By Richard Winters
My Rating: 6 out of 10
4-Word Review: Hired for secret mission.
Roy Tucker (Gene Hackman) is in prison for the murder of his wife’s first husband, but gets approached by Tagge (Richard Widmark), who works for a secret organization and who offers to get both Roy and his cellmate Spiventa (Mickey Rooney) out of jail where they can have their freedom again, but with one hitch; he must carry out a mysterious mission that they themselves don’t yet know the details to yet. Roy is suspicious of the group’s intent, but longs to see his wife Ellie (Candace Bergen), so he agrees to go along with it. After getting out of prison through an elaborate escape plan that the secret group hatches Roy is then able to travel to Costa Rica using a passport that the group made for him. It is there that he spends a relaxing week with Ellie, but then Tagge and his men (Eli Wallach, Edward Albert) return and remind him of his commitment, which turns out to being the assassination of an important political figure. Once Roy realizes this he tries to back out, but soon realizes that he jeopardizes the life of his wife, who the group insists they will kidnap an kill, if he does.
The film is based on the novel of the same name written by Adam Kennedy, who also wrote the screenplay and at one time was an actor before eventually turning to writing. While the novel got great reviews the movie didn’t with many critics panning it including Leonard Maltin, who described it as a ‘muddled thriller’. Both Hackman and Bergen, in later interviews, have called it ‘terrible’ and even director Stanley Kramer wrote in his memoirs that he’d like to disown it. Much of the problem could be blamed on the different runtimes with a heavily edited 88-minute cut being completely confusing, but this version that I saw, which ran a full 101 minutes, I found to be captivating, at least through the first 90-minutes.
The real problem I had stemmed around Hackman, who gives a one-dimensional performance. There is one moment where he assaults the Edward Albert character after he refuses to let him see his wife, which I felt was justified and entertaining to watch, but he remains surly too much of the time and it would’ve been nice to have seen some other emotions seep through, if even for a few random moments. Bergin is totally miscast as the middle-aged wife and even wears a brunette wig in an effort to make herself seem older. She stated in interviews that she took the part so she could play an ‘ordinary person for once’ instead of a beautiful, glamourous person like she usually did, but I didn’t understand why she was even offered the role as there were plenty of actresses more Hackman’s age that would’ve been a better fit.
While I did enjoy the movie for the most part especially its scenic location shooting including one scene that takes place directly underneath the Golden Gate Bridge I did find the twist ending to be extremely dumb. This includes having Roy deciding not to shoot the intended victim by intentionally aiming his shots short in order to miss his human target only to find that his former cellmate Spiventa was also hired for the same mission, but without Roy knowing, and he kills the person while shooting at him from a different angle. The problem is that the viewer thinks Spiventa is already dead as we see him get shot by the mysterious group while underneath the bridge. Why Spiventa would fake his own death, or not tell Roy that he was in on the plan since the two had been quite close, is ever explained. It also doesn’t make sense why Roy would decide at the last second to pull back his shots and not kill the person he was assigned to assassinate. Sure, for moral reasons he probably felt bad about it, but he knew that his wife would be killed if he didn’t follow through, so how he was expecting to save the life of his target while also somehow keeping his wife alive after the group finds out Roy didn’t do what he was supposed to?
The final shot shows Roy, with gun in hand, walking along a beach, apparently intent on hunting down whoever was the behind-the-scenes man from the group who was giving out all the orders, which we the viewer never see. Keeping some elements of the organization a mystery is fine, but what annoyed me is that we see a rifle pointed right at Roy as he walks the beach, but then the film ends without us ever knowing if Roy got shot first, or if he survived to kill the head of the group. Some sort of resolution in this area should’ve been shown and leaving it so wide-open is not intriguing and instead quite frustrating.
My Rating: 6 out of 10
Released: March 23, 1977
Runtime: 1 Hour 41 Minutes
Director: Stanley Kramer
Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures
Available: DVD, Amazon Video, Shout Factory TV, Tubi, YouTube