The Hackman Connection – The Chain Reaction Film Club

The only Hackman I used to know

Gene Hackman is one of those actors who I have almost entirely overlooked. I saw Superman as a kid, of course, and Unforgiven. I think I saw Get Shorty. But that’s about it. I didn’t really go to the cinema that much growing up, and much of his filmography is more adult-skewed anyway. There’s a lot of slightly gritty-sounding stuff in his filmography, realistic settings rather than the sci fi bombast I preferred (and often still do) so didn’t make the effort to catch them on TV. By my late teens/early 20s I was more into horror – all the former video nasties were finally given official releases in the late 90s so it was a glorious time. Then I met my other half who is obsessive about 30s, 40s and 50s cinema… So Hackman just kind of passed me by.

Since starting the Chain Reaction Film Club I’ve made a conscious effort to pick his films where possible. There are so many notable ones often used as reference points by film makers and reviewers that it’s been part out of interest and part out of obligation. So we’ve already tackled Bonnie and Clyde, Scarecrow, Wyatt Earp, and Twilight, plus Absolute Power and A Bridge Too Far as part of the Goldman Variations covered in the last post.

Rather helpfully his IMDb credits list 100 films, so I’m up to having seen 10% of his work (not sure if I ever saw Superman IV…). With another 90 films to choose from we started with…

Film 65: Under Suspicion (2000)

Hackman is… Under Suspicion

All I knew going in was that it was Hackman and Morgan Freeman, and some kind of cop/suspect cat and mouse. And then came one of the worst openings that I remember seeing. It’s a series of very cheap looking shots of Puerto Rico, swooping over houses and coastline like a 70s travel documentary. I was not inspired with confidence…

And then… it almost worked. Hackman is a bigshot lawyer who goes to see his friend and local police detective (Freeman) to clear up a few loose ends about a body he found while out for a run. But there are more questions than answers and suspicion starts to fall on him… They’re a solid pair of actors to anchor this kind of story around, even though in a couple of places you can tell they’re only moving from their seats because the director has blocked it that way. It twists and it turns and it almost but doesn’t quite hold together. Oh well. I liked what it was trying to do.

Film 66: The French Connection (1971)

He doesn’t even eat any damn spinach…

Here we go, a biggie. Somehow I’d never seen this. In my head it was indivisible from Bullitt (probably also coming to a CRFC blog soon), notable for a car chase but otherwise a mystery. Like Hackman, Steve McQueen has largely eluded me. 

The setup? Drugs are streaming through to America from France. A pair of New York detectives get a lead on the French connection who will be in town for one big deal…

One of the things that struck me most about The French Connection was how used to being able to look things up online I’ve become. In a few places Hackman and his partner (played by Roy Scheider) leave a straw hat in the back of their car. It’s pointedly done, but in a 70s pointedly way rather than a modern here-we’re-doing-this-and-I’ll-explain-it-twice kind of way. A quick google after the film, and I’ve discovered it was a signal to cops that undercover cops were on duty in the car. How did people used to deal with not knowing? God knows.

Hackman is irredeemably irascible, which is fun, and there is that humdinger of a car chase. It’s made even juicier from – you guessed it – looking it up. And finding out that:

A) They only had permission for part of the route

B) Director William Friedkin held the camera in the back of the car as he was the only non married member of the crew

C) One of the crashes is real – a driver had got round barriers and was sideswiped by Popeye Doyle for his trouble.

It’s taut and a bit nasty, just like Doyle himself. And it won 4 Oscars including best picture. That seems a bit over the top to me, particularly as Clockwork Orange was one of the other nominations. Perhaps it’s one of those occasions where so many films have followed the tone and riffs of The French Connection since that it’s hard to see it in context.

Film 67: French Connection II (1975)

Give the man an Oscar. Or a shirt.

Yup, we went straight into the sequel. And my but it’s annoying that they removed the definite article from the title. 

The car/train chase is what the first film is most notable for, so how did they decide to follow that? Generally the formula is to crank everything up to eleventy stupid (to quote Dr. Kermode) – you want a chase? Howzabout one with cars and a train and a bus and a tank?! In space!! Props to French Connection II for not attempting that at least. Instead it follows Hackman’s Popeye Doyle (one of only two returning characters) as he heads to France, is kidnapped and forcibly addicted to heroin, goes cold turkey and endures withdrawal, torches a building full of junkies who, frankly, probably wouldn’t all have made it out, and generally makes a mess of the investigation. It’s a bold move and these days would be seen as a performance chasing an Oscar. Maybe it was then too. 

