A Movie A Day #169: Malone (1987, directed by Harley Cokeliss)


It’s Burt Reynolds vs. Cliff Robertson.  Cliff has got the money but Burt’s got the mustache and the toupee.

Robertson plays Charles Delaney, a wealthy businessman who, with the help of a mercenary army, has bought nearly all the land in a small Oregon town.  Only the owner of a local gas station, Paul Barlow (Scott Wilson), has refused to sell.  Delaney and his men think that they can intimidate Paul into selling but what they do not realize is that Paul has a houseguest.  Richard Malone (Burt Reynolds) was driving through town when his car broke down.  While waiting for it to get fixed, he has been staying with Paul and his teenage daughter, Jo (Cynthia Gibb).  What no one knows is that Malone used to be an assassin for the CIA.

If ever there was a film that demanded the talents of Charles Bronson, it is Malone.  The tough and ruthless title character would have been a perfect Bronson role, especially if Malone had been made twenty years earlier.  Instead, the role went to Burt Reynolds, who was on the downside of his career as an action hero.  Sometimes, Burt tries to play the role as serious and emotionally guarded.  Then, in other scenes, Burt will suddenly smile and wink at the camera as he briefly turns back into the Bandit.  This is not one of Burt’s better performances.  He gets good support from the entire cast, including Lauren Hutton as his CIA handler, but, in most of his scenes, Burt comes across as being tired and his toupee makes him look like The Brady Bunch‘s Robert Reed.  Burt was 51 when he made Malone and he looked like he was at least ten years older, making the scenes where Jo comes onto him even more improbable.

Where Malone succeeds is in the action scenes.  Along with Burt’s final assault on Delaney’s compound, there is also a classic showdown in a barbershop.  Malone had a budget of ten million dollars.  How many blood squibs did that buy?  Pay close attention to the scene where two hitmen attempt to surprise Malone in his room and find out.

Malone is may not feature Burt at his best but it is still a damn sight better than some of the other films that awaited Burt once his starpower started to diminish.  Mad Dog Time, anyone?

A Movie A Day #168: The Harder They Fall (1956, directed by Mark Robson)


In his final film role, Humphrey Bogart exposes the seamy side of boxing.

Bogart plays Eddie Willis, a washed-up former sportswriter who, because he desperately needs the money, accepts a job offer from crooked boxing promoter, Nick Benko (Rod Steiger).  Eddie is working as a publicist for a South American boxer named Toro (Mike Lane).  Toro is big, strong, and not very bright.  He is not a great boxer but he does not realize that because the Mob has been fixing all of his fights.  After a punch drunk former boxer dies in the ring while fighting Toro, Toro wants to quit and return home to Argentina.  Eddie, who has grown sympathetic to Toro, convinces Toro to fight one last time, against the world champion, Buddy Brannen (Max Baer).  Eddie tells Toro that he does not have a chance of winning but at least he will be able to return home with money for his parents.  However, Benko has other plans for Toro’s money.

Bogart was visibly dying of cancer when he made this tough and uncompromising expose of the racket behind the fight game.  This was his final performance but it is also one of his best.  Even sick and more weary than usual, Bogart could still summon up righteous fury at the type of men that would exploit a fighter like Toro.  His scenes with Rod Steiger are charged with intensity, with Bogart’s film star charisma colliding with Steiger’s stylized method acting.  Both on-screen and 0ff, Humphrey Bogart was an actor who always stood up for the little guy.  Though the film itself may be predictable and Toro is sometimes too saintly to be believed, The Harder They Fall is still a proper finale to an important and distinguished career.

A Movie A Day #167: Stick (1985, directed by Burt Reynolds)


Stick (Burt Reynolds) is a veteran car thief who has just gotten out of prison.  No sooner has Stick arrived home in Florida then he accompanies his friend, Rainy (Jose Perez), on a drug deal that goes bad.  When Rainy is killed, Stick goes into hiding.  He manages to get a stable job, working as a chauffeur for an eccentric millionaire (George Segal).  He gets a new girlfriend (Candice Bergen) and starts to bond with his teenage daughter (Tricia Leigh Fisher).  Stick wants to go straight but, before he can, he knows that he has to confront the men who murdered Rainy.

Stick starts out strong.  The first half of the film finds Burt, who was often as underrated as a director as he was as an actor, in pure Sharky’s Machine mode, mixing the steamy Florida atmosphere with quirky character comedy and hardboiled action.  Adapting his own novel, Elmore Leonard wrote the screenplay and Stick seems like a classic Leonard hero, a criminal with his own moral code.  

But then Stick falls apart during the second half and it becomes obvious why both Reynolds and Leonard often cited this film as being one of the biggest disappointments of their careers.  Universal Studios disliked Burt’s first cut of the film and brought in a second screenwriter, who beefed up the action scenes and added the subplot with Stick’s teenage daughter.  Reynolds reshot the second half of the movie, no longer playing Stick as a tough criminal but instead as another variation on the Bandit.  The end result is a very disjointed movie, with Burt looking bored.

It does not help that the movie’s main villain is played by Charles Durning, who wears an orange fright wig and several Hawaiian shirts.  Durning was an actor who gave many great performances but never was he as miscast as when he played a drug dealer in Stick.

A Movie A Day #166: Warning Sign (1985, directed by Hal Barwood)


The world might end, again.

There is a laboratory in the middle of the desert.  While everyone thinks that the lab is developing pesticides, it is actually a secret government facility where the scientists have developed a chemical that will turn anyone exposed to it into a homicidal maniac.  While the scientists are celebrating the success of their project, Dr. Tom Schmidt (G.W. Bailey — yes, Captain Harris from the Police Academy movies) steps on a vial and releases the chemical.  The lab locks down and the army (led by Yaphet Kotto) arrives.  The government wants to let the scientists kill each other off but a pregnant security guard (Kathleen Quinlan) is also trapped in the lab and her husband, the county sheriff (Sam Waterston), is determined to get her out.

Warning Sign was blandly directed by Hal Barwood, a longtime associate of both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  (Barwood wrote the script for Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express and designed the title sequence for Lucas’s THX 1138.)  Barwood tried to take a very Spielbergian approach to Warning Sign, a mistake because successfully imitating Spielberg is easier said than done.  Replace the shark with germs and the ocean with a lab on lock down and Warning Sign is  like Jaws, without any of the suspense or humor.  Sam Waterston’s germaphobic sheriff feels like a knock off of Roy Scheider’s aquaphobic police chief while Jeffrey DeMunn, as an alcoholic scientist, stands in for both Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw.    With the violence and the gore kept to a minimum, this is one of the most tasteful zombie films ever made.  Just compare it to George Romero’s The Crazies (or even the remake) to see how needlessly safe Warning Sign is.

A Movie A Day #165: Big Wednesday (1978, directed by John Milius)


If there is a male bonding hall of fame, Big Wednesday has to be front and center.

This episodic movie follows three legendary surfers over twelve years of change and turmoil.  Jack Barlowe (William Katt) is the straight arrow who keeps the peace.  Leroy “The Masochist” Smith (Gary Busey) is the wild man.  Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent) is the best surfer of them all but he resents both his fame and the expectation that he should be some sort of role model for the younger kids on the beach.  From 1962 until 1974, the three of them learn about love and responsibility while dealing with cultural turmoil (including, of course, the Vietnam War) and waiting for that one legendary wave.

After writing the screenplays for Dirty Harry and Apocalypse Now and directing The Wind and The Lion and Dillinger, John Milius finally got to make his dream project.  Big Wednesday was based on Milius’s own youth as a California surfer and he has said that all three of the main characters were based on different aspects of his own personality.  Expectations for Big Wednesday were so high that Milius’s friends, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, exchanged percentages points for Star Wars and Close Encounters of  The Third Kind for a point of Big Wednesday.  The deal turned out to be worth millions to Milius but nothing to Lucas and Spielberg because Big Wednesday was a notorious box office flop.  Warner Bros. sold the film as a raunchy comedy, leaving audiences surprised to discover that Big Wednesday was actually, in Milius’s words, a “coming-of-age story with Arthurian overtones.”

I can understand why Big Wednesday may not be for everyone but it is one of my favorite movies.  It is one of the ultimate guy films.  Some of the dialogue and the narration may be overwrought but so are most guys, especially when they’re the same age as the surfers in Big Wednesday.  We all like to imagine that we are heroes in some sort of epic adventure.  The surfing footage is amazing but it is not necessary to be a surfer to relate to the film’s coming-of-age story or its celebration of the enduring bonds of friendship.  Katt, Vincent, and Busey all give great performances.  Considering their later careers, it is good that Big Wednesday is around to remind us of what Gary Busey and Jan-Michael Vincent were capable of at their best, before their promising careers were derailed by drugs and mental illness.  Be sure to also keep an eye out for infamous 70s character actor Joe Spinell as an army psychiatrist, a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street Robert Englund, playing a fellow surfer and providing the film’s narration, and Barbara Hale, playing the patient mother of her real-life son, William Katt.

