may not have robot teachers (yet) but the idea of arming teachers and expecting them to double as cops has become a very popular one over the past few years.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to send my children to a school where the teachers all have to carry a gun while teaching but that may just be me.

Film Review: The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark (dir by Charles Jarrott)


I recorded the 1980 film, The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark, off of TCM because I looked at the title and the fact that it starred Elliott Gould and I figured that it would be a film about an expedition to recover the actual Noah’s Ark.  I figured that it would feature scenes of Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer (who I just assumed would be in the movie) climbing Mount Ararat and having comical disagreements about all of the snow.  I also assumed that the movie would end with the real Noah’s Ark sliding down the mountain while Gould and Plummer tried to steer it.

Seriously, it sounded like fun!

Of course, it turned out that I was wrong.

It turns out that The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark is about an out-of-work pilot named Noah Dugan (Elliott Gould) who has a gambling problem and owes a lot of money to the mob.  Normally, you’d be worried that this means Dungan has a contract out on his life but instead, it just means that a bald guy named Benchley (Dana Elcar) keeps popping up and saying that Dugan’s got a week to come up with the money.

Since this film was made before our current socialist moment, Dugan is forced to get a job.  Unfortunately, the only one that he can get involves flying a missionary (Genevieve Bujold) and a bunch of animals to a South Pacific island.  Dugan agrees but, because the plane is an old World War II bomber, he ends up having to make an emergency landing on a remote and uncharted desert isle.

Of course, it quickly turns out that Dugan, the missionary, and the animals aren’t alone!  First off, it turns out that two orphans (played by Ricky Schroder and Tammy Lauren) stowed away on the airplane.  And then, we discover that there are two Japanese soldiers stranded on the island as well!  They’ve been there since World War II!  Fortunately, one of them is named Cleveland (John Fukioka) and can speak English.

(As for Christopher Plummer, he’s nowhere to be seen because he’s not in the movie.)

Anyway, can you guess what happens?  If you think that Noah and the gang turn the plane into a big boat, you’re on the right track.  If you think that cynical Noah turns out to actually have a soft spot when it comes to children, you’re right.  If you think that Noah and the missionary embark on the most chaste romance in movie history …. oh my God, have you seen this movie before!?

Here’s the thing with The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark — the animals are cute.  I mean, the animals really are adorable.  There’s this one duck who has more screen presence than every human in this movie.  And normally, I’d say that cute animals can save just about any movie but this might be the exception to the rule.

I mean, I get it.  This was a movie for kids and that’s great.  But my God, this is a slow movie.  We start with Dugan getting threatened by the gamblers and then it’s another 25 minutes before Dugan even starts the engine on that plane.  I get that this is a family film but I imagine that even families in 1980 would have been bored to death by it.  Elliott Gould certainly seems to be bored, as he gives a performance that all but screams, “Where’s my paycheck!?”

What would have improved The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark?

Christopher Plummer, dammit.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Five Easy Pieces (dir by Bob Rafelson)


First released in 1970, Five Easy Pieces tells the story of a lost man named Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson).

When we first meet Bobby, he’s working at a California oil field.  He likes to go bowling.  He has a girlfriend named Rayette (Karen Black), who is a country music-obsessed waitress.  His best friend is Elton (Billy “Green” Bush), a friendly redneck with a memorable laugh.  Bobby may have a girlfriend and Elton may be married but that doesn’t stop either one of them from going out at night, getting drunk, and trying to pick up women.

Bobby seems to be just another blue-collar guy with a grudge against the bosses but it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s something different about him.  Bobby may be friends with Elton but it’s obvious that the two of them come from very different background.  No matter how much he tries to hide it, Bobby is smarter than everyone else around him.  When he and Elton get stuck in a traffic jam, Bobby spots a piano sitting on the back of a pickup truck.  Getting out of his car, Bobby yells at everyone who is honking and then climbs up to the piano.  He sits down, he puts his fingers to the keys and he starts to play.  Knowing Bobby, you’re expecting him to just bang the keys and make noise.  Instead, he plays beautiful music.

Later, Bobby steps into a recording studio.  Paritia (Lois Smith), a neurotic woman, is playing the piano.  The recording engineers joke about her lack of talent.  Bobby glares at them, annoyed.  It quickly becomes apparent why Bobby is so protective.  Paritia is Bobby’s sister.

Bobby, it turns out, comes from a wealthy family of musicians.  Everyone in the family has dealt with the pressure to succeed differently.  Paritia continues to play, despite not having much talent.  Bobby’s older brother, the buffoonish Carl (Ralph Waite), plays violin and has staid home with their father (William Challee).  Bobby, on the other hand, ran away from home.  He’s spent his entire life trying to escape from both his talent and his family.  However, when Paritia explains that their father has suffered from two strokes and might not live much longer, Bobby reluctantly decides to return home and try to make some sort of peace with his father.

It’s not as easy a journey as Bobby would have liked.  For one thing, Rayette demands to go with him.  On the drive up to Washington, they pick up two hitchhikers (Helena Kallionetes and Toni Basil), one of whom is obsessed with filth.  In the film’s most famous scene, an attempt to get a simple lunch order modified leads to Bobby losing control.

