Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Black Swan (1942)

Director: Henry King                                    Writers: Ben Hecht & Seton I. Miller
Film Score: Alfred Newman                         Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Starring: Tyrone Power, Maureen O’Hara, Laird Creger and Thomas Mitchell

The Black Swan is definitely lesser Sabatini--otherwise Warner Brothers would have purchased it long before Darryl Zanuck got his hands on it. The film was a Technicolor spectacular, however, a hit at the box office that went on to win an Academy Award for Leon Shamroy’s color photography. But seen today, the film pales in comparison to Errol Flynn’s best Sabatini films, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, and can’t even approach the magnificence of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Even in black and white Errol Flynn was more vibrant onscreen than Tyrone Power is in color. The direction by Henry King is uninspired, the color rear projection by Shamroy painfully obvious compared to the same thing done in black and white, and Alfred Newman’s tepid film score doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the artistic triumphs achieved by Erich Wolfgang Korngold in all three of the Warner Brothers films. After Flynn’s colossal success in swashbucklers in the thirties, he had already moved on to other types of leading roles by the time World War Two began, and so in many ways this film feels as if it’s five years too late. It had all been done before, much better, and every member of the cast seems like a poor man’s version of the ones in the Flynn films. Finally, as great as Ben Hecht was at writing certain other kinds of films, he definitely failed in this attempt.

The story begins with an attack on one the many Spanish possessions in the Caribbean by English pirates Tyrone Power and George Sanders. It’s an easy conquest and the two captains proceed to get drunk afterward. When Spanish soldiers stage a counter attack Power is captured and put on the rack by Fortunio Bonanova. The tables quickly turn when Thomas Mitchell arrives and frees Power, but when George Zucco arrives as the Governor of Jamaica and claims that the English have signed a treaty with Spain, Power ignores the news and captures Zucco as well. That’s when the pirate leader, Laird Creger, shows up, claiming to have been knighted by the king and sent to replace Zucco in Jamaica. Creger wants to clean up the Caribbean for the English, but Sanders is having none of it and wants only to continue plundering Spanish towns and ships. He is able to get a sizable number of the other captains to go along with him, while Creger only manages to enlist Power and Mitchell to his cause. Maureen O’Hara is Zucco’s daughter, betrothed to Edward Ashley, and so she is naturally antagonistic to Power and his friends. But it turns out Ashley is a traitor, selling information on the whereabouts of English ships so that he can split the treasure with Sanders. All is not as it seems, however, as he is working for Zucco who is actually using the attacks to discredit Creger and get his position back.

First of all, Tyrone Power is just too little to be playing a pirate of any consequence--while at the same time Cregar is far too fat to be believable as a pirate at all. Only Thomas Mitchell and Maureen O’Hara from the principal cast were shorter than Power, and even then not by much. But the worst problem is with the screenplay. Unlike the Warner Brothers films, which were written by Casey Robinson, Howard Koch and Norman Raine and contain clever and compelling dialogue and action, the screenplay by Hecht and Seton Miller is so bogged down by cliché and a lack of ingenuity that it goes nowhere. What’s so ironic is that Miller had worked on both The Sea Hawk and Robin Hood at Warners. What happened here is hard to fathom. Alfred Newman had already tried to copy Korngold when he scored another Power film earlier that year, Son of Fury, with dismal results. Incomprehensibly, this score is even worse. There’s no subtlety to the characterizations at all, and Sanders, Creger, and Zucco chew the scenery all the way through, and even manage to make the great Thomas Mitchell look bad by association. O’Hara’s acting is just as blunt, and she’s like a bad B-film actress compared to Olivia de Havilland. Everything, from Power’s blustering to the cartoon-like speeded up duel at the end, is just bad. In the end The Black Swan is just that, the very opposite of what it should be.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The FBI Story (1959)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy                                Writers: Richard L. Breen & John Twist
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Vera Miles, Murray Hamilton and Nick Adams

