Looking back at my past Underrated lists for Rupert Pupkin Speaks, I've apparently highlighted at least five films from this blessed year of 1987. I don't like to retread too much, so I'll mention all of those titles again at the bottom and if you feel so inclined you can find them in the Archives. Give rupertpupkinspeaks.com the gift of multiple clicks and post views. His Google Analytics will thank you.
Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987, Mailer)
Brilliant yet completely inept. The dire seriousness of King Lear delivered by a community improvisation group called Notions of Nonsense with tongue firmly in-cheek.
A writer and notorious drunkard (Ryan O'Neal) wakes from a prolonged bender to discover a pool of blood in his car and a severed head in the forest. And then things get weird.
Criticisms of Tough Guys Don't Dance can't even be considered negatives. For example, Mailer couldn't direct someone to the nearest post office, but a competent director likely would have produced something coherent and forgettable. A bland and overworked piece of tripe based on a secondary Norman Mailer novel. What we have instead becomes comically pretentious and painfully (I think intentionally) funny.
Tough Guys fails to resemble proper cinema, yet entertains on awkward sublevels that can't be qualified by traditional "good" or even "bad-good" measures. Ryan O'Neal puts on his big boy acting pants and delivers a remarkable performance despite the maniacal construct swirling around him like a fever dream. No hyperbole: this movie is unlike anything I've ever seen.
Incompetent Blue Velvet? Too-subtle parody? Decide for yourself. And then doubt your assessment. And then doubt what "filmmaking" even means.
Leonard Part 6 (1987, Paul Weiland)
It occurred to me when I planned my list of Underrated 1987 that it would devolve into something approximating me apologizing for my taste in 80's movies for five or six paragraphs. If 1987 cinema was good for anything in particular it was delivering legendarily bad films. Leonard Part 6. Ishtar. Walk Like a Man. You remember Walk Like a Man, right? Howie Mandel acting like a dog. Just say you remember because I might be tempted to laud that film next. And I don't want to do that.
I've written in other venues about how appreciation of objectively bad cinema does not require guilt or a pre-apology from the viewer. I don't mind the occasional qualifier, but stuff your apologies. Enjoying a film is not a crime. And therefore, by the strict letter of the law of underappreciated cinema, I declare that Leonard Part 6 is not appropriately valued. It is not the worst film ever made. This is me setting the bar low.
If we remove this Bill Cosby "disaster" from time and place and look at it objectively, what kind of film does it most recall? Write your snarkiest comment on a piece of paper and throw it away. Get it out of your system. Begin again.
Leonard Part 6 draws inspiration from the slapdash Eurotrash James Bond ripoffs of the late 1960's. The difference here is that our star isn't a second-tier supporting actor working in Italy to make a few extra bucks. Now that I'm thinking about it, Leonard Part 6 would have benefitted from poorly executed dubbing and a Bruno Nicolai score. It at least would have implied that maybe something had been lost in translation. If you give Leonard Part 6 another chance - using the measure of poorly executed European cinema from the 1960's and whatever metric you use to judge Joe Don Baker films - I think you'll find yourself mildly entertained. And therefore I must conclude that it's an underrated film. Stupid as hell, but underrated nonetheless.
American Ninja 2 (1987, Sam Firstenberg)
Speaking of stupid films, I now present American Ninja 2 - a 90-minute version of the scene from Bowfinger where Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin fight a gaggle of ninjas, except sincere. American Ninja 1 is bad-good. American Ninja 2 scoffs at bad-good. American Ninja 2 turns bad-good into badder-gooder, plus Bermuda shorts. Quite literally the worst ninjas in the world (this side of You Only Live Twice, anyway) attack Michael Dudikoff over and over and over again.
Michael Dudikoff will not be mistaken for A) a martial arts expert or B) an actor. Yet here he is starring in a series of martial arts-based films where he is supposed to be the legendary "American Ninja." The action sequences elicit as many laughs as they do thrills. In one moment, you'll note some nifty practical stunt work - in the next, Dudikoff knocks a ninja out cold by sweeping his leg with a broken stick. (His knee's been concussed!) It's beautiful, magnificent, and gleeful 1980's trash for those able to enjoy face-value absurdities and Michael Dudikoff bromances.
Summer School (1987, Carl Reiner)
A class of remedial dimwits and unfortunates is forced to take summer classes from the school's gym teacher, played by 1987's Mark Harmon.
