By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: His friends are spies.
Based on the 1972 Robert Ludlum novel of the same name the story centers around John Tanner (Rutger Hauer) a controversial host of a TV show where government officials are interviewed and many times put on the spot by Tanner who harbors anti-establishment political leanings. Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster) is the director of the CIA who along with fellow agent Laurence Fassett (John Hurt) have uncovered a Soviet spy network within the US known as Omega. The decision is made not to arrest the three members (Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper, Chris Sarandon) that have been identified as the spies, but instead try to get one to turn on the others and thus expose the organizations without tipping-off the KGB that they were aware of it all along. Since Tanner went to college with the three men and plans to have a weekend get-together with them at his place he gets chosen by Fassett to carry-out the trap where he’ll try to get one of his friends during the two-day stay to turn on the others. Tanner initially resists, but eventually agrees and has his whole house rigged with secret cameras and microphones, so the CIA is fully aware of everything that goes on, but ultimately Tanner begins to suspect that things may not be as they seem.
This was director Sam Peckinpah’s final film and 5 years after releasing his last one Convoy. He was already quite ill due to effects of substance abuse and had to take frequent naps during the shooting day, but still managed to get the movie released on-time and within budget. Many have felt this was one of his weaker efforts, but I came away enjoying it despite the fact that Peckinpah despised the story and the Ludlum novel of which it was based and only agreed to the it because he needed the work. What I liked best was his patented use of slow-motion photography. Here I felt it came into use in excellent ways especially during the car chase. Most chase sequences in movies can get confusing because it’s usually done at fast speeds making it hard to follow and many times done with jump cuts, but here because it gets slowed down it made it more dramatic particularly with the crashes.
Admittedly some of his other directorial touches were a bit odd. The opening sequence showing two naked people in bed together making love, which was shot on video tape and has a romantic music score, making it seem like a soft core porn flick and had many of members of the film’s test audience confused and even walking out in disgust. There is a surprising level of nudity, including seeing Cassie Yates topless, that I didn’t feel was necessary. There’s also touches of humor that I didn’t care for either. Apparently this was Peckinpah’s attempt to balance the violence, but it hurts the tension. The producers didn’t like the comical bits either and cut most of them out when Peckinpah got fired during post production, but a couple do remain, which are amusing, like when Hurt has to be pretend on-the-spot that he’s a television news reader giving an impromptu weather report, but still out-of-place for this type of story.
Many critics complained about the elaborate plot Roger Ebert stated in his review that it ‘made no sense’ and caused him to become ‘angry at it’ as a result. Vincent Canby of the New York Times described it as ‘incomprehensible’ and Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader labeled it ‘a mess’. I didn’t have such difficulty following it and although it’s a bit intricate it isn’t really all that confusing as long as you pay close attention and the twists that do occur I found enjoyable and many times was already predicting. My one complaint was be the way Tanner gets so easily persuaded that his friends, people he’s known for a long time and is very close to, are spies and he immediately turns against them. This is also a man that is supposedly ‘anti-government’, so you’d think he might like the fact that his friends are spies. A good way to have avoided this was having the character not hosting a liberal talk show, but instead a conservative one where Tanner would be a patriotic, pro-American type guy and thus making his acceptance of what the CIA agents tell him more plausible.
It’s interesting seeing Hauer, who usually plays villains, being a good guy, while Lancaster being a perennial protagonist, mixing it up here as a baddie. Both play against type well and the supporting cast has their share of moments too including Craig T. Nelson as a judo fighting expert and Hopper, who should win the award for best nervous expression. In all though it’s Helen Shaver that steals it as Hopper’s cocaine addicted wife. She’s not likable in any way and actually quite annoying, but she definitely stands-out with has a few choice moments.
I will admit that the ended, where Tanner tries to out the CIA director during an interview on his TV-show, doesn’t work and becomes one twist too many. Having Hauer simultaneously speak on-the-air in his studio and then show-up at the same time at Hurt’s hide-out didn’t seem realistic. Apparently this occurred because the show was taped early and only given the illusion that it was done live, but how they were able to pull all that off is a stretch and having his friend Nelson suddenly become a seasoned in-studio director when that wasn’t his job otherwise didn’t jive either. It’s not enough to ruin everything that came before it, which I overall enjoyed, but it’s still a lame ending either way.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: September 30, 1983
Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, Fandor