See, that’s the thing with Bobby.  In many ways, he’s a jerk.  He treats Rayette terribly.  While his family is hardly perfect, the film doesn’t hide from the fact that Bobby isn’t always the easiest person to deal with.  And yet, you can’t help but sympathize with Bobby.  If he seems permanently annoyed with the world … well, that’s because the world’s annoying.  And, to Bobby’s credit, he’s a bit more self-aware than the typical rebel without a cause.  When one of the hitchhikers praises his temper tantrum at the diner, Bobby points out that, after all of that, he still didn’t get the order that he wanted.

In Washington, Bobby tells Rayette to stay at a motel and then goes to see his family.  Bobby seems as out-of-place among his wealthy family as he did hanging out in the oil fields with Elton.  He ends up cheating on Rayette with Carl’s fiancee, a pianist named Catherine van Oost (Susan Anspach).

And then Rayette shows up for dinner…

Five Easy Pieces is a sometimes funny and often poignant character study of a man who seems to be destined to always feel lost in the world.  Bobby spends the whole movie trying to find a place where he can find happiness and every time, reality interferes with his plans.  Nicholson gives a brilliant performance, playing Bobby as a talented guy who doesn’t really like himself that much.  Bobby’s search for happiness leads to a rather haunting ending, one that suggests that some people are just meant to spend their entire life wandering.

Five Easy Pieces was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Patton.

Bronson’s Rich: Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987, directed by J. Lee Thompson)


To quote The Main With No Name, “When a man’s got money in his pocket, he begins to appreciate peace.”

Two years have passed since Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) last visited and cleaned up New York.  He is back in Los Angeles, the president of his own successful architectural firm.  Now a rich man, he has retired from killing criminals, though he still has dreams where he shoots muggers in parking garages.  Paul has a new girlfriend, journalist Karen Sheldon (Kay Lenz).  When Karen’s teenage daughter, Erica (Dana Barron), dies of a cocaine overdose, it’s time for Paul to get his gun out of storage and blow away a drug dealer.

Shortly after shooting that drug dealer, Paul finds a note on his front porch.  “I know who you are,” it reads.  Paul then gets a call from a mysterious man (John P. Ryan) who identifies himself as being a reclusive millionaire named Nathan White.  Nathan explains that his daughter also died of a cocaine overdose.  He wants to hire Paul to take out not just the drug dealers but also the men behind the dealers, the bosses.  Using his vast resources, Nathan has prepared a file on every major drug operation in Los Angeles.  He offers to share the information with Paul.

“I’ll need a few days to think about it,” Paul says but we all know he’s going to accept Nathan’s offer just as surely as we know that Nathan White has an ulterior motive that won’t be revealed until the movie’s final twenty minutes.

For the first time, Paul is no longer just targeting muggers and other street criminals.  This time, Paul is going after the guys in charge and trying to bring an end to drug trade once and for all.  (The idea that the best way to win the war on drugs was just to kill anyone involved in the drug trade was a very popular one in the late 80s.)  L.A.’s two major drug cartels are led by Ed Zacharias (Perry Lopez) and the Romero Brothers (Mike Moroff and Dan Ferro).  Along with their own activities, Paul and Young work the turn the two cartels against each other.

It’s not just the criminals that have changed in Death Wish 4.  Paul has changed, too.  Paul used to just shoot criminals and run away.  In Death Wish 4, he gets more creative.  He sneaks into Zacharias’s mansion and bugs the phone so that he can keep track of what’s going down.  When it comes time to kill a table full of drug dealers (one of whom is played by Danny Trejo), Paul doesn’t shoot them up.  Instead, he sends them a bottle of champagne that explodes when they open it.  By the end of the movie, Paul is blowing away the bad guys with a grenade launcher!  How many former conscientious objectors can brag about that?

The biggest difference between Death Wish 4 and the films that came before it is the absence of director Michael Winner.  Winner and Bronson had a falling out following Death Wish 3 and, as a result, Winner had little interest in returning to the franchise.  Instead, Winner was replaced by J. Lee Thompson, who had already directed Bronson in several other Cannon films.  As a result, Death Wish 4 is less “heavy” than the previous Death Wish films.  Whereas Winner’s direction often felt mean-spirited and exploitive, Thompson plays up the film’s sense of airy adventure.

Though it barely made a profit at the box office and has been dismissed by critics, Death Wish 4 is an enjoyable chapter in Paul’s story.  If you’re looking for mindless 80s mayhem, Death Wish 4 gets the job done with admirable efficiency.  It would have made a great ending for the franchise but Bronson would return to the role one last time.

Tomorrow: Death Wish V: The Face of Death!

A Movie A Day #264: The Cotton Club (1984, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)


The time is the 1930s and the place is New York City.  Everyone wants to get into the Cotton Club.  Owned by British gangster Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), the Cotton Club is a place where the stage is exclusively reserved for black performers and the audience is exclusively rich and white.  Everyone from gangsters to film stars comes to the Cotton Club.

