"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, June 19, 2020

Pronto

Somewhere, there’s an alternate universe where James Le Gros is playing recurring Elmore Leonard character Deputy United States Marshal Raylan Givens in a series of television movies instead of Timothy Olyphant in a T.V. series. Watching Le Gros in Pronto (1997) is a study in contrast of styles to what Olyphant would do later in Justified. Airing two years after Get Shorty (1995) was released in theaters, and based on the 1993 novel of the same name, Pronto clearly tries to ape it in style and tone only with less money and star power in front of the camera.

Leonard fans will find themselves on familiar turf right from the get-go as we are introduced to Harry Arno (Peter Falk), a Miami Beach bookie who’s been skimming off the top from the mob for years. He has his regular customers and haunts – everything seems to be going swimmingly until he’s tipped off by police detective friend Buck Torres (Luis Guzman) that the Feds are tapping his phone and his boss, Jimmy “The Cap” Capotorto (Walter Olkewicz), has put a hit out on him.

Pretty soon someone tries to take Harry out (although, he certainly knows how to take care of himself) and Raylan shows up in the lobby of his building. Harry invites the lawman up and we get Le Gros’ take on Raylan. He saunters in wearing a suit and a big white cowboy hat that looks completely out of place in neon-drenched Miami. He spots Harry and gives him a big, corn-fed grin, which screams hayseed and when he opens his mouth out comes the equivalent of a southern Boy Scout.

He tries to convince Harry to testify against Jimmy and in return he will protect him. Not surprisingly, Harry’s not the testifying type and gives Raylan the slip, taking refuge in an Italian town that has special significance for him from World War II. The rest of the movie plays out seeing who will find him first – Raylan or sadistic mob tough guy Tommy “The Zip” Bucks (Sergio Castellitto), who wants to make sure Harry doesn’t testify.

Peter Falk plays his usual, easy-going self, breezing his way through the movie as only he can. Harry is a smart guy, a typical Leonard protagonist who is always one step ahead of everyone else, always thinking, especially when everyone is looking for him. Le Gros initially plays Raylan as a little too cartoonish but as the movie progresses one realizes that this is a conscious choice. Raylan has created a country bumpkin-ish façade so that his enemies underestimate him. As the stakes get higher and the situations get more serious, the façade falls away and the actor brings a wonderful intensity to the role revealing a deadly determined lawman.

Pronto is directed by Jim McBride but you’d hardly know it from the flat, functional lighting in many scenes and the predictable framing. Where is the visual flair of Breathless (1983)? Where is the playful, anarchic energy of Great Balls of Fire (1989)? With the exception of some nifty transitional wipes between scenes, the man that made those films is absent. I understand, sometimes you have to do jobs to pay the bills, but one would think based on past adaptations that his visual style would be perfect for Leonard’s material, which makes this feel like a missed opportunity.


Fortunately, screenwriter Michael Butler, who penned notable crime thrillers The Gauntlet (1977) and Flashpoint (1984), does an excellent job adapting Leonard’s book, preserving the snappy dialogue, and he’s aided by a talented cast that tries to give life to his script in the way we’ve come to expect in more successful adaptations, such as Jackie Brown (1997) and Out of Sight (1998), it’s missing the vivid style to compliment it. Still, Falk, Glenne Headly and especially Le Gros are good enough to keep one watching until the end. Ultimately, it is unfair to compare Le Gros’ take with Olyphant. The latter had six seasons and 78 episodes to flesh out Leonard’s character and bring him to life, Le Gros had a 100 minutes and did the best with what he had to work with, delivering an engaging performance that always makes me wonder what could have been?

Friday, May 15, 2020

Hard Target

In the 1990s it seemed like Jean-Claude Van Damme was the appointed gatekeeper in Hollywood that Hong Kong action filmmakers had to get past to work in America. Between 1993 and 1997 he starred in the American debuts of John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark to varying degrees of success. Despite being marred with production challenges and post-production clashes with his leading man, Woo’s movie, Hard Target (1993), is the most interesting effort of the three filmmakers even in its compromised final form. It stands as a cautionary tale rife with ignorant studio executives and an egotistical movie star.

In New Orleans, rich men pay $500,000 to hunt and kill defenseless combat veterans down on their luck for sport. These hunts are facilitated by Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and his right-hand man Pik van Cleef (Arnold Vosloo). Natasha Bender (Yancy Butler) comes to town looking for her estranged father that she hasn’t seen since she was seven-years-old. Unfortunately, he was the man brutally murdered in the movie’s opening sequence.

She soon crosses paths with mysterious drifter Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme), an unemployed Cajun and ex-United States Marine, when he rescues her from four random thugs accosting her in an impressively staged sequence that shows off his fighting skills. When going through official channels proves to be futile (because her father was homeless), Nat hires Chance to find her father. Their investigation uncovers Fouchon’s business and they soon find themselves being hunted by him and his rich clients.

Along with Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), Hard Target is a rare Hollywood movie to feature the plight of the homeless so prominently. Nat and Chance’s investigation takes them to through homeless population in the city and Woo’s camera lingers on their horrible living conditions. He also shows some of the jobs they must do to survive. The movie also gives noteworthy screen-time to blue collar workers in a scene where Chance tries to sign up for a merchant marine job only to find that he has outstanding union dues, which feels like Woo’s sly nod to On the Waterfront (1954) only Van Damme is no Marlon Brando. It is also sympathetic to war veterans with the targets that Fouchon picks being ex-military men who we are clearly meant to side with, including Chance.