One final note: At a time when the shameful stereotype of the psycho Vietnam vet was becoming popular and unfairly tarnishing the reputation of real-life vets, Big Wednesday was unique for featuring a character who not only joins the Army but who appears to return as a better person as a result.

A Movie A Day #164: Split Decisions (1988, directed by David Drury)


Craig Sheffer seeks symbolic revenge and Gene Hackman picks up a paycheck in Split Decisions!

Ray McGuinn (Jeff Fahey) is a contender.  Ever since he let his father’s gym and signed with a sleazy boxing promoter, Ray has been waiting for his title shot.  His father, an ex-boxer turned trainer named Dan (Gene Hackman), has never forgiven Ray for leaving him.  Meanwhile, his younger brother — an amateur boxer and Olympic aspirant named Eddie (Craig Sheffer) — worships Ray and is overjoyed when Ray returns to the old neighborhood to fight “The Snake” Pedroza (Eddie Velez).  But then Ray is told that if he doesn’t throw the fight, he’ll never get a shot at a title bout.  When Ray refuses, The Snake and a group of thugs are sent to change his mind and Ray gets tossed out of a window.

Eddie is determined to avenge his brother’s death.  Does he do it by turning vigilante and tracking down the men who murdered his brother?  No, he turns pro and takes his brother’s place in the boxing ring!  Dan reluctantly trains him and Eddie enters the ring, looking for symbolic justice.  Symbolic justice just doesn’t have the same impact as Charles Bronson-style justice.

The idea of a barely known amateur turning professional and getting a chance to fight a contender feels just as implausible here as it did in Creed.  The difference is that Creed was a great movie so it did not matter if it was implausible.  To put it gently, Split Decisions is no Creed.  The boxing scenes are uninspired and even the training montage feels tired.  Look at Craig Sheffer run down the street while generic 80s music plays in the background.  Watch him spar in the ring.  Listen to Gene Hackman shout, “You’re dragging your ass out there!”  In the late 80s, Gene Hackman could have played a role like Dan in his sleep and he proves it by doing so here.  Underweight pretty boy Craig Sheffer is actually less convincing as a boxer than Damon Wayans was in The Great White Hype.

Split Decisions is another boxing movie that should have taken Duke’s advice.

A Movie A Day #163: Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979, directed by Ivan Nagy)


America’s most patriotic beach bum is back!

The infamous international terrorist, Miguel (Christopher Lee), is demanding millions of dollars from the U.S. government.  If he doesn’t get his cash, Miguel will unleash a formula that causes rapid aging.  Who else can stop him but Captain America (Reb Brown)?  While Cap searches for Miguel in a small town that appears to be full of bullies, comely single mothers, and children in desperate need of a father figure, Doctors Simon Mills (Len Birman) and Wendy Day (Connie Sellecca) search for a way to reverse the aging process.

This is the second of two pilots that were produced in 1979 in an attempt to start a weekly Captain America television series.  This Captain America had little in common with his comic book counterpart.  In the two pilots, Steve Rogers was a laid back beach bum who drove a Chevy Van and owned a really groovy, red, white, and blue motorcycle.  Having recently gotten out of the army, Steve would have been just as happy to spend his time sketching the beach as saving the world from HYDRA.  Whenever he put on the costume of Captain America, he carried a transparent shield that was supposed to be bullet proof but which looked like it was made out of flimsy plastic.  In Captain America II: Death Too Soon, Cap uses his shield to protect himself from a wild dog and the shield literally bends when the dog jumps against it.  Reb Brown played Cap in both pilots and, while he was more likable than Matt Salinger, he was no Chris Evans.

Still, the presence of both Christopher Lee and Connie Sellecca help to make the second pilot a marginal improvement on the first one.  The second pilot is almost good enough to make the case that, if not for that damn transparent shield, a weekly Captain America television series would not have been that bad.  It was not to be, of course.  It would be over 30 years before a movie finally got both Captain America and his shield right.