There’s nothing that can kill a screenplay faster than working in cooperation with a government agency in trying to come up with a story they’ll accept. The only exception to this rule seems to be the U.S. Navy. Two great films came out of collaboration with the Navy, The Caine Mutiny in 1954 and The Final Countdown in 1980. But these seem to be the exceptions that prove the rule. This 1959 effort by Warner Brothers, The FBI Story, is a case in point. It’s a tepid, watered-down drama that turns nearly every impressive feat in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation into a bad TV show. To make matters worse, because they had Jimmy Stewart the screenwriters then attempted to compensate by making the rest of the story into a combination of It’s a Wonderful Life and an afternoon soap opera. The associations with Capra’s great post-war film are too pointed to miss. Vera Miles is simply a more modern version of Donna Reed. It rains on their honeymoon, just like it did on George and Mary’s wedding day. Their car could be the very one used in the Capra film, and the train station he leaves from is named Granville--just like the old Granville house the Bailey’s own in Bedford Falls. By the time Miles becomes pregnant, the fact that he doesn’t say, “Lucy, you’re on the nest?” is almost a shock.

The film begins with the worst possible opening there is, something they teach students in grade school to avoid: the dreaded dictionary definition. But here we have Jimmy Stewart on the voiceover quoting the Webster’s International Dictionary definition of murder. The prologue tells the story of Nick Adams, who plants a time bomb in his mother’s suitcase and blows her and the plane she’s on out of the sky. Even J. Edgar Hoover has a cameo in the beginning. The tale of how Adams is caught turns out to be a speech by Stewart to new recruits to the FBI. Then he takes his audience back to his own beginnings as an FBI agent and the way his career mirrored the growth of the national investigative police force. Stewart was working for Parley Baer in the twenties, and courting Vera Miles. She doesn’t want to marry him because being an FBI agent seems like a dead-end job, but she agrees when he says he’ll quit. When he meets Hoover, however, he reneges and they spend the next two decades moving all over the country. The film spends what seems an inordinate amount of time on the Osage Murders in the twenties, which is interesting to a point, but when it comes to the excitement of hunting down the gangers of the thirties each one is given between thirty seconds and a minute before moving on to the next. Finally Miles has had enough and moves back in with her parents and takes the three kids with her, but she eventually comes back. And that’s only half the film. The rest is just as mind-numbing.

When you stop to consider that this film was made the same year Hitchcock made North by Northwest with Cary Grant, it seems shockingly bad by comparison. Murray Hamilton is Stewart’s partner for much of the film but, like the rest of the principals, the dialogue is so bland and the drama so torpid that no actors could have made it interesting. Stewart’s character is also strangely drawn. He says incredibly inappropriate things at the wrong times, behaving selfishly when his wife has a miscarriage and his son dies. World War Two, the Cold War, the film just keeps going on and on. Any one of the vignettes might have made an interesting film, but strung together as they are in digest form there’s no possibility for any real dramatic arc or central conflict to emerge. And further, the idea that Jimmy Stewart’s character is in on every major development of the agency is patently unbelievable. Mervyn LeRoy’s direction is pedestrian at best, and even Max Steiner’s score is unable to provide any real artistry to the production. Apparently Hoover himself wanted to approve every frame of film, forcing the director to re-shoot several scenes--and it shows. It’s also said that Hoover wouldn’t let the production go forward until he had collected a file full of “dirt” on Mervyn LeRoy. In the end, what was such a shock for me is that this is the first time I’d ever seen Jimmy Stewart in a really bad film--which is the only way to describe The FBI Story.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Westworld (1973)

Director: Michael Crichton                              Writer: Michael Crichton
Film Score: Fred Karlin                                  Cinematography: Gene Polito
Starring: Yul Brynner, James Brolin, Richard Benjamin and Dick Van Patten