Sporting an unfortunate mullet, Van Damme fumbles his way through the screenplay and Woo wisely tries to limit his dialogue, understanding that his leading man is much more comfortable kicking the crap out of people. He can’t even say a one-liner zinger very well. Look at how he tries to do it compared to how Arnold Vosloo does in several scenes. Obviously, he’s a better actor than Van Damme. Woo does what he can to try and impart a modicum of depth by filming Van Damme in slow motion or having lingering shots of Chance thinking, trying to figure things out.

Lance Henriksen and Woo give the character of Fouchon a bit of depth where the script is unable to by doing it visually, like in an amusing scene that starts with the baddie dressed in white playing a classical piece of music on a piano in his mansion. Is this to show that he’s not just a sadistic businessman but also a frustrated artist? Who knows? The actor is clearly having fun with the role, relishing the part of an evil capitalist that literally preys on people. Fouchon seems to honestly believe the B.S. he pitches to his clients, telling one, “It has always been the privilege of the few to hunt the many…Men who kill for the government do it with impunity. Now all we do is offer the same opportunity for private citizens.” Henriksen fleshes out his character with odd little affectations, like how Fouchon stops to fix his hair in a mirror right after Pik kills one of their flunkies, or how he carries a gun that only fires one bullet at a time (albeit a big bullet), which is extremely impractical but does illustrate the character’s ego.

Vosloo matches him beat for beat as his cultured enforcer. Like Henriksen, he has a great voice – a smooth South African accent that gives his baddie an exotic vibe. They play a sadistic tag team that don’t take too kindly when their flunkies make mistakes as evident in a scene where Fouchon and Pik discipline the man that picks their targets with a large pair of scissors. After clipping off part of the man’s ear, Pik delivers a parting shot with deadpan perfection, “Randal, I come back here – I cut me a steak.” He jams the scissors into the wall for dramatic effect that is pure Woo. The two actors play well off each other with Henriksen playing a more emotional character prone to angry outbursts while Pik is cold and emotionless. There’s a reason why these two characters get the bulk of the movie’s memorable dialogue.

Woo puts his distinctive stylistic stamp on movie right away as he employs slow motion techniques during the sequence where an unfortunate homeless man is hunted by men clad all in black riding on motorcycles (a visual nod to Woo’s previous film Hard Boiled). He also utilizes freeze frames and an editing style that shows the same action from several different angles reminiscent of his work in The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992).

No amount of studio meddling can completely neuter Woo’s full-blooded style as he inserts some of his trademark visual motifs, like white doves flying in slow motion near the movie’s hero, in this case a scene where Chance connects the dots in Nat’s father’s case. For the last 30 minutes, Woo ups the carnage to ridiculous levels as Chance forces Fouchon and his men to hunt him on his turf in a fantastically choreographed series of action set pieces in a warehouse storing old Mardi Gras floats. Woo pulls out all the stops, employing his trademark action flourishes – someone firing two guns at the same time, two men shooting at each other at close range, and other inspired bits, like a great shot of Chance kicking a can of gasoline in the air and shooting it with a shotgun, which sets it and his assailant on fire.

Even Woo’s stylishly framed shots can’t distract from ridiculous moments like when Chance punches a snake in the head to subdue it and then bites off its tail. The film’s intentional comic relief is provided late on by the welcome appearance of Wilford Brimley as Chance’s moonshine-making uncle who lives deep in the bayou and sports an outrageously scenery-chewing Cajun accent. Brimley appears to be fully aware of the silly action movie he’s in and embraces it wholeheartedly.

While working on Hard Boiled, Woo was worried about Hong Kong’s impending transfer to mainland China and the restrictions that would inevitably be put on his work by the new regime. He had always wanted to make movies in Tinseltown and, as luck would have it, he received a phone call from executive vice-president of production at 20th Century Fox’s Tom Jacobson who wanted to produce one of his films, giving him several screenplays to read. Woo also got a call from Oliver Stone who wanted to produce a modern kung-fu movie set in South Asia and Los Angeles. He gave Woo a script, which he liked but the project fell through.

After completing Hard Boiled, Woo’s business partner Terence Chang introduced him to Universal Pictures producer Jim Jacks who, at the time, had a project called Hard Target with action star Jean-Claude Van Damme already in place with a screenplay by written by former Navy SEAL Chuck Pfarrer. When developing the script, Jacks worked with Pfarrer and they had discussed both Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey (1965) and the 1932 adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game as templates. The first one didn’t work and they decided to go with the second, setting the story in New Orleans to explain Van Damme’s accent. The producer was looking for a director after Andrew Davis turned it down. Woo was given the script and liked it but needed convincing. Jacks, Pfarrer, and Van Damme flew to Hong Kong to meet with the filmmaker to talk about the project, which he agreed to do.

The studio needed convincing to hire a filmmaker known for “over-the-top, melodramatic action movies,” according to Jacks. The studio didn’t know any of Woo’s films and it wasn’t until studio chairman Tom Pollock said, “Well, he certainly can direct an action scene. So if Jean-Claude will approve him, I’ll do it with him.”

When Woo arrived for work he experienced the culture shock of being inundated with a seemingly endless supply of meetings with executives and bureaucratic red tape he had deal with before shooting began. He was also surprised that movie stars had so much power: “They had final cut approval, final draft approval, lots of final approvals! And I was so shocked because in Hong Kong the director is everything. The director has so much freedom to do whatever he wants!”

