City on Fire (1979, directed by Alvin Rakoff)


In an unnamed city somewhere in the midwest, Herman Stover (Jonathan Welsh) is fired from his job at an oil refinery.  Herman does what any disgruntled former employee would do.  He runs around the refinery and opens up all the valves and soon, the entire location is covered in a combustible mix of oil and chemicals.  One spark is all it takes for the refinery to explode and the entire city to turn into a raging inferno.

While Fire Chief Risley (Henry Fonda, getting a special “And starring” credit for doing what probably amounted to a few hours of work) sits in his office and gives orders to his subordinates, Dr. Frank Whitman (Barry Newman) cares for the injured at the city’s new hospital.  Also at the hospital is Mayor William Dudley (Leslie Nielsen) and local celebrity Diana Brockhurst-Lautrec (Susan Clark), who is having an affair with the mayor.  Diana also went to high school with Herman and he still has a crush on her.  When he shows up at the hospital to try to hit on her, he’s roped into working as a paramedic.  Also helping out at the hospital is Nurse Shelley Winters.  (The character may be named Andrea Harper but she’s played by Shelley Winters and therefore, she is Shelley Winters.)  At the local television station, news producer Jimbo (James Franciscus) tries to keep his anchorwoman, Maggie Grayson (Ava Gardner), sober enough to keep everyone up to date on how much longer the city is going to be on fire.

Mostly because it was featured on an early pre-Comedy Central episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, City on Fire has a reputation for being a terrible movie but, as far as 70s disaster films are concerned, it’s not that bad.  The special effects are actually pretty impressive, especially during the first half of the film and there’s really not a weak link to be found in the cast.  It’s always strange to see Leslie Nielsen playing a serious role but, before Airplane! gave him a chance to display his skill for deadpan comedy, he specialized in playing stuffy and boring authority figures.  He actually does a good job as Mayor Dudley and it’s not the film’s fault that, for modern audiences, it’s impossible to look at Leslie Nielsen without instinctively laughing.  Of course, there is a scene towards the end where Leslie Nielsen picks up a fire hose and starts spraying people as they come out of the hospital and it was hard not to laugh at that because it felt like a scene straight from The Naked Gun.

What the film does suffer from is an overabundance of cliches and bad dialogue.  From the minute the movie starts, you know who is going to live and who isn’t and sometimes, City on Fire tries too hard to give everyone a connection.  It’s believable that Herman would be stupid enough to start a fire because we all know that happens in the real world.  What’s less believable is that, having started the fire, Herman would then go to the hospital and keep asking Diana if she remembers him from high school.  It’s not asking too much to believe that Diana, as wealthy local celebrity, would be invited to the opening of a new hospital.  It’s stretching things, though, to then have her deliver a baby while the hospital is in flames around her.

Coming out at the tail end of the disaster boom, City on Fire didn’t do much at the box office and would probably be forgotten if not for the MST 3K connection.  A year after City on Fire was released, Airplane! came out and, through the power of ridicule, put a temporary end to the entire disaster genre.

Shattered Politics #47: Agency (dir by George Kaczender)


Agency

“Who are the other two lugs on this poster? And who’s the dame? Baby, I just don’t give a damn…” Robert Mitchum in Agency.

Like a lot of writers who occasionally have issues when it comes to balancing ambition with time management, I’ve discovered that it helps if I listen to music while I write.  For instance, while writing the majority of the reviews for Shattered Politics, I’ve been listening to Big Data’s Dangerous.

And that choice of music has actually turned out to be extremely appropriate.  No, not just because it’s dangerous to write about politics.  But also because the official music video for Dangerous deals with advertising and, more specifically, how sex and violence are used to sell everything from shoes to politicians.

Now, I don’t know about you but, whenever I see that video, I feel like I’m ready to put on a sports bra, running shorts, and of course my Big Data running shoes so that I can take control and headbutt my way through life!  A good commercial can do that.  (And don’t even get me started on what I’m going to do to the next person I see eating a hot dog…)

Interestingly enough, the 47th film that I’m reviewing for Shattered Politics also deals with the power of advertising.  First released in 1980, Agency stars Robert Mitchum as Ted Quinn, the mysterious new owner of a major ad company.  Out of all of the old school movie stars, Robert Mitchum is one of my favorites because he was not only a great actor but he was also a very honest one.  If he didn’t give a damn about a role, he wasn’t going to try to fool the audience otherwise.  Instead, he was going to deliver his lines and kind of smirk with his eyes, his way of subliminally asking the audience, “Are you actually watching this shit?”  And while this may have led to Mitchum giving several performances that were unworthy of his talent, it also means that if you see Robert Mitchum actually invested in a role than that means the film must be something really special.

Unfortunately, Agency is not one of those “something really special” films.  And Mitchum’s bored performance reflects that fact.

"Just try to make me care." Robert Mitchum in Agency.

“Just try to make me care.” Robert Mitchum in Agency.

Anyway, under Ted Quinn’s leadership, the ad agency is doing commercials for all the usual clients.  The movie starts with one of those commercials — a leather-themed, disco-scored short film extolling the virtues of No Sweat deodorant.  And then there’s also the big chocolate energy drink commercial.  However, copywriter Sam Goldstein (Saul Rubinek) suspects that Ted might have sinister motives.  After a right-wing  candidate comes out of nowhere to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, Sam suspects that the deodorant commercial may have contained subliminal messages…

That’s right!  It’s exactly like that episode of Saved By The Bell where Zack Morris brainwashed Mr. Belding by giving him that subliminally-spiked tape of the Beach Boys.

Well, before you can say “Zack Morris is a blonde Tom Cruise,” Sam has been murdered and it’s up to Sam’s best friend, Philip Morgan (Lee Majors), to reveal the truth about Ted’s sinister agenda…

Like many U.S.-set thrillers from the 1980s, Agency was actually a Canadian film.  Montreal stands in for an unnamed American city where it frequently snows and the supporting cast is full of actors with noticeable Canadian accents.  Mind you, that’s not a complaint.  I love Canada, I love Canadians, and I especially love Canuxploitation films.

That said, Agency is probably one of the least interesting Canadian thrillers that I’ve ever sat through.  (I should add, of course, that I saw Agency on a very low-quality DVD that was released by Miracle Pictures.  And I really do have to say that this was absolutely one of the worst transfers that I’ve ever seen.  It appears that the DVD was copied from an old VHS tape.)  It’s not so much that it’s a terrible film as much as it’s just not a very interesting one.  With the exception of Rubinek, the actors go through the motions with little enthusiasm and the story plods along.  Maybe back in 1980, the whole idea of subliminal advertising seemed exciting and relevant.  But seen today, it just all seems incredibly silly.

So, in the end, Agency did not make me want to headbutt my way through life.

Sorry.

(I still love you, Canada!)

(And you too, Robert Mitchum!)

"Baby, I just don't give a damn."  Robert Mitchum in Agency.

“Baby, I just don’t give a damn.” Robert Mitchum in Agency.