The first is definitely the better film, but for a Hackman season this was worth it for the performance.

We’ve just scratched the surface of his filmography, and there’s more to come from The Hackman Connection. So far though? I like how unlikeable he is. Does he play any likeable characters? Ever? How great to have a leading man career based around unlikeableness. It just seems so… unlikely.

Next up will be 1988s Mississippi Burning starring… Gene Hackman!

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Filmapalooza 2017! – The Chain Reaction Film Club

I’ve been quiet on the film front lately but fear not, I’ve still been watching them it’s just that I’ve changed jobs and have to actually do a full day’s work now. Curse the lack of surreptitious blogging time!

As I’ve built up a fair old backlog I’m going to burn through them in a few handy (hopefully not too lengthy) posts.

So.

Last time was the 50th (and 49th and 51st) film extravaganza wherein I discovered just how good Starship Troopers still is. Endlessly quotable, fun yet compelling, poking fun at fascists. What’s not to like?

Film 52: Scanners (1981)

Link: Michael Ironside

Ironside

This was a serious gap in my film knowledge, and an odd one at that. I’ve heard it mentioned and referenced so many times that I had built up my own version of it in my head.  And of course that vesion doesn’t bear many similarities with the actual film other than there are explodey head psychics about.

The first half hooked me, but I’ve seldom seen a film so resolutely sunk by the lead actor’s performance. Going from hobo to superspy in the course of the film was always going to be a tough sell, but sadly Steven Lack was exactly, monotonously, the same throughout. You might say he was… Lacking… Oh well.

For what it’s worth, in my made up version the famous exploding head happens live on TV and is a news presenter or similar, and psychics are kept in some kind of walled prison. I think I prefer my made up version.

Film 53: Escape From Alcatraz (1979)

Link: Patrick MacGoohan

McGoohan

McGoohan and The Prisoner.

This was Tim’s choice. I was quite in the mood for some kind of prison escape romp or caper, but the capering and romping are kept to a minimum. I guess Clint Eastwood isn’t that much of a romper unless there’s an orangutan involved. There is some prison escaping though, so tick.

It’s the (pretty much) true story of the only three men ever to escape Alcatraz. The wrinkle is that they have never been recaptured or definitively identified since escape and so there’s a possibility they didn’t make it after all. It’s a solid, dour, straightahead piece uninterested in any unnecessary fun. Which is fine if you want that sort of thing, but I’ll take a caper any day.

Film 54: Running Scared (1986)

Link: Larry Hankin

I mainly know Larry Hankin as Mr Heckles from Friends and the actor playing the Kramer role in the Seinfeld sitcom within the sitcom. He also plays a convict in Escape From Alcatraz, andit turns out he’s been around. In fact he was in a film that Tim has been wanting me to pick since we started the Chain Reaction Film Club (or Thing Thing Thing Thing Thing as Tim usually calls it). He’s big on buddy cop films and big on Gregory Hines, and Running Scared is a buddy cop film starring Gregory Hines so… And the other buddy? Only bloody Billy Crystal!

Having now seen it I can confirm that it is most certainly a buddy cop film starring Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal. They’re engaging and snarky, it’s got an 80s-licious soundtrack, it’s got an 80s-licious attitude to women (seriously, yikes).

Running Scared

Double yikes

It’s for the most part a fun romp (finally, a romp!). But it’s so comprehensively overshadowed by the likes of Lethal Weapon or Beverley Hills Cop that there doesn’t really seem to be any need for it these days. One for historians of the 80s buddy cop genre, I’d say (hey I’m sure they exist. There’s a V&A exhibition about plyywood on at the mo, so anything’s game).

Film 55: Commando (1985)

Link: Dan Hedaya

Well Dan Hedaya in dark slap with a dodgy latino accent was an unpleasant surprise…

Hedaya

Greased up Arnie firing a machine gun topless was a more pleasant surprise. Jesus Christ the size of the man.

ACTOR ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER IN SCENE FROM COMMANDO

And the film… it’s Arnie. There are guns. That’s about it. There’s a very peculiar relationship with Rae Dawn Chong’s character that stays platonic but is utterly unbelievable – he kidnaps her for reasons, she shops him to the mall cops, he escapes and she runs away with him. And then keeps going to different places with him for no particular reason. It’s very strange.