It is at the Cotton Club that Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) meets everyone from Dutch Shultz (James Remar) to Gloria Swanson (Diane Venora).  Shultz hires Dixie to look after his girlfriend, Vera (Diane Lane).  Swanson arranges for Dixie to become a movie star.  Meanwhile, Dixie’s crazy brother, Vincent (Nicolas Cage), rises up through the New York underworld.  Meanwhile, dancing brothers Sandman and Clay Williams (played by real-life brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines) are stars on stage but face discrimination off, at least until Harlem gangster Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne) comes to their aid.

The Cotton Club was a dream project of the legendary producer, Robert Evans, who was looking to make a comeback after being famously charged with cocaine trafficking in 1980.  Having commissioned a screenplay by his former Godfather collaborators, Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, Evans originally planned to direct the film himself.  At the last minute, Evans changes his mind and asked Coppola to direct the film.  After working with him on The Godfather, Coppola had sworn that he would never work with Evans again. (When he won an Oscar for The Godfather‘s screenplay, Coppola pointedly thanked everyone but Robert Evans.)  However, by 1984, a series of box office flops had damaged Coppola’s standing in Hollywood.  Needing the money, Coppola agreed to direct The Cotton Club.

Evans raised the film’s $58 million budget from a number of investors, including Roy Radin.  Roy Radin was best known for putting together Vaudeville reunions in the 70s and being accused of raping an actress in 1980.  Radin and Evans were introduced to each other by a drug dealer named Lanie Jacobs, who was hoping to remake herself as a film producer.  During the production of The Cotton Club, Radin was murdered by a contract killer who was hired by Jacobs, who apparently felt that Radin was trying to muscle her out of the film production.

While all of this was going on, Coppola fell into his familiar pattern of going overbudget and falling behind schedule.  This led to another investor filing a lawsuit against Orion Pictures and two other investors, claiming fraud and breach of contract.  When the film was finally released, it received mixed reviews, struggled at the box office, and only received two Oscar nominations.

With all of the murder and drama that was occurring offscreen, it is not surprising that the film itself was overshadowed.  The Cotton Club is a disjointed mix of gangster drama and big production numbers.  As always with post-Apocalypse Now Coppola, there are flashes of brilliance in The Cotton Club.  Some of the production numbers are impressive and visually, this movie has got style to burn.   However, among the leads, neither Richard Gere nor Diane Lane seem to be invested in their characters while the talented Hines brothers are underused.  The supporting cast is full of good character actors who are all in a search of a better script.  A few do manage to make an impression: James Remar, Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne as veteran gangsters, Nicolas Cage as the film’s stand-in for Mad Dog Coll, and Joe Dallesandro as Lucky Luciano.  The Cotton Club is sometimes boring and sometimes exciting but the onscreen story is never as interesting as what happened behind the scenes.

 

A Movie A Day #245: The Missouri Breaks (1976, directed by Arthur Penn)


After Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) and his gang of rustlers (played by Randy Quaid, Frederic Forrest, and Harry Dean Stanton) rob a train, Logan uses the money to buy a small ranch.  Their new neighbor is Braxton (John McLiam), a haughty land baron who considers himself to be an ambassador of culture to the west but who is not above hanging rustlers and hiring gunmen.  One such gunman is the eccentric Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), a “regulator” who speaks in a possibly fake Irish brogue, is a master of disguise, and uses a variety of hand-made weapons.  Braxton hires Clayton to kill Logan and his men, despite the fact that his daughter (Kathleen Lloyd) has fallen in love with Logan.

A flop that was so notorious that it would be five years before Arthur Penn got a chance to direct another film, The Missouri Breaks is best remembered for Marlon Brando’s bizarre performance.  Brando reportedly showed up on the set late and insisted on largely improvising his part, which meant speaking in a comical Irish accent, singing an impromptu love song to his horse, and disguising himself as an old woman for one key scene.  (According to Patrick McGilligan’s Jack’s Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, co-star Harry Dean Stanton grew so incensed at Brando’s behavior that he actually tried to rip the dress off of Brando, saying that he simply would not be “killed’ by a man wearing a dress.)  Brando’s later reputation for being a disastrously weird performer largely started with the stories of his behavior on the set of The Missouri Breaks.

I had heard so many bad things about Brando and The Missouri Breaks that I was surprised when I finally watched it and discovered that it is actually a pretty good movie.  For all of his notoriety, Brando does not enter this leisurely paced and elegiac western until after half a hour.  The majority of the movie is just about Jack Nicholson and his gang, with Nicholson giving a low-key and surprisingly humorous performance that contrasts well with Brando’s more flamboyant work.  While Arthur Penn may not have been able to control Brando, he still deftly combines moments of comedy with moments of drama and he gets good performances from most of the supporting cast.  Quaid, Stanton, Forrest, and Nicholson are all just fun to watch and the rambling storyline provides plenty of time to get to know them.  Whenever Brando pushes the movie too close to self-parody, Nicholson pulls it back.   The Missouri Breaks may have been a flop when it was released but it has aged well.