Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '86 - Matt Bourjaily ""

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Underrated '86 - Matt Bourjaily

Matt Bourjaily is an English teacher, a former teen film critic, and a shamefully unknown writer who was once dismissed from the test audience of the POINT BREAK remake for being too negative.
CROSSROADS/THE KARATE KID II (Walter Hill/John G. Avildsen)
It’s important to note that 80’s powerhouse Ralph Macchio delivered not one, but two huge films in 1986. One of them, already brought up by a previous contributor, was Walter’s Hill’s CROSSROADS, which is just fucking huge, and I don’t need to say much more. If watching Steve Vai shred and emote as the devil’s guitarist isn’t reason enough to see this, then the fact that the devil even has his own guitarist should be. Plus, you get Joe Morton delivering moments of eloquent, taunting punctuation, a forgettable Jami Gertz, and an awesome Ry Cooder soundtrack that is worth picking up on its own.
       BUT, let’s talk about KK2, the film that, for all of its sprawling commentary on revenge and redemption, world conflict, love lost and gained, and believing in oneself (yes, it has ALL of that, plus karate!), really shines in developing Daniel LaRusso’s stupidity to new and exciting levels. Sure, KK1 showed us how a skinny kid from Jersey could foolishly taunt black-belt level bullies without being able to run very fast, but KK2 opens a whole new world of opportunity for Daniel to show he probably needs some sort of full-time caretaker. From almost goring himself with an easily-released cannery blade (OSHA regulations not having reached Okinawa by 1986, apparently), to trying to fight a super-ripped dude who hands him a spear (hint: if someone gives you a spear and tells you to attack them, DON’T fall for it. It’s a trick.), to making stupid icebreaker jokes when cute girls are trying to have tea ceremonies, Daniel bumbles his way through all sorts of sheltered white kid hijinks. Also, don’t forget that the film opens with (in true Rocky II fashion), the awesome conclusion to KK1, and the parking lot confrontation between Miyagi and Kreese, which is worth the price of admission all its own. (Admittedly, my alternate-universe KK2 script has the Cobra Kai, now members of the Miyagi-Do dojo, traveling to Okinawa to help Daniel out, and ends with an all-out brawl between Miyagi-Do Boya and Chozen’s gang, rather than some silly drum technique. But hey, I’m not paid the big bucks.)
THE COLOR OF MONEY (Martin Scorsese)
Take one look at Paul Newman’s glasses and mustache in this movie, and you’ll know exactly why it’s far superior to THE HUSTLER by every measurement that matters. Newman looks like every one of my uncles from Milwaukee, without the sleeveless t-shirts. This sequel has Newman reviving the character of Fast Eddie Felson, now taking the cocky young hotshot Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise) under his wing. But, of course, wild horses are not meant to be caged, or something, and student and teacher soon have to confront each other. Inexplicably, this film gets Martin Scorsese directing Richard Price’s screen treatment, and it couldn’t be a less gritty, less visceral product. (Perhaps Marty’s choice to make Eric Clapton’s “It’s In the Way That You Use It” the marketing song was the first clue that this wasn’t going to be one of his more gutsy projects.) But, Tom Cruise’s hair is ridiculous, and it’s sort of amusing to watch Newman phone in a performance while Cruise just chews scenery in ways that remind you how 80’s Tom Cruise was a lot of fun to watch, and the “Werewolves of London” scene is still worth a YouTube revisit now and then.
Okay, so if there is one film that absolutely must be on your list, it’s NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER, a story that sacrifices logic for everything that’s awesome about 80’s karate movies. Real-life black belt Kurt McKinney is Jason Stillwell, a Bruce Lee-obsessed karate student whose father owns a dojo. Jean-Claude Van Damme is Ivan Kraschinsky, a Russian martial-arts heavy who breaks legs for a crime syndicate that seems obsessed with taking a piece of the action in the always-lucrative “local dojo” market. (Seriously, this movie predicts most of the plot of KARATE KID PART III by a good six or seven years.) After Ivan cripples and humiliates Jason’s less-than-impressed dad/sensei, the family flees L.A. for Seattle...but before long, the criminals return, and it’s up to Jason to defeat Ivan.
        But how will he do this, you ask? By being trained by none other than the ghost of Bruce motherfuckin’ LEE, that’s how! Seriously, it’s so good. Jason hallucinates the spirit of Bruce Lee coming to visit him, and Bruce basically abuses Jason over and over until he’s better at karate. Meanwhile, comic relief comes in the form of J.W. Fails, playing Renford Jefferson Madison III, or “RJ,” a smooth-talking young black man who, in his first scene, is listening to rap music (from a boombox strapped to his bike--awesome), and shows off his basketball skills. Later on, RJ breakdances, wears Michael Jackson’s wardrobe rejects, and essentially embodies every possible stereotype of African-Americans in the 1980s. However, RJ does get the title line in the film--not once, but twice--and he fuels a great subplot about a bully from a rival dojo who just eats donuts, sweats a lot, and picks fights he can’t finish. Lots of flying kicks, Jean-Claude splits, and the best use of the word “Russian” as an insult you’ll ever see in your life.