We kind of cheated here a little. I was torn between Commando and The Cotton Club (via Gregory Hines), the latter of which has been on the list before. We ended up watching The Cotton Club too, separate to the Thing Thing Thing Thing Thing (crap, that’s catchy). There were a LOT of people in it, and it’s worthwhile for some of the singing (great Cab Calloway impression) and dancing (Gregory Hines’ tap).

Cotton

Strange in a film about a club famous for black musicians that we spend most of the time following white gangsters instead, but given black people weren’t allowed in the club as punters it seems oddly on point. I had a similar feeling towards Wind River recently. It’s a film which ends with a serious message about native American women disappearing, set on a reservation, in which we exclusively follow two white characters.

Film 56: Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2011)

Link: Rae Dawn Chong

I’ve always got this muddled up with Lars and the Real Girl, so nice to actually see one of them and hopefully put that behind me.

Lars

Jeff Who Lives With The Real Girl?

I’ve got a soft spot for damaged slacker characters – my favourite films are Donnie Darko and Harvey – so despite a few reservations (Jason Siegel and Ed Helms are in very few things I have even a passing interest in) this started off well. And if it had ended 10 minutes before it actually finished then I’d feel pretty positive about it. Unfortunately that last 10 minutes undid most of the charm.

Jeff

Lars Who Lives At Home?

I’ve already mentioned that the two leads aren’t in a whole lot I’m interested in, and though we sometimes have different opinions this is something that Tim and I share. So our options were a little limited for what to pick next… except… Susan Sarandon co stars as Jeff’s mother. And, it being his choice, Tim buffed together a shortlist purely consisting of Susan Sarandon films. There were 25 films on the list. Sometime ago we contemplated The Month of the Fox for Edward Fox though we ended up only watching 3 Fox films (The Duellists, The Dresser, The Day of the Jackal – all excellent). This seemed like the perfect time for Sarandon Season. How many did we manage before we were lured away? Find out next time!

Streets Of Fire – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 43: Streets Of Fire

Streets of Fire 03

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor.

Previously On…

Last time we watched The Aviator, a Howard Hughes biopic that reaffirmed my ambivalence towards biopics.

The Shortlist

There’s only one film on the list this time:

Streets Of Fire (1984)

The Choice

A mutual friend of mine and Tim’s suggested we catch this at the cinema as part of CRFC, and having looked it up briefly, there was no way we could refuse.

The Link

Streets of Fire 02

Willem Dafoe’s face is just amazing. What’s even more amazing is that he has succeeded in playing some non-villain roles with that face. And he’s been great in them too – Sgt Elias in Platoon is the obvious one. But then it turns out he’s a stage actor, with links to experimental theatre groups, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that he can do pretty much anything.

His filmography highlights his love of experimenting too – there are the big things like Platoon, Spider-Man etc. But then there’s the weirder stuff too – Nymphomaniac, Antichrist, The Last Temptation Of Christ. It’s hard to think of another actor who’s career spans such a broad range of projects, from kids’ animation to erotica to Hollywood blockbuster to arthouse indie.

Streets Of Fire and me

Never seen it, never heard of it. A cursory glance tells me it’s from the director of The Warriors, which is exciting. The Warriors is ace. And Jim Steinman is involved, which makes me think of Meatloaf and later era Sisters Of Mercy. And I like that very much. There are also biker gangs.

I’m trying hard not to get too excited.

IMDB says

A mercenary is hired to rescue his ex-girlfriend, a singer who has been kidnapped by a motorcycle gang. 6.7 stars.

I says

Streets of Fire 04

Let’s be very clear up front: Streets Of Fire is not very good. Not very good at all.

Michael Pare as Tom Cody is just awful, and unfortunately is the lead. It’s not that he’s wooden, he aspires to wood. That’s not the end of the problems though. The editing is jarring, the action stilted, the costumes mind-bending. It makes very little sense.

And yet…

It starts with the words: ‘A Rock and Roll Fable.’ Swiftly followed by ‘In another place and another time’. And then the Jim Steinman-penned Nowhere Fast starts. The film takes place in a kind of 50s/80s hybrid place that could be a city, could be the whole of the world. When the main characters drive from one place to another it goes from day to night and back to day again. Two of the leads are ex-military and it’s clear there have been wars recently. Everything has a burnt out look about it.

It has a certain style. It’s the first draft of something great. It’s Mad Max Fury Road made by amateurs.

Which is weird because by this point Walter Hill had already directed six films, including The Warriors and 48 Hrs, so plainly he knