Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Films I love, but really shouldn't

Last month  I wrote about my all-time favourite “guilty pleasure” movie –The Last Boy Scout. (I’m still recovering from the fact that someone - who shall remain nameless - actually put forward Top Gun as their choice; then  again, the pleasure is meant to be guilty.)

In that post I divided guilty pleasure movies into two types: the ones where you can tell why they work ( The Last Boy Scout benefited from a sparkling  comedy script), and the ones whose hold initially defies explanation. 

Here are four from the “”initially inexplicable” column:

Hard Target: The Muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme, plays an unlikely down-and-out sailor in  New Orleans, complete with a black coat with the sleeves pushed up, Miami Vice-stylee, and possibly the most ridiculous mullet ever sported by an actor in a leading role, despite the fact that it wasn’t even made in The Mullet Decade, the 1980s (1993, in fact). South African baddies are taking advantage of a police strike to charge rich businessmen a fortune to hunt human prey through the night-time streets of the Crescent City. Cute Yancy Butler hires Mullet Man to track down her missing dad.
                                                           
There are ridiculous stunts (especially one involving Jean-Claude atop a motorbike firing a shotgun at the baddies on that favourite Hollywood prop – an unfinished motorway flyover), much dodgy acting (Van Damme really does appear to have facial paralysis - except when he does that thing all limited actors do to express surprise: flex the skin on their  foreheads), an almost impenetrable accent (which is explained by making Van Damme a Cajun) and a fabulously silly plot. 

Yet I never fail to see it through to the end whenever I catch it. 

First, that silly plot is a particularly pleasing example of Hollywood “High Concept” – i.e. you have the movie in a sentence – and it has worked before (since RKO turned the short story “The Hounds of Zaroff” into the movie, The Most Dangerous Game, in 1932, starring Leslie Banks and Joel McCrea as, respectively, hunter and hunted, the basic theme has been used in at least 19 films). Second, the director was talented Hong Kong chop-sockie helmer, John Woo. Third, the Seth Effriken baddies were the excellent Lance Henriksen (the sympathetic robot, Bishop, in Aliens) and Arnold Vosloo, (the title character in The Mummy and its sequels) – who happens to be a genuine Seth Effriken.

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) is another “must rewatch” film. Like Hard Target it boast a perennially popular plot device – amnesiac main character discovers they are not what they seem: in this case a Pennsylvania housewife/mother/schoolteacher is attacked by an escaped prisoner and ruthlessly kills him, kickstarting the process whereby she discovers that, until eight years before, she was a CIA assassin. Along the way, she hires semi-sleazy, low-rent detective Samuel L. Jackson (in particularly fine form), and in turn becomes an assassination target for her former CIA boss (there’s a great sequence where she’s tortured on a waterwheel – when her tormentor think she’s dead, he wheels her up and...)

Despite the fact that it was directed by crapmeister Renny Harlin (he helmed the only really bad Die Hard movie), it’s pacey, the stars act with genuine relish, and a goody-two-shoes housewife turning out to be  a superbly skilled, no-nonsense professional killer is fun. But I suspect (and I only just discovered this) the fact that the script was written by Shane Black, who also wrote The Last Boy Scout, really bucks it up.

Three Fugitives (1989) should have been a disaster: Norwegian hulk Nick Nolte hadn’t exactly been noted for comic acting up to that point (or, some might say, for any form of acting), skinny little comedian Martin Short can be immensely irritating, and the dangers of lapsing into a diabetic coma from watching a film revolving around a troubled little girl who has stopped talking are pretty damned acute. 
  
Bank-robber Nick Nolte is released from prison and driven by the detective who put him away (James Earl Jones) to a bank so he can cash his cheque from the state. Inside, he becomes embroiled in a stick-up by the grossly incompetent Martin Short, who needs money so his mute daughter can get treatment. The alarm is sounded, the police assume the innocent Nolte is behind it, so he has to save himself and Short and go into hiding. 

The first thing that strikes the viewer is that there’s something distinctly un-American about all this – it’s sentimental enough, but it’s somehow toocharming. The little girl, Sarah Roland Doroff, is dressed in a distinctly French manner. Then there’s the realization that Nick Nolte’s big brutal oaf persona is pure Gerard Depardieu. Sure enough, this turns out to be a remake of a 1986 Depardieu vehicle, Les Fugitifs (which I haven’t seen, but would love to, especially having viewed the snippets available on YouTube). The final tumbler clicks satisfyingly into place on discovering that the director of the original French film, Francis Veber, also directed the American version, and wrote both scripts.

While Martin Short’s character is actually meant to be monumentally irritating to everyone in the film, he manages not to irritate the viewer – a neat trick. And the interplay between a very large, brutal man and a tiny child - which might have led to projectile vomiting if directed by an American - is actually very appealing here

If you haven’t seen it, and don’t have diabetes, give it a try. If the original French version ever appears on TV, do give me a shout.

The Hidden: This little-known 1987 science-fiction detective thriller is a “hidden” gem (geddit?!). Kyle McLachlan (Blue Velvet) basically reprises his eccentric FBI agent role from the TV series Twin Peaks. Here, he’s a rogue alien cop hunting the psychopathic body-hopper who killed his family back on their planet (yes, it is that ridiculous). 


Based on UK horror writer Stephen Gallagher’s excellent novel, Valley of Lights, it is splendidly entertaining from start to finish - great dialogue (“Look, Ed, Tom Beck is the best I've got. If I give him to you, I'll never get him back again. My department will then crumble, crime will run rampant, the city will fall into ruin, rampaging hordes will control the streets, and life as we know it will end.”), lots of shotgun blasts, pretty good special effects for the time, and a truly horrible baddie (or series of baddies - remember, this is a body-hopping criminal.)

I’ve been trying to find a connection which links these four films - but I can’t (apart from the curious fact that there aren’t any teenage characters in any of them - in fact, I’m not sure there’s anyone much under thirty). They’re just slickly made, fast-moving, mindlessly entertaining movies designed to divert our attention for 90 minutes rather than to tell us anything about life or preach modish political sermons - and yet they don’t, believe it or not, insult our intelligence.

They’re meant to cheer us up: they’re pure Hollywood, and thank God for them!

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