For all his popular success, Michael Crichton was never a great writer. Most of the time it’s not that evident in his film productions, when someone else is adapting screenplays from his novels. But Crichton wrote and directed Westworld, and it shows. It was his first original screenplay and none of the studios wanted to go near it. But he finally was able to strike a deal with MGM, and filmed it primarily on their back lot. Even compensating for the fact that it was filmed in the early seventies, the film still looks like a television production rather than a feature. The sets are clearly TV sets rather than anything remotely realistic, and much of the crew was from television as well. The cheapness of the sets can be explained away by the premise of the film in which a sort of computerized theme park gives guests a realistic experience of being able to kill or sexually dominate robots, allowing visitors to experience the illicit without the illegality. So it stands to reason that the park wouldn’t be that realistic. Still, while the premise is intriguing, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The special effects, especially the shots out of the windows of the futuristic plane in the beginning, might have been advanced for the day but they are hopelessly phony here. The practical effects, on the other hand, are well done. Even so, the production was never going to be able to rise above its obvious artistic deficiencies.

The film begins with television reporter Robert Hogan interviewing people who have finished vacationing at a futuristic resort that allows visitors a full immersion experience in either Roman times, the Middle Ages, or the American West. All of the interviewees are gushing in their praise. Then the scene shifts to James Brolin and Richard Benjamin who are on their way to Westworld. After landing and being outfitted they wander down to the saloon where Yul Brynner verbally abuses Benjamin at the bar. Brolin, who has been there before, urges Benjamin to confront him. When he finally does, the two draw and Benjamin kills him with three shots to the chest. Brynner is dragged away soon after and back in their room Benjamin wonders aloud if Brynner might have been a guest rather than the realistic robots that inhabit the theme park. Brolin suggests he try to shoot him, but the gun won’t work when aimed at a warm target. Later the two go to a whorehouse and have sex with robot prostitutes, and all the while a bank robbery is going on across the street. In a somber scene that night, workers come out and remove the robot bodies that litter the street. They are taken behind the scenes and repaired, with head “doctor” Alan Oppenheimer in charge of the operation. He notices that there has been an increasing rate of central mechanism breakdowns in the robots in all three worlds and, most disturbing, it’s acting like a virus that threatens to infect all of the robots.

Eventually a series of minor mishaps leads to the death of one of the guests in the Medieval World, and though the technicians try to turn off the power in the complex it does no good and the robots begin to go rogue, especially Yul Brynner in Westworld. Brynner, who earned his western bona fides in The Magnificent Seven in 1960 and Invitation to a Gunfighter four years later, is the perfect relentless robot in the film. The look of his character was even based on that from the earlier movie. Barrel chested, with pale eyes and a hard face, he shows no signs of stopping as he pursues Richard Benjamin. But there are a number of things that strain credulity, chief among them the fact that the entire complex was apparently designed so that the technicians will be locked in if the power goes out. Of course they shut down the power and then can’t get it back on, trapping themselves inside, powerless to do anything as the robots go on their rampage. Also, for no apparent reason, they upgrade Brynner’s optical and audio systems, enabling him to chase down Benjamin with even greater efficiency. This was also one of the first films to use pixelated imaging to suggest the robot’s point of view. But that is sort of negated by the bulk of the computer screens in the control room displaying nothing but meaningless computer art of the kind found on early screensavers.

One of the things Crichten is able to do well early on in the film is to inject the repair scene with a lot of pathos. The technicians are dressed like doctors, and computer readouts look and sound like medical machines in a hospital. The effect--as intended--is jarring. There’s also no denying the influence of the Brynner character on the Terminator films. But overall the film is little more than a string of clichés, from the TV sets, the corny music by Fred Karlin, the costuming, right down to the acting. Yul Brynner is the best actor of the bunch and he’s playing a robot. While James Brolin and Richard Benjamin made a lot of feature films in the seventies, they are primarily associated with television as well, and for good reason: they’re just not that convincing. Add to that Dick Van Patton as the new sheriff in town, as well as a host of low-level television talent rounding out the rest of the cast and it was always going to look like a TV movie. Nevertheless, fans at the time made it a huge hit, but to Crichton’s dismay it was more because of its camp value than for the cautionary tale he had tried to tell. The film spawned a sequel, Futureworld, that starred Brynner again but that Crichton had nothing to do with, and quite naturally a television series called Beyond Westworld. And it has been recently revived by HBO as a series as well. The concept of Westworld is intriguing, and there is much that could have been done with it, but it never really rises above its television pedigree and remains a missed opportunity.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Director: Wes Anderson                                Writer: Wes Anderson
Film Score: Alexandre Desplat                      Cinematography: Robert D. Yeoman
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Tony Revolori and Jude Law

While Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel was something of a critical darling, and was even nominated for a best picture Oscar, it is actually more of a disappointment than anything else. It seems as if what he’s attempting here is a cross between the Coen Brothers and Tim Burton, but Anderson lacks the narrative sophistication of the former and the visual imagination of the later and so what results is the worst version of both. The story is based upon the writings of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian author who was popular between the World Wars but had nevertheless received mixed reviews for his numerous works. Anderson’s story takes from some of the fictional and some of the autobiographical incidents in Zweig’s work and fashioned from them an abstract tale that attempts to make up for in humor what it decidedly lacks in artistry. I fully admit to finding these types of work distasteful because of the dearth of intellect they display, so it’s not that I don’t get it. But like a Jackson Pollack “artwork” or an Ornette Coleman “song,” Anderson’s “film” is utterly bereft of the kind of intellectual discipline that has informed genuinely great films from the inception of the art form. The fact that critics like it is almost a warning label for those who see film’s greatness as a narrative art being slowly eroded by the increasingly vacuous intellects of young filmmakers like Anderson.

The film begins with Tom Wilkinson as a famed author, talking about the tedious question of where an author’s stories come from. He states that, if one is willing to listen to others, the stories will come to the author. From there he relates his visit as a young man to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka. In the flashback the younger author is played by Jude Law. Curious one day about the appearance of an old man, F. Murray Abraham, he is told he is the owner of the hotel. In the baths the two strike up a conversation and over dinner Abraham tells Law the story of his life. In this flashback, the young Abraham is played by Tony Revolori who suddenly appears at the hotel as a Lobby Boy. The officious but charming concierge, Ralph Fiennes, at first dubious about his capabilities, nevertheless takes him under his wing and this sets Revolori off on numerous adventures that he experiences traveling in the wake of the eccentric hotel manager. This includes seducing wealthy old women like Tilda Swinton, confronting her son Adrien Brody and the family’s lawyer Jeff Goldblum over the will, talking himself out of an arrest by de facto Nazi Edward Norton, evading hit man Willem Dafor, escaping from prison with the aid of Harvey Keitel, and calling on the network of hotel managers led by Bill Murray to help him find the man responsible for his false arrest.

The film itself is highly stylized, with no real concession to realism in either the look or the narrative. This is done through the use of miniatures of exteriors of the hotel, and wide-angle lenses in the interiors. The colors are manipulated to give the film a faded, sepia-toned look to invoke the historical nature of the tale while the set design verges on a sort of steampunk aesthetic to go along with the surreal nature of the story. The real draw of the film seems to be the number of well-known actors in the piece, as well as the bizarre nature of the narrative. But while it was nominated for nine Academy Awards, the categories in which it won the Oscar are indicative of its failure as a captivating piece of filmmaking, winning for production design, costume design, hair and makeup, as well as the Eastern European folk music score by Alexandre Desplat. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how many big stars are in a film if they are given one-dimensional characters to portray in the screenplay. And that is certainly the case here. The characters are cartoons, mirroring the kind of graphic novel approach of the visuals. There are some funny lines, and some winning moments, which seems almost inevitable given the density of acting talent shoehorned into the film, but on the whole endeavor lies flat and curiously unengaging through most of its running time. The Grand Budapest Hotel will certainly have a lot of fans who have been weaned on Twitter feeds and YouTube videos, but I’m never going to be one of them.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Double Jeopardy (1999)

Director: Bruce Beresford                              Writers: David Weisberg & Douglas Cook
Film Score: Normand Corbeil                         Cinematography: Peter James
Starring: Ashley Judd, Tommy Lee Jones, Bruce Greenwood and Annabeth Gish

