By Richard Winters
My Rating: 3 out of 10
4-Word Review: Read the book instead.
Craig Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a young southern man left alone with his butler in a big mansion when both his parents die in a car crash. He works at a shady investment firm run by the con-man Jabo (Joe Spinnell). They have managed to purchase all the other buildings on a block except for a workout gym. Craig is told to meet with the owner of the gym named Thor (R.G. Armstrong) and transact a purchase, so the firm can use the space to build a high-rise office complex. However, once Craig meets with some of the people working there, including Joe Santo (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who is a body builder and uses the gym to prepare for the Mr. Universe title, as well as the pretty receptionist Mary Tate (Sally Field) he starts to have second thoughts about going through with the deal.
The film is based on the 1972 best-selling novel of the same name by Charles Gaines. There are quite a few differences between the book and the film, with the novel being much better. In the book there is no real estate firm, or potential acquisition of the building. Craig is simply bored with life and goes to a gym on a whim and uses the idea of bodybuilding as a way to find an identity. The book also features a camping trip that the group goes on and a fascinating psychedelic experience that Craig has when he takes an illicit drug that was completely cut out of the movie. The book has much richer characterizations and a profound philosophy that is devoid in the movie.
The film is poorly paced. Nothing really seems to happen and it only comes together at the end and by then it is too late. Director Bob Rafelson tries to make the movie take on too many things. It shifts awkwardly between drama and sardonic comedy, but fails to achieve any type of cohesion, or momentum. The flow is more like a European style of filmmaking where the story is told in a more relaxed pace and features long takes and side conversations. However, the dialogue isn’t interesting enough to carry it and the film focuses too much on the relationship between Craig and Mary, which happens too fast and doesn’t seem to have enough chemistry.
I also didn’t like how the character of Craig is portrayed. Bridges gives his usual dependable performance, but he has no southern accent even though he is from the area and everyone else speaks in a very thick one. He talks and acts much more like he is from the west coast and, like the viewer, acts as if he is some detached stranger that is just passing through with no real roots in the area, people, or customs. I think the Hollywood producers intentionally did this because they figured mainstream audiences could not relate to a southerner, who are still straddled with the unfair stigma of being hick, redneck, and racist. So the character was modified to bring broader appeal, but in the process becomes unrealistic and a bit annoying.
On the technical end it is okay although the budget looks limited. Filming on-location in Birmingham, Alabama helps, but I would have liked to have seen more of the area. There are a few unique scenes that make it somewhat enjoyable. One includes Craig stealing a painting off the wall of an office and another involves a throng of half-naked body builders spilling out onto the streets of the city and holding up traffic. There is also a very violent altercation at the end between Craig and Thor that features them battling with each other while using equipment from the gym. The action here is choreographed and edited nicely and looks genuinely real. There is also a brief moment where Field and Bridges go water skiing that was done by the actors themselves and not stunt doubles.
Schwarzenegger is appealing in what is considered his first official acting debut since in his previous two films his voice was dubbed and he had no speaking lines in the other. I liked the way the character is humanized here and shown with a different side to him including having him play the fiddle in a country band. Field is good playing a very feisty and rambunctious character. It also features her in a nude scene although it is from the back only. Woodrow Parfrey also deserves mention as Uncle Albert simply because his eccentric acting style always grabs your attention even in the smallest of roles. He also is the film’s narrator and speaks with the most authentic, best sounding Southern accent out of everyone.
R.G. Armstrong is by far and away the most memorable part of the film. He wears a hilariously awful wig throughout and is slimy in a real goofy way in every scene he is in. His best part comes when he has sex with a couple of prostitutes while on some of the workout machines. He also did, at age 60, his own nude scenes, so you have to give him credit there.
My Rating: 3 out of 10
Released: April 23, 1976
Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes
Director: Bob Rafelson
Studio: United Artists
Available: VHS, DVD