This slacker high school comedy belongs to a distinctive brand of cinema with few lofty aims and characters of fair to middling motivation. But there's a second, extra-textual tier to this genre label - and here's where this cursory thinkpiece gets interesting. No matter how much I enjoy Summer School, I don't' recall a time I ever intentionally put Summer School on my TV. I've owned it on VHS and DVD, yet never to my recollection used either. If you look hard enough at any given time, you'll probably locate this enjoyable high school slacker comedy playing somewhere on a basic cable channel. Therefore, I dub thee "Wasted Afternoon Cinema." Both in terms of misspent daylight hours and the amount of drugs (likely) used by the characters.
That's not to say that Summer School's merely a vapid excuse for Chainsaw and Dave to recreate Texas Chainsaw Massacre with rabbits (and magnificent practical effects) to impress a beautiful Italian exchange student or make Courtney Thorne-Smith play a vapid surfer girl. Far from it. For such an apparently directionless film, Summer School has more heart and genuine humor than the movie deserved. It's the Trojan horse of 1987 slacker comedy - a quality I'll directly attribute to director Carl Reiner. Reiner makes this band of sundrenched California nitwits greater than the sum of their parts.
Perhaps the sub-sub-genre title shouldn't be "Wasted Afternoon Cinema," but rather "Perfectly Wasted Afternoon Cinema."
No Way Out (1987, Roger Donaldson)
After being touted as underrated for so many years, eventually a film ceases to be underrated. Suddenly it's appropriately rated and that's not an especially interesting segment of film discussion. I don't know if No Way Out has reached that prosaic purgatory just yet and I don't want to be the guy to push it over the edge, but...
Roger Donaldson's No Way Out is a near perfect neo-noir with top-notch performances and 114 minutes of escalating tension. The film could be criticized for predictability - but "predictability" only becomes a problem when a film - especially a thriller - fails to engage the viewer at some primal level. The viewer remains invested in what's going to happen next, not three nexts from now. Credit for this goes to the cast and the screenplay, which hums along in doubletime. Costner and Hackman (also Crazy Sean Young) create more tension through silence than most thrillers manage with the screams of the unfortunates.
Black Widow (1987, Bob Rafelson)
A federal agent (Debra Winger) goes undercover to investigate the serial killer known as the Black Widow (Theresa Russell). She marries men and murders for the fortunes. The Black Widow's a master of disguise; despite a trail of dead men, the Black Widow has evaded identification. As Winger develops her identity and draws closer to the Black Widow, she finds herself strangely drawn to her sexualized mirror image and drawn, romantically, to the killer herself.
The tete-a-tete between Winger and Russell makes this an essential 80's thriller, from a certain perspective. Two excellent actresses at the height of their powers and popularity. Winger, especially, elegantly portrays the dowdy, desk-jockey turned undercover agent with nuance. She conveys awkward and then confidently sexual and unencumbered without forcing the transformation.
Suggesting the ultimate appeal of the film lies in the way Black Widow manipulates the gender of a standard potboiler might unfairly undercut the narrative, yet at the same time it's hard to deny the value of that all-too-rare novelty. It would be a reasonable wish that someone other than Bob Rafelson had helmed this picture, as feminist cinema doesn't appear to be his forte. Still, the film competently flips genders without due fanfare.
This should have been a classic. It'll have to settle for underrated and largely forgotten. Black Widow had momentum building toward a legendary confrontation between two wily, intelligent women but just peters out in the final moments. Roll credits. Unlike something like Fatal Attraction (also from 1987), however, which destructively undermines its characters in a hackneyed climax, Black Widow fails to dramatically punctuate a narratively truthful conclusion. It's as if the filmmakers misplaced the emotional resonance at the most pivotal moment.
Cherry 2000 (1987, Steve De Jarnatt)
What a trip. Automatically better than other Mad Max riffs because it takes on notions of feminism, the perils of falling in love with artificial intelligence, and stars Melanie Griffith, who pulls herself up from an automobile dangling perilously over a ravine and responds to the obligatory "Are you okay" query with: "I swallowed my gum." 1987, you guys!
Near perfect moments of hack-job dystopia, a terrific supporting cast and a strong soundtrack make this an idea-heavy multi-genre rip-off that's very nearly worth the weight of the original(s). Intention is everything, and this movie hits its dystopian target.
Bonus (Reminder) Picks:
Bedroom Window (1987, Curtis Hanson)
Housekeeping (1987, Bill Forsyth)
Hollywood Shuffle (1987, Robert Townshend)
Slam Dance (1987, Wayne Wang)
Someone to Watch Over Me (1987, Ridley Scott)