Despite a language barrier, Woo worked well with most of the cast, giving them artistic license as Arnold Vosloo remembered, the director encouraged them to “Go for it, you guys [Arnold and Lance] go off and find out who these guys are. He allowed us that freedom and luxury of doing that.” Woo worked around the language barrier early on by listening more and speaking less, conveying his points by facial expressions, gestures or a few words.

Woo also got on very well with Lance Henriksen right from the start: “When I met him, I unconsciously shook his hand bowed. It was one of those moments of absolute respect for each other,” the actor said. In return, Woo let him pick out his character’s wardrobe and allowed him to ad-lib some of his dialogue, a few lines actually made it into the final cut.

The one cast member Woo did have difficulty with was Van Damme due to his own limited ability with English, his ego and his role as one of the film’s producers. The movie star insisted that one camera be dedicated to close-ups of his oiled biceps. Woo was always waiting for Van Damme who was on his phone making deals with other studios or working on other projects while everyone else was setting up a shot. Vosloo also backs up Woo’s account of Van Damme’s behavior on set: “If he had somebody that was more willing to be a player as opposed to a star, it would have been a far better film – but Jean-Claude really hurt John.” Vosloo claimed that Van Damme would show up to the set after Woo had already set up shots and questioned his choices then told him to do it another way.

In addition to Van Damme lording his producer status over Woo, the studio was concerned that the filmmaker wouldn’t be able to handle an American film crew so they hired Sam Raimi to shadow him on the set and take over if he got in trouble. This backfired when Raimi became one of Woo’s most ardent supporters, arguing with executives over his creative freedom during post-production when Van Damme wanted to do his own cut of the film with the help of the chief editor from the studio behind Woo’s back until Raimi stepped in:

“Of course, I was so upset, you know. ‘It's not right! This is my movie, I should do my own cut!’ And Sam wasn't happy as well, so he arranged a big meeting. He got together all the producers and the editor and he was screaming in the meeting! ‘This is a John Woo movie! Let John do his work!’ And he made everybody back off, and I was so grateful.”

Unfortunately, Raimi could only do so much and in addition to running into studio interference, Woo’s cut of the film ran afoul of the MPAA who made him cut it down from an X rating for violence to a more marketable R rating. The critical reception wasn’t much better. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Hard Target does what it can to present Mr. Van Damme in a bold new light. Curiously, the film's neo-Peckinpah taste for slow motion gives Mr. Van Damme's stunts a balletic quality that diminishes their spontaneity." The Washington Post's Desson Howe wrote, "Essentially, Hard Target is a risk-averse Van Damme vehicle, steered by many hands, and set on tracks leading directly to the delivery entrances of the country's video stores. Woo isn't the driver by any means. He's just a VIP passenger along for the ride."

In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, "Woo’s particular brand of idiosyncratic sentimentality, however, is largely absent (a victim, apparently, of the testing process), as is Chow Yun-fat, the star of all of Woo’s most recent films and the director’s alter ego. Van Damme, the erstwhile 'Muscles From Brussles,' turns out to be an insufficient replacement, woodenly stymieing all of Woo’s persistent attempts to mythologize him via careful use of slow-motion photography.” Finally, Entertainment Weekly gave the movie a "B+" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "By the time Hard Target reaches its amazing climax, set in a warehouse stocked with surreal Mardi Gras floats, the film has become an incendiary action orgy, as joyously excessive as the grand finale in a fireworks show. Woo puts the thrill back into getting blown away."

Woo fared better with his next movie Broken Arrow (1996), which still diluted his style and thematic preoccupations but it did bring him together with John Travolta, hot off Pulp Fiction (1994), and who would become an important collaborator on his most creatively successful Hollywood film, Face/Off (1997), which allowed the filmmaker to finally cut loose stylistically and thematically, having learned how things worked within the studio system.


SOURCES

Keeley, Pete. “Hard Target at 25: John Woo on Fighting for Respect.” The Hollywood Reporter. August 24, 2018.

Hall, Kenneth E. John Woo: The Films. McFarland & Co. 2005.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Open Range


Kevin Costner was already an acclaimed and popular actor when he starred in and directed Dances with Wolves (1990). The film was a critical and commercial success but he soon became too ambitious for his own good with the disastrous, high-profile one-two punch of Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997). The critics turned on him and they failed to connect with a mainstream audience like Dances had, prompting him to focus more on acting and be choosier with his directing gigs.

Open Range (2003) saw Costner not only return to the western genre but also to the director’s chair after six years. As he did with Dances, the filmmaker put up his own money to help make the film and adjusted his ambitions by making a straight-up crowd-pleasing story that married the entertaining thrills of a western like Tombstone (1993) with the no frills meditation on violence of Unforgiven (1992).

Four men are driving a herd of cattle through an open range in Montana, 1882. Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner) are the two veteran cowboys aided by two inexperienced young men Mose Harrison (Abraham Benrubi) and Button (Diego Luna). The film quickly establishes the dynamic between these men as they wait out an intense thunderstorm by playing cards. After the storm passes, Costner shows the men performing daily chores with little bits of business like how Charley approaches a skittish horse. Every man pulls his own weight as Mose says to Button and we see them work together to get their wagon out of the mud from the storm. Driving cattle is hard work and Costner doesn’t let us forget it. He also indulges in the romance of it with a montage of lovingly crafted shots of cattle being herded over the countryside.

On the surface, Boss is the grizzled cantankerous veteran, Charley is the ex-gunslinger with a dark past while Mose and Button are like brothers. It’s a testament to the skill of these four actors that after only spending ten minutes with their characters we are right there with them due to their camaraderie. We are invested in their story. When these men work and live off the land together like they have, a permanent bond develops between them. When this dynamic is threatened we want to see those responsible get their comeuppance.

