Have motion pictures improved over our lifetime, or do our tastes in films mature?
A discussion on Facebook with a friend sparked a challenge and rekindled an idea I had years ago for a blog entry that I never posted.
But first, a little background: my friend Sarah was house-sitting for a friend of hers and mentioned one evening about her friend's awful taste in movies, evidenced by the selection of films from Netflix that were present in the home. Sarah mentioned specifically a film released in 1987 titled Real Men, starring James Belushi and the late John Ritter. She told me that the first time she tried to watch, it was so bad she turned it off after a few minutes. She thought later that maybe it deserved a second chance, so she tried again, but fell asleep in the first half-hour. I said that it couldn't be that bad.
Sarah challenged me to watch it, and she encouraged me to blog about it.
But first, a little more background: around 2000 or 2001 — not long after I had moved in with the now-ex Mrs. Farrago — she revealed to me that she had never seen the 1986 film Highlander, starring Christopher Lambert. I was dumbstruck. "You never saw it? Not even on TV?!" She hadn't.
It then became my mission to familiarize her, indoctrinate her, and win her over to a film I felt was one of the most amazing, ground-breaking, awe-inspiring films that had ever been made. I went to Blockbuster, found the director's cut(!) on VHS, rushed it home, made popcorn, propped up the pillows on the bed, and prepared to watch her face as she watched the incredible spectacle I told her she had been missing out on for the past 15 years, and see the wonder fill her eyes as the film's awesomeness washed over her.
I pressed "PLAY" on the remote. The film started.
And it sucked.
What the hell?! Nothing was different; the "director's cut" consisted of a bonus feature in which the director talked about — and showed — a couple of segments that had been cut from the script and never filmed for the release, but which he and a couple of the crew had filmed anyway — at his personal expense — in the event that he ever had the chance to re-cut the film.
No, the film was the same. The dialog seemed clunky and immature. Suddenly, Scotsman Sean Connery's cameo appearance as a Spaniard seemed absolutely absurd. Star Christopher Lambert's performance suddenly seemed slightly less riveting than watching a two-by-four propped against a wall.
Had I changed?! Well, obviously I had; 15 years had passed since I had last seen the film, but had I changed that much?!
So I was faced with questions: Had Highlander always been this bad? Was I just too testosterone-soaked a young man in my 20s when I first experienced this fantasy-action-adventure to be able to see past the broad strokes to notice that the finer details were actually missing?
Or was it that Highlander was a superb action film in its time, but filmmaking advances in the intervening 15 years had spoiled me for older, less technologically sophisticated films?
The answer lies in there somewhere, as Highlander was only the first of several iconic — or so I thought — 1980s films whose dazzle had seemed to pale in the years between my first viewing and introducing them to my wife in the new millennium.
I suppose there's a third possibility: sensing that my wife was unimpressed could have caused me uneasiness and insecurity. "If she thinks this movie blows, what, then, must she think of me?" and so every movie I revered then seemed horrendously flawed. Could that be it?
And so it was with this sense that I slipped Real Men into the DVD player. Having never seen the film, and having only the Netflix description — as well as Sarah's — to go by, I had low expectations.
The premise: James Belushi stars as suave, super cool Nick Pirandello, a top US spy, and John Ritter as Bob Wilson, a timid insurance man who just happens to look exactly like another US spy who was assassinated while practicing for a rendezvous with space aliens to make an exchange for "the good package," which would save Earth from toxic chemicals that had been dumped into the ocean. Since the aliens will deal with no one except the special agent — now deceased — whom Wilson resembles, Pirandello "recruits" the unwilling Wilson to complete the mission as planned. At every turn, Wilson tries to escape, thinking Pirandello is an insane kidnapper, but Pirandello is always two steps ahead of him, and brings him back to heel. Through Pirandello's encouragement — and a few white lies — timid Wilson becomes convinced that the constant exposure to danger has made him into a formidable warrior, and his attitude and demeanor change with the new-found confidence. When all is over, Wilson returns home a new man, and he sets a few things to rights with neighborhood bullies and a would-be Lothario with designs on Wilson's wife.
I probably don't have to continue, but I promised Sarah I would blog about it.
If I didn't know better — and hadn't watched the whole thing — I would have guessed, based on the slapstick, that this film had been made for children. It is definitely intended to be a screwball comedy, but with one scene which includes a glimpse of a woman's bare breasts, and another, actually creepy-funny scene in which an attractive, but definitely much older woman sets her sights — as well as her hands and lips — on Wilson, but turns out to be Pirandello's father who has just returned home from his sex-change operation in Sweden, the film clearly is not intended for kids.
The film fairly flies through some ridiculous shoot-em-up scenes, in which Russian spies who apparently have impossibly good detection and tracking skills, but absolutely no weapons skills couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with their fully automatic weapons blazing, and Pirandello can't miss them with his sidearm while shooting from the hip with his eyes closed.
Wilson's migration from mild-mannered, cowardly insurance guy to dashing, fearless special agent is hardly seamless; all it takes is one tall tale from Pirandello that Wilson single-handedly took out an entire crew of rogue American agents (all of them dressed in clown garb, no less), thus saving Pirandello's life — when it was Pirandello himself who knocked them all out — to turn Wilson from lamb to lion.
Maybe it's just me; maybe I feel spy characters are supposed to appear to take things more seriously. Maybe Jim Belushi just doesn't come across in any construct of my imagination as a top-shelf secret agent, even in a screwball comedy. John Ritter doesn't convince as either the mealy-mouthed insurance man or the fearless convert.
Come to think of it, for a buddy-film duo, Belushi and Ritter never seem to click at all. I never got a sense of chemistry between them. They're a mismatched pair.
The only certain thing about this film is that it is trying to be a comedy. It misses as an action-adventure comedy. It misses as a spy-movie spoof. Just like its hapless Russian gunmen, it just plain misses.
But who am I to say anything about comedy? Not having seen this when it came out in 1987 — back when I was 24 and still in the grip of daily testosterone overdoses — I can't be sure if Real Men suffers in my possibly matured movie-going sensibility, a matured movie-making industry, or if it's just a really bad film.
But in 2013 I'm going to go with "bad film."
Real Men (1987) Numb Butt Cheeks® rating of 2*. Very forgettable.
*The Numb Butt-Cheeks® scale of zero to ten: a Numb Butt-Cheeks rating of zero indicates such a disregard for the film that one could get up to go to the bathroom at any point without worry of missing anything exciting or important; a Numb Butt-Cheeks rating of ten indicates there is no way one would get up and leave, save for a distinct tearing of bladder tissue.