Double Jeopardy makes a valiant attempt at being an action movie, at being suspenseful, and at telling an engaging mystery story. Unfortunately the film can’t bear the weight of all the mistakes it makes and, as such, is a huge disappointment. Despite star power and a veteran director with two Oscar nominations, the screenplay is so incredibly bad that it drops like a rock tossed into Puget Sound. The set up is interesting enough, but it is over by the time the credits have finished. Ashley Judd and her businessman husband Bruce Greenwood live on the beautiful shores of Whidbey Island in Washington State, just north of Seattle. They have a small son, Benjamin Weir, and Greenwood is throwing a lavish party to raise money for his small school on the island. The boy’s teacher is Annabeth Gish, who also acts as something of a nanny for him. Judd has always wanted a particular sailboat and when Greenwood buys it for her they set out on the water that evening. The first head scratcher is when Judd is pointing out the geography while they are out of sight of land. She claims that while Alaska is to the north, and Japan is to the east, that the Straight of Juan de Fuca is off to the south of them, but the Straight runs slightly northwest and it couldn’t be south of them unless the were practically on top of Vancouver Island. Granted, that one depends on a knowledge of the setting, but there are plenty more to come that don’t.

After a night of romance and drinking Judd wakes up covered in blood like John Marley in The Godfather, but instead of a horse’s head she finds a trail of blood leading up to the deck and no Greenwood. She sees the bloody knife on the deck and, of course, she picks it up, just in time to have the coast guard arrive and see her with it. I realize that this film is already fifteen years old, but that was a tired trope even then and I think it’s time to retire it. Soon she’s thrown in jail, with no bail, and then brought to trial . . . even though Greenwood’s body has never been found! None of the trial preparation is shown at all. Suddenly we’re in the courtroom with her hearing a tape of Greenwood sending a distress call to the Coast Guard saying he’s been stabbed. Prosecutor Betsy Brantley tries for the sarcasm of Glenn Close in Jagged Edge, but the writing is so poor and juvenile that it’s actually embarrassing. Even with the tape, and the insurance policy, a murder conviction without a body is incredibly rare and so it doesn’t just strain credulity it utterly torpedoes any suspension of disbelief. But wait, there’s more. Since she doesn’t get the money, Judd begs Gish to adopt their son so that she’ll have access to the money in trust, and then is sent to prison. Again, however, the abysmal pacing destroys the story. Absolutely no time is taken to establish her relationship with the great Roma Maffia, who happens to have been a lawyer and holds the key to the title and the rest of the film.

When Judd hasn’t heard from Gish or her son in a month she makes a call to the school, pretending to be Gish and checking on the address for her “severance check.” First of all, there is no such thing as severance pay for teachers. And secondly, the school wouldn’t handle it even if there was. The state handles all of that from the teacher’s individual retirement fund. Anyway, Judd manages to find out Gish’s new address and phone number in San Francisco. She chews out Gish first, but when she’s talking to her son Greenwood walks in the door and he calls out, “Daddy,” which Judd hears. Now she knows he’s faked his death. Maffia, in another brief drive-by appearance, tells her to do her time quietly and try to get out on parole because of double jeopardy, which means no one can be tried twice for the same crime. “That means you can walk right up to him in Times Square, put a gun to his head and pull the trigger, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.” Wrong. When she gets out she’ll be on parole, which means that any violation of parole, including that gun, will send her right back to prison to finish her original sentence, I’m guessing, without another chance of parole. It’s maddening just how stupid this film is. So then she starts buffing up while she waits to get out, but she’s not Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, and when she’s done she looks just as skinny and fragile as when she went in. She doesn’t meet Tommy Lee Jones, the head of the halfway house, until after she gets out but by then it’s too late. The film is already a lost cause and it’s only a half hour old.