When Mose fails to return from a supply run at a nearby town, Charley and Boss go investigate. They find out that he’s in jail after mixing it up with some local cattlemen. It sounds out of character for Mose and a conversation with Marshal Poole (James Russo) confirms that something isn’t right. Sure enough, local cattle baron Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) chimes in. He doesn’t like free grazers like Boss and Charley because he doesn’t want the competition. He threatens them and they take the badly beaten Mose to Doc Barlow (Dean McDermott) and his beautiful assistant Sue (Annette Bening). Of course, Baxter won’t let things go and sends four masked men to intimidate them. The inevitable confrontation results in tragic consequences and the rest of Open Range plays out Charley and Boss getting revenge on Baxter and his men.

Costner expertly uses the widescreen aspect ratio right out of the gate as the title card appears over a wide vista with a cattle drive dwarfed by ominous storm clouds off in the distance. It not only gives a sense of place but also sets the mood. It is this kind of iconography that makes westerns distinctive from other genres.

One of the great pleasures of Open Range is seeing Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall share the screen together. They play well off each other with a believable short hand between their characters conveying years spent together working off the land. They get on each other’s nerves once in awhile, but they also have a great respect for one another. Over the course of the film they get moments where the two men tell each other things about themselves that they didn’t know. It gives us valuable insights into their respective characters.

Duvall’s Boss is a man who has a way with words, telling the townsfolk what Baxter and his men did to Mose and Button, or talking reassuringly to an unconscious Button. Costner’s Charley, on the other hand, is a man of few words but when he does speak he means every one of them. He’s a man who has lived a violent past and is trying to lead a better one but Baxter forces him to get in touch with his violent nature once again.

It is also refreshing to see Costner avoid casting some young, up-and-coming actor to play his romantic interest and opt instead for someone his age like Annette Bening who can more than hold her own. She doesn’t play a damsel in distress (until later) but someone who is capable of using her medical expertise to help Mose and Button after they’ve had run-ins with Baxter’s men. She’s lived life and is not afraid of Charley’s violent past because she’s seen the honorable man he is now.

Costner is a generous actor, giving Duvall and Bening plenty of screen-time and meaty speeches to show off their chops. That’s not to say he marginalizes his role in the film. Initially, Charley seems to be a man of few words but it is only because it takes him awhile to warm up to people. Around Mose, Button and especially Boss he’s not afraid to speak up and tell them what’s on his mind. It’s as if Costner is coming at the film like a fan and wanted to see a veteran actor like Duvall in another western.

Based on Lauran Paine’s 1990 novel, The Open Range Men, Open Range marked Kevin Costner’s return to the directing chair since The Postman and the first western he appeared in since Wyatt Earp (1994). At the time, it was considered a risky move for the filmmaker, which he was very much aware: “The western is a very scary thing for Hollywood, and I’m sure they’re saying, ‘Gee, if Kevin really needs a hit, what in the hell is he doing making a western?’” He and his fellow producers, Jake Eberts and David Valdes, were so committed to the project that they each put in a lot of their own money into it, much as he had done on Dances with Wolves.

They began scouting locations on March 15, 2002 in Canada when they realized it wasn’t feasible to shoot in the United States. They spent months searching the prairies until finding Nicoll Ranch at Jumping Pound Creek, the Turner Ranch and the Hughes Ranch for the cattle driving and range camp scenes. Looking for a place where the fictional frontier town would be located proved to be difficult until they finally discovered the Stoney Nakoda First Nations Reserve west of Calgary but it had no access road. Before the town could be constructed, a one-and-a-half mile dirt road had to be built across the reserve. The filmmakers spent four weeks conducting research and design in Los Angeles. The art directors and designers worked from history books and pictures by pioneer photographers like Silas Melander and Evelyn Cameron.

Putting in a significant amount of his own money allowed Costner to achieve the authenticity he desired, which included spending $2 million building a fully-functioning frontier town. Construction of the town took nine weeks with great care taken to recreate period detail. All the lumber was milled to historical period sizes and weathered for the exterior of buildings. The window glass for the town was hand blown and imported. Even the color palette that was used reflected paint sample charts from 1880. All of this attention to detail allowed Costner to film both exterior and interior shots on location.

The production encountered a few challenges. Nine weeks before principal photography began, Robert Duvall broke his ribs in a horseback-riding accident. Filming began on June 17, 2002 with a budget of $23 million. During the first few weeks, Costner’s appendix ruptured but went undiagnosed until he was rushed to the emergency room two months after the production finished.

Open Range received mixed to positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Kevin Costner's Open Range, an imperfect but deeply involving and beautifully made Western, works primarily because it expresses the personal values of a cowboy named Boss and his employee of 10 years, Charley.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Mr. Duvall knows the difference between underacting and overacting, and knows when each is called for. He plays his part, a thin fantasy of crusty frontier benevolence, as if it were a mediocre poker hand, bluffing Boss into someone bigger and more exciting than he has any right to be.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “There's a lot in this movie, simple, big, small and exciting. It's the year's first serious contender for big prizes. What's not to like about this picture?”

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman gave the film a “B” rating and wrote, “Duvall and Costner play together like a seasoned team: They’re wary, unsentimental colleagues whose opposing rhythms — Boss is spiky and righteous, the mellow Charley is slower to anger — never undercut their silent allegiance.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Though his choice of roles has not always been wise, Costner is very much a movie star, and his reversion to an Unforgiven dark side is in many ways more believable than his fumbling courtship of the forthright Ms. Barlow.”