CHOPPING MALL (Jim Wynorski)
If there’s one person whose work will be the subject of countless Ph.D. theses in twenty years, it’s Jim Wynorski (and his many alter ego). If you need a nuts-and-bolts director who can crank out a couple erotic parody films, a family-friendly dinosaur movie, and a few SyFy channel hybrid monster flicks all in the same year, he’s your guy. Say what you want about the quality of his work, the dude can produce on a deadline.
       That said, CHOPPING MALL is one of Jim’s more narratively coherent, if not particularly logical offerings about security robots run amok in a chop- er, shopping mall. (Ha ha! Wordplay!) Feeding right out of the 80’s obsession with robot cops, computers becoming self-aware, and every other home-pc paranoia, this film essentially takes the slasher/summer camp model of “killer on the loose” and sets it in the bastion of 80’s consumerism. Sex-obsessed teens party in a mall, the new, inexplicably lethal security robots go haywire, and it’s a cat-and-mouse game of survival, awkwardly slow pursuits, gunfights that cause minimal damage, and lots of lasers. The teens include Tony O’Dell, who some might remember as Alan from Head of the Class, but real fans know him as one of Johnny’s Cobra Kai henchmen in KARATE KID I and II. CHOPPING MALL has some graphic, if cheap, practical effects, some pop culture notes (who on earth would sell guns in a shopping mall these days?), and 80s mainstay Paul Bartel doing a lot of eye-rolling. (Also catch Bartel in a more comedic turn in 1986’s KILLER PARTY, which this blog turned me on to.)
If I had to pick a favorite on this list, it would have to be this one. Christopher Collet plays a genius teen who, just to get back at his single mom for dating again, decides to build a nuclear bomb with materials stolen from a government laboratory. Well, okay, maybe it’s not to get back at her, maybe it’s just to see if he can. Or maybe it’s to show everyone how smart he is. Either way, this movie is awesome. John Lithgow plays the mom’s love interest, a scientist working in the lab, refining plutonium for presumably military applications. Cynthia Nixon is Collet’s girlfriend, one of the legions of 80’s movie teen girls who wanted to become journalists and get the scoop on some sort of big story. But this film really works because of the engaging tone the lead actors manage to strike; Collet hits a great intersection among obnoxiously snarky, endearingly earnest, and typical teen ignorance; meanwhile Lithgow comes across as likeable and sympathetic despite his tacit acknowledgement of the true purpose of his work. (Indeed, when John Mahoney, a lieutenant investigating the theft of nuclear materials, lectures Lithgow on his self-delusion, it’s hard not to agree, and yet still feel sorry for the guy.) This is all wrapped up in 80s Cold War nuclear paranoia that blends together a level of wry humor, themes of teens-working-together-against-the-man, and ethical questions of science in a more effective way than great films like REAL GENIUS, with comedy as their primary goal, try (but fail) to do.
WISDOM (Emilio Estevez)
I feel like WISDOM, Emilio Estevez’s directorial debut, often gets overlooked. It’s certainly a bit clunky; the dialogue is often forced, occasionally painful, and the modern Robin Hood plot never seems to really carry enough emotional weight for the viewer to really get behind the main character. It also suffers from a concluding scene that employs one of the cheapest narrative tricks ever put to story. However, despite its failings, I always find John Wisdom, Estevez’s eponymous character, to be a rather engaging one. A young man with a single felony conviction on his record, John Wisdom struggles to find work because of a past mistake. After growing frustrated with his lack of opportunities, he turns to crime--robbing banks, but also destroying mortgage and credit debits for farmers and other rural folks. His folk-hero status increases, with people helping him and his girlfriend (Demi Moore) along the way, until the girlfriend’s somewhat-accidental killing of a sheriff causes a drastic turn in public opinion and Wisdom’s own understanding of his actions. Tom Skerritt plays the typically stern father figure, and William Allen Young plays the pursuing detective who makes the most out of the penultimate showdown scene. With Estevez’s dad having starred in BADLANDS over a decade earlier, it’s hard not to draw parallels between what Malick achieved in his film of disaffection, teen angst, and Midwestern landscapes, and what Estevez seems to be going for in his own. WISDOM falls far short of addressing the questions and achieving the tone that BADLANDS so elegantly and artfully presents, but you can tell Emilio’s heart is in the right place.

1 comment:

beamish13 said...

I've always wondered how much of WISDOM was shadow-directed by executive producer Robert Wise. Fun moments, but God, that ending is painful