Ultimately the screenplay is the downfall of the film. David Weisberg had only written three films prior to this . . . and wasn’t able to sell another one for fifteen years, which makes sense considering how bad this one was. His partner on all of those previous films was, no surprise, Douglas Cook. What’s so mystifying about all of this is that the director, Bruce Beresford, didn’t demand that changes to the screenplay be made. Beresford actually earned an Academy Award nomination for his own screenplay on Breaker Morant, and another for his directing on Tender Mercies. In addition he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his direction of Driving Miss Daisy. In this film he seems to have gleefully purchased a ticket on the Titanic and decided to go down with the ship. Judd’s journey of revenge lurches along with no time to develop anything like concern for the characters including, ironically, Judd herself. Her miraculous escapes that Weisberg and Cook have written for her are as sophomoric as they are unbelievable, and Beresford just went ahead and filmed them. Tommy Lee Jones is wasted, Roma Maffia is wasted, and so is Bruce Greenwood, all of which renders the star power of the film moot. If you though the deus ex machina was working overtime in The Pelican Brief, you’ll want to steer well clear of Double Jeopardy.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Be Cool (2005)

Director: F. Gary Gray                                   Writer: Peter Steinfeld
Film Score: John Powell                                Cinematography: Jeffrey L. Kimball
Starring: John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel and Christina Milian

At the beginning of the film Be Cool, movie producer John Travolta bemoans Hollywood’s insistence on sequels. “It was the only time I gave in in my life, but sometimes you gotta do it the studio way . . . I got hustled into doing a sequel.” Travolta should have read the screenplay closer because he go hustled into this picture, too. It’s absolutely terrible. There was no reason to make this film because the character of Chili Palmer had already made it in Hollywood. Where else was there to go? Get Shorty had been made over a decade earlier and it’s a terrific film. Based on an Elmore Leonard novel, it was funny in an intelligent way and was able to wring humor out of the characters because of their believability. Sure, they were exaggerated, but in a way that made sense within the structure of the film and the characters’ own motivations. This film, however, is like a Saturday Night Live skit. It’s juvenile, and you can almost see the pained expression on Travolta’s face the entire way through, as if he can’t believe he’s in such an incredibly bad film. The original was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who has a real feel for a certain kind of comedy, while the sequel was directed by F. Gary Gray, who is much better in serious films that have a small vein of humor running through them.

The film begins with Travolta wanting to get out of the movie business. When record producer James Woods is gunned down at a restaurant where they’re eating together, he begins thinking about getting into the music business. Woods had told him about a singer he wanted to sign, Christina Milian, and when Travolta goes to see her at a club singing seventies songs, he takes her away from her current manager, Vince Vaughn. Then he goes over to see Woods’ widow, Uma Thurman, and tries to shoehorn himself into her record label, but she doesn’t want any help. That is, until big-shot producer Cedric the Entertainer comes looking for his pay and Thurman can see in the books that the company is broke. Now Travolta begins working the principals against each other. These include Vaughn and Cedric as well as Vaughn’s bodyguard, Dwayne Johnson, a gay dandy who wants to be an actor, Vaughn’s partner Harvey Keitel, who is continuously on the phone, the police in the form of detectives Debi Mazar and Gregory Alan Williams, and a bunch of idiot Russians. Throw in a hit man who gets himself hit, the members of Aerosmith, and Cedric’s clichéd posse of rappers and the film rapidly turns into farce.

There are three major problems with the film. The first is the lack of quality production. Elmore Leonard may have participated on the screenplay, but it wasn’t his story. As a result, the script is little more than in-jokes referencing the first film and doing the same bits but with different actors. It also rehashes the same story arc but with music this time instead of film. And this leads to the second major problem. In the first film most of the actors spent time talking about the films they were going to make and the audience was able to suspend disbelief pretty easily because they obviously couldn’t read the scripts or see the films. But in a film about music the audience can hear Christina Milian sing and, as producer Paul Adelstein points out in the film, with shows like The Voice the audience has heard hundreds of girls who can do the same thing. So when everyone from Uma Thurman to Steven Tyler is gushing about how great she is--while we can hear she’s just like everyone else--it doesn’t work. The final misstep is that the movie is filled with stereotypes and over-exaggerated characterizations that are simply not funny unless you’re in grade school. And it’s pretty clear from the look on Travolta’s face that he knows it. I had high hopes going into this film because I had loved the first one so much. But Be Cool is a bad film that never should have been made, and if you value the memory of Elmore Leonard or Chili Palmer, you’ll run the other direction when you see it coming.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

End Game (2006)

Director: Andy Cheng                                      Writers: Andy Cheng & J.C. Pollock
Film Score: Kenneth Burgomaster                  Cinematography: Chuck Cohen
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Angie Harmon, James Woods and Anne Archer

I’ve seen some bad political thrillers, but End Game goes beyond bad and well over the line into offensive. In fact, it’s difficult to understand how this film was even made because the screenplay alone makes no sense whatsoever. But add to that the world’s worst direction by Andy Cheng, and terrible acting by everyone involved and you have a project that should have been shelved during rushes as a lost cause. Fortunately MGM was acquired by Sony in 2005, just as the film was nearing theatrical release, and it’s not far fetched to think that execs at Sony took a one look at the finished product and balked, choosing instead to send the thing directly to video stores the following year. The direction seriously looks as if it was from 1985 rather than thirty years later. It wouldn’t even have made a good TV movie, there are so many plot holes. Motivations are not only unclear, but it’s as if the assassination is just another assignment for the killers. No angst, no worries about investigations, no concern at all about getting caught. And the people responsible seem even less concerned. In fact, there’s no sense that anyone in the country cares that this happened. The film wants to be a lot of things, Murder at 1600, Absolute Power, and In the Line of Fire, but it falls flat at every level to the point where the audience, literally, doesn’t care either.

Things go bad right from the beginning as the film opens with the president of the United States and first lady being driven to a speaking event. The first lady is Anne Archer, still best remembered for her role in Fatal Attraction. The president, on the other hand, is a complete no-name soap star. At this point it’s obvious to anyone who has ever seen a movie that he’s going to wind up dead. And sure enough, that’s what happens. Cuba Gooding Jr. is the secret service agent assigned to the president, and while he’s shot in the hand, he can’t move fast enough to save him. James Woods, head of the secret service, tells him to take some time off and Gooding proceeds to get drunk that night. Meanwhile Angie Harmon, a newspaper reporter, is investigating the shooting and talks to homeless man David Selby, another soap star, and he shows Harmon the house where the killer stayed. She discovers that he was dying of cancer, but the audience can see she’s being watched. After she leaves to talk to the killer’s sister, Selby is killed. Then after she leaves the sister and mother, their trailer is blown up. By the time she gets to Gooding’s house, she’s left a wide swath of death behind her but doesn’t know it yet. Fortunately, Gooding senses something is wrong and they narrowly escape being blown up in his boat. It’s a conspiracy, to be sure, but when they tell Woods he inexplicably tells them to wait a few days.

The killers, on the other hand, aren’t waiting around and take another crack at Gooding and Harmon, so Gooding gets tired of waiting and seeks out a general, Burt Reynolds, and Reynolds is never seen again the entire film. Cuba Gooding Jr. is obviously going through the motions and doesn’t have a lot to give to the production, but it’s not as if he has a lot to work with given the script. Meanwhile, Angie Harmon looks as if she’s taking an Acting 101 class and flunking badly. She has no range, whatsoever. Woods and Reynolds have what amount to cameo roles, with Woods at least looking his age. Reynolds has so much plastic surgery and an obvious black toupee, that he’s little more than a joke. Anne Archer doesn’t fare much better. She only has a couple of scenes and the corny work of art she’s painting that must be seen from a certain angle to understand is a real groaner. But even the bad guys suck. Peter Greene initially looks as if he’s trying to be Christopher Eccleston from Gone in 60 Seconds, but he gets little in the way of screen time, except as a boogieman at the end of the film, and even then it’s in the dark. And then, after all that, as if to add insult to injury, the ending is the worst part of the film--and that’s saying something. Essentially, Gooding knows who did it and won’t tell anyone. End Game cost approximately five million to produce and only made back one point two million in video sales and rentals. The only surprise is that it made that much.