Costner doesn’t want to reinvent the western with Open Range. He simply wants to tell an entertaining story about hard-working men that stand up for their rights to live life on their own terms. The two-hour running time may seem indulgent to some but the film never feels too long. He lets things breathe and allows us to spend time with these characters and get to know them so we care what happens when things go south.

There’s something to be said for telling an entertaining story well. So often these days story is sacrificed for spectacle. In this respect, Open Range is a refreshing call back to classic westerns like Red River (1948) but with aspects of revisionist westerns like Unforgiven. This film is not afraid to tell a simple story where the good guys beat the bad guys and it works in part because it’s done in a sincere way.


SOURCES

Giammarco, David. “Costner’s Last Stand.” The Globe and Mail. August 9, 2003.

Kaufman, Sarah. “After Several Flops, Costner Defends Open Range as a Movie with Heart.” Washington Post. August 15, 2003.

Open Range Production Notes. Touchstone Pictures. 2003.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Rollerball


“I thought that violence for the entertainment of the masses was an obscene idea. That’s what I saw coming and that’s why I made the film.” – Norman Jewison

For many years now, professional sports have been all about money. Superstar athletes earn huge salaries for their exploits while also enjoying lucrative endorsements. Meanwhile, wealthy businessmen and corporations make millions with ever-increasing ticket prices and merchandising. Hell, even the places where people gather to watch sporting events have become corporatized. Gone are the Maple Leaf Gardens and the Boston Garden, replaced or renamed Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens and TD Garden respectively, which will last only as long as that corporate entity owns it to be renamed by the next corporate behemoth.

Director Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (1975) saw this coming. Set in the future, it features a world where the purity of a sport known as Rollerball (think roller derby meets hockey) is becoming increasingly tainted by the influence of corporations. He wisely starts things off by showing a match from beginning to end, which lets us see how it works – the rules and the dynamics of the game – and he thrusts us right in the middle of the mayhem, conveying the speed and brutality of the sport. Most importantly, it introduces us to the sport’s most popular player Jonathan E (James Caan), the captain of Houston’s team.

It’s a tough game with plenty of injuries. Much like with hockey, Houston has an enforcer named Moonpie (John Beck) whose job it is to protect top scorer Jonathan and provide the occasional cheap shot on an opposing player. Jewison sprinkles several little touches here and there that establishes the atmosphere, like how the corporate anthem is played before the game starts instead of a national anthem. There are no nations any more. There are no more wars. Corporations run everything.

The game plays on while the corporate overlords, as represented by Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), observe from on high and afterwards visits the team in the locker room, applauding them for the victory in his own benign yet smug way of a man that knows how much power he wields. Jonathan is a highly decorated player and as Bartholomew points they’ve run out of accolades to give him. As the team leaves the stadium we see how popular Jonathan is as a large group of fans chant his name, clamoring for his autograph.

The next day, he meets with Bartholomew who wants him to announce his retirement on a television special dedicated to his long and illustrious career. The executive offers him a cushy life with all kinds of perks but the athlete is still bitter over the past. An executive took his wife Ella (Maud Adams) away from him. Bartholomew doesn’t understand Jonathan’s reluctance to retire as he doesn’t know what it’s like to be on a team that has its own unique dynamic and way of playing. Everybody depends on each other and Jonathan doesn’t want to give that up. He has everything he could want but when the powers that be want to take that away from him he decides to push back. The rest of Rollerball plays out with his quest to find out why they want him to quit.

Jewison portrays corporate executives as pretty, shallow people that attend lavish parties and take high-end drugs. At one such gathering they take their escapades to the next level, mindlessly shooting and blowing up trees for fun. The idle rich are horribly drunk on destructive power. The image of a row of trees burning on a hill is a powerful one and makes us want to see Jonathan succeed even more.

The film also shows how the corporate machine tries to crush any kind of resistance to their edicts by changing the rules of the sport for the last two games to make it more dangerous. If Jonathan doesn’t quit, he’ll either die playing the game or his teammates will. The semi-final against Tokyo ups the stakes in violence not only among the athletes but in the stands as fans become increasingly hostile to the point where when their team loses they turn into an angry mob. Their rage spills out onto the track as they mix it up with the players. The game has gotten out of control with very few rules. The final championship game features no rules in a final desperate attempt to eliminate Jonathan.

Rollerball was part of a fantastic run of films for James Caan in the 1970s. Starting with The Godfather in 1972, he delivered strong performances in Cinderella Liberty (1973), The Gambler (1974) and Freebie and the Bean (1974). He does an excellent job conveying Jonathan’s gradual self-awareness that starts simply: why is he being forced out of the game he loves? In a world where no one is supposed to ask questions, this makes him a dangerous person. He is no longer following the corporate script.

Caan’s on-screen presence demonstrates why Jonathan is such a charismatic player. He is loyal to his teammates and is a dynamic athlete that can make those clutch plays that win games. He is not particularly intelligent but is self-aware of this fact and has an innate instinct for what’s wrong and goes with his gut as he begins to question things. The actor also shows Jonathan’s vulnerable side in a scene where he gives a heartfelt speech to comatose teammate Moonpie on the eve of what might be his final game. Up until now he’s always been there to watch his back and for the first time Jonathan is going to have to go it alone.

John Houseman is excellent as the benevolent executive that speaks in a wonderfully condescending, cultured voice while also capable of stern, icy glares directed at the increasingly disobedient Jonathan. At one point, he finally lays it out for the star athlete: “No player is greater than the game itself…It’s not a game a man is supposed to grow strong in, Jonathan…You can be made to quit. You can be forced.” Of course, this makes Jonathan even more determined and defiant.

John Beck plays Moonpie as a racist good ol’ boy with little self-awareness. He understands his role on the team – to protect Jonathan and mess up players on the other team – but little else. He’s the kind of player that exists in all kinds of professional sports and the actor nails stereotypical enforcer, especially in the scene where he gives his teammates a rousing pep talk while a strategy coach (Robert Ito) tries to prepare them for the upcoming game with Tokyo.

The final match doesn’t feature a traditional pre-game pep talk as we’ve seen before – just grim determination as Jonathan goes out first while the crowds chant his name. Not surprisingly, this is the most intense and violent one yet as he survives, scoring the only goal in defiance to the corporation. Battered but not beaten he has become what they feared – bigger than the game and bigger than the corporation.

William Harrison was a professor of creative writing at the University of Arkansas and found himself obsessed with what he felt was the unsettling social and economic changes occurring in the world. He also witnessed a violent fight at a university basketball game. These things inspired him to write a short story called, “Roller Ball Murder,” which was published in the September 1973 issue of Esquire magazine.

Around the same time, filmmaker Norman Jewison had gone to a hockey game between the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers, which turned into an ugly mess: “There was blood on the ice and 16,000 people were standing up and screaming.” This led to him contacting Harrison. Both men were living in London at the time and the writer’s agent told him that Jewison was going to offer him $50,000 for the short story. He decided to ask for more money and an opportunity to write the screenplay. Six weeks went by and Harrison assumed that he had blown the deal but received a call from Jewison’s assistant who told him that all his demands had been met and they were in pre-production. When the two men finally met at Pinewood Studios they immediately bonded and spent all summer in London working on the script together.

When it came to designing the track for rollerball, Jewison and his crew decided that it had to be circular because of the roller-skaters and the motorcycles. British production designer John Box built a scale model of the track. Working with the art director and the track architect, they took a little ball, put a spring behind it and shot it around the track so that they could figure out the moment of gravity pull. The next step was to find a place to recreate the model. They found the Olympic basketball stadium in Munich. The production spent a large amount of the film’s budget building the track, complete with a banked surface of 40 feet and a total circumference of 190 feet.

When it came to casting for the pivotal role of Jonathan E, Jewison knew of James Caan’s love of “physical confrontation” and offered him the role. The actor liked the script but “I was really persuaded to get involved by the jock in me.” For team extras, Jewison recruited California roller derby athletes, English roller hockey players, and, of course, stuntmen. Caan and his teammates were sent to a California arena for four months before shooting to learn how to play the game. He said they skated seven times a week until they were good enough.

The actors thought they were ready to go until they arrived in Munich and saw the banked track they would be filming on. They had practiced on a flat track in California and had to learn how to skate on this new one. They quickly adapted and Jewison let them play for real, soon regretting it when a stuntman got injured and ended up in the hospital. Once they put on their uniforms, something changed as one extra on the Tokyo team said, “We want to skate the game. When we start up, everybody forgets the filming and we’re competing for the ball.” The director was concerned for the players’ safety: “There is a gladiatorial aspect to rollerball that frightens me. I keep cautioning the boys about it. They are all athletes…and they love body contact, they love playing with the ball, they love the speed and agility, and there is an enormous amount of skill involved.” Caan insisted on doing his own stunts and separated a shoulder and damaged a rib. He was less enthused about the non-rollerball scenes or, as he called them, “all the walking and talking shit,” because he had to play “a guy whose emotions had basically been taken away from him.”

The extras got so into the game that on the final week of shooting they put on a game for the public. Even though the stadium only held approximately 5,000 people, 8,500 turned up and the police had to be called in to turn away those that couldn’t be let in. According to Caan, gameplay never lasted for more than 25 or 30 seconds: “It was just one fight after another.”

The irony of Bartholomew’s reasoning – that no one player is bigger than the game – is exactly what happened. Jonathan is an icon thanks to corporate machinations and his own natural talent. Most sports are designed to be all about teamwork. It is all the things outside of the game – the merchandising, pundits, corporate puff pieces, and so on that puts an emphasis on the individual player, elevating them to heroes in the eyes of their fans.

Rollerball is a classic man against the system film. It features a man who has it all but when he refuses to do what he’s told, is pressured in all kinds of ways, from changing the rules so that he’ll either quit or be killed, to reuniting him with Ella – a bittersweet experience as she admits to being told to try and convince him to quit. These tactics only strengthen his resolve, making him even more dangerous because all that ever mattered to him was the game. At the end of the film he transcends it to become something else.


SOURCES

Delaney, Sam. “When It Comes to the Crunch.” The Guardian. April 20, 1999.

Gammon, Clive. “Rollerball.” Sports Illustrated. April 21, 1975.

Friday, February 21, 2020

American Gigolo


Many people look back at the 1980s through the soft focus lens of nostalgia. They think fondly of John Hughes’ teen movies or the music of The Police or television shows like Miami Vice or the novels of Stephen King. The people who grew up in that decade have attempted to pay tribute to that time in recent years with movies like the remake of It (2017), T.V. shows like Stranger Things and music by likes of Bruno Mars that invoke the era.

Nostalgia for the ‘80s has reached its saturation point and people tend to forget that there was a lot of awful stuff, too, like Reaganomics, the omnipresent threat of nuclear war, the explosion of Japanese fashion, T.V. shows like Alf, the proliferation of mindless synth pop, and the dominance of producer-driven Hollywood blockbusters.

One of the films that best encapsulated the superficial consumerism of the era was Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980). With its icy Eurotrash score by Giorgo Moroder, its expensive clothes by Giorgio Armani and luxurious cars like Mercedes and BMW, it established the stylistic template for popular culture that would be cemented by the equally influential Miami Vice show a few years later for the rest of the decade. Schrader’s film is often dismissed as a shallow exercise in style while failing to realize that its style is its substance. It is all surface, reflecting its materialistic protagonist.

Julian Kay (Richard Gere) is a high-end male escort specializing in wealthy women. He wears only the best suits and drives expensive cars. Schrader immediately immerses us in his world with a montage of him buying suits, driving his Mercedes and dropping off one of his clients all to the strains of Blondie’s “Call Me” while giving us a tour of boutique shops, expensive beachfront condos and affluent hotels – the playground of California’s rich elite.

His world is turned upside down when he meets a mysterious and lonely woman named Michelle (Lauren Hutton), the wife of a California state senator. They meet by chance and she becomes obsessed with him and he finds himself falling in love with her. His life gets even more complicated when he finds out that a woman he had a kinky one-off gig with in Palm Springs has been murdered. Julian soon becomes the prime suspect and begins to lose control of his life that he works so hard to maintain. He must figure out who set him up and why.

Schrader takes us through Julian’s process on getting ready for a job. He lays out his suits, opens his drawer of ties, then dress shirts and so on. It’s a ritual he’s done countless times and Richard Gere skillfully sells it, showing how all these clothes inform his character. In this case, the clothes truly make the man. For Julian it’s all about control. He prides himself in knowing what women want, providing them with a fantasy that plays into their desires. They both get something out of their transactions. They feel wanted and desired and he gets paid.

The impossibly handsome Gere is perfectly cast as the narcissistic Julian. He pays close attention to how he looks and dresses as they are integral aspects of his job. He has to look good for his clients. The actor certainly knows how to wear an Armani suit and has an engaging smile that exudes charm. Julian has his whole act down cold – a tilt of the head, a sly smile, the way he looks at someone, and the silky smooth voice are all parts of his arsenal of seductive techniques.

Gere had a terrific run of films starting in the late 1970s with a small but memorable part in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), Days of Heaven (1978), and then into the 1980s with American Gigolo and Breathless (1983), playing fascinating, complex characters that weren’t always likable but always interesting to watch thanks to his incredible charisma.

Lauren Hutton is excellent as the rather enigmatic woman that takes a shine to Julian. One imagines her being an unhappy trophy wife who is expected to accompany her husband to all kinds of political functions with an interested expression plastered on her face. The actor conveys an impressive vulnerability like when Michelle seeks out Julian and asks for a date with him. She is frank with what she wants and Hutton is very good in this scene.

The intimacy between Julian and Michelle is more than just being physical with each other. It is the conversation they have after making love for the second time that is interesting as she tries to get him to reveal personal details. When she asks him where he’s from he says, “I’m not from anywhere…Anything worth knowing about me, you can learn by letting me make love to you.” Julian is a blank slate and this allows women to project their fantasies on him. He can be anything they want, which is why he’s so good at what he does. He does tell her why he only prefers older women, which is revealing in and of itself. He cares about pleasuring women. He puts their needs before his own, often to the detriment of his own pleasure.

It is also interesting how Schrader objectifies both men and women in American Gigolo. Initially, as we see Julian ply his trade as it were and it is the women that are shown naked but when he and Michelle make love the second time the camera lingers on their respective body parts equally and, in fact, afterwards we see more of his naked body than hers in one of the earliest examples of full frontal male nudity in a Hollywood film. As he demonstrated in this film and a few years later in Breathless, Gere is a fearless actor very comfortable with his own body.

This translates to the character as evident in a scene that occurs halfway through the film between Julian and Detective Sunday (Hector Elizondo) who is investigating the murder when the latter asks the former, “Doesn’t it ever bother you, Julian? What you do?” He replies, “Giving pleasure to women? I’m supposed to feel guilty about that?” When Sunday argues that what he does isn’t legal Julian says, “Legal is not always right.” He arrogantly says that some people are above the law and at this point he loses Sunday who sees things in simpler terms.

In 1977, Paul Schrader sold his screenplay for American Gigolo to Paramount Pictures. The next year John Travolta agreed to star and the filmmaker felt that the character of Julian Kay was a natural progression for the actor after his role in Saturday Night Fever (1977). Schrader had seen Travolta in a photo shoot for Variety where he was unshaven and in a white suit and felt that he was right for the part. The actor’s participation set the wheels in motion and the film was given a $10 million budget. The director auditioned four or five actors for the role of Michelle and liked Mia Farrow the best but when he tested her with Travolta, “she blew John off the screen. She made him look like an amateur, like a kid, not like the seducer.” As a result, he had to go with someone else and cast Lauren Hutton who had tested well with Travolta. Unfortunately, several things prompted the actor to drop out of the production: his mother had died, recent movie Moment by Moment (1978) was a commercial and critical failure, and he was anxious about the homosexual elements in the script. His departure left Schrader with two days to cast someone else.

After strong performances in high profile films that weren’t very profitable, Schrader wanted to cast Richard Gere in American Gigolo. Then head of Paramount Barry Diller didn’t want him, preferring Christopher Reeve instead. Schrader didn’t think Reeve was right for the part, as he was “too all-American, didn’t have that reptile mysteriousness.” Unbeknownst to the studio, Schrader offered the part to Gere on a Sunday, giving him only a few hours to decide. Once Gere agreed, Schrader left a note on Diller’s gate at his home. The executive was understandably upset as the director wasn’t authorized to do that. Schrader argued that Travolta was better for Urban Cowboy (1980), which the studio wanted to make and Diller allowed Gere to be American Gigolo.

Schrader said of Gere’s commitment to the role as opposed to Travolta: “In one day, Richard Gere asked all the questions that Travolta hadn’t asked in six months.” Gere was drawn to the project by Schrader’s approach to how it would be shot, “with very European techniques – the concept opened up: less a slice-of-life character study and something much more textured, stylistic.”

When Travolta dropped out, Schrader was tempted to go back to Farrow, however, he didn’t want to push his luck with the studio after they let him cast Gere but regrets not sticking with the actor: “Obviously I did everything I could and Lauren did everything she could to be as good as she could, but Mia just had stronger chops.”

When it came to putting Los Angeles on film, Schrader realized that it had been photographed countless times and wanted to bring a fresh perspective. He hired production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who had worked on Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Giorgio Armani for the clothes, and Giorgio Moroder, who had scored Midnight Express (1978), to compose the film’s score. Scarfiotti, in particular, was an important collaborator as Schrader admired his visual style and the “idea that you can have a poetry of images rather than a poetry of words.” He put Scarfiotti in charge of the look of the film, which included production design, wardrobe, props, and cinematography.

Schrader picked Moroder to compose the film’s score as he liked the “alienated quality” of his music and “how propulsive it was, how sexual yet antiseptic. A sound for a new Los Angeles.” Moroder had originally wanted Steve Nick to sing the film’s theme song but she turned him down. He sent a demo to Blondie with the music and lyrics already written. Their album Parallel Lines was a massive hit but they had not been approached to contribute to a film. They admired both Moroder and Schrader’s work and agreed to do it. Debbie Harry didn’t like the lyrics and asked if she could write her own. She saw a rough cut of the film and the opening scene was in her mind along with Moroder’s music when the first lines came to her.

Clothes were also an important aspect of the production. According to Schrader, when it came to Julian, “the clothes and the character were one and the same. Remember, this is a guy who has to do a line of coke just so he can get dressed.” Armani had gotten involved at the suggestion of Travolta’s manager back when the actor was still attached to the project. The fashion designer was getting ready to go into an international non-couture line and the timing was right. When Gere came on board they kept all the clothes and tailored them for the actor.

To prepare for the role Schrader had Gere study actor Alain Delon in Purple Noon (1960), telling him, “Look at this guy, Alain Delon. He knows that the moment he enters a room, the room has become a better place.” According to the actor, the nudity wasn’t in the script, rather “it was just the natural process of making the movie.” He also didn’t know the character or his subculture very well: “I wanted to immerse myself in all of that and I had literally two weeks. So I just dove in.”

In retrospect, Schrader regrets that the homosexual aspects of the script were toned down to get studio backing: “At the time, we thought we were being brave, promoting this androgynous male entitlement. Now I look back, and we were being cowardly. It should’ve been much more gay. Then again, I probably got it made because Julian pretends not to be gay.”

At the time, American Gigolo received mostly negative reviews by several mainstream critics. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Julian Kay is someone of absolutely no visible charm or interest, and though Mr. Gere is a handsome, able, low-key actor, he brings no charm or interest to the role. Then, too, the camera is not kind to him. It's not that he doesn't look fine, but that the camera seems unable to find any personality, like Dracula, whose image is unreflected by a mirror.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “By the time it sputters to a fade out, Gigolo pays a heavy price for such sustained pretentiousness in tawdry circumstances. This movie invites a sort of sarcasm that destroyed Moment By Moment without ever generating as much naive entertainment value.” Roger Ebert, however, gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The whole movie has a winning sadness about it; take away the story's sensational aspects and what you have is a study in loneliness. Richard Gere's performance is central to that effect, and some of his scenes – reading the morning paper, rearranging some paintings, selecting a wardrobe – underline the emptiness of his life.”

If the thriller genre elements don’t work as well as they should in American Gigolo it’s because the aspects of Julian’s profession and his developing relationship with Michelle are infinitely more interesting. It feels like Schrader was still trying things out and would be more successful at marrying these aspects in the film’s spiritual sequel The Walker (2007) decades later. American Gigolo is a fascinating fusion of the commercial sensibilities of slick movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Schrader’s art house inclinations (in particular, the films of Robert Bresson), establishing a stylistic template whose influence would be felt throughout the rest of the decade. Gone was the gritty, looseness of the 1970s, replaced by a slick sheen with style and spectacle over character development as epitomized by Bruckheimer produced blockbusters like Flashdance (1983) and Top Gun (1986). American Gigolo has aged better than many of these films thanks to Schrader’s thematic preoccupations, most significantly a self-destructive protagonist that finds redemption, and Gere’s strong performance that anchors the film. It may seem like a happy ending inconsistent with the rest of the film but Julian has survived at a great cost to his reputation. Everything he is has been torn down and now he must find some way to rebuild his life.


NOTES

Anolik, Lili. “Call Me!” Airmail News Weekly. February 8, 2020.

Jones, Chris. “Richard Gere: On Guard.” BBC News. December 27, 2002.

Krager, Dave. “Richard Gere on Gere.” Entertainment Weekly. August 31, 2012.

Perry, Kevin EG. “The Style of American Gigolo.” GQ. March 2012.

Segell, Michael. “Richard Gere: Heart-Breaker.” Rolling Stone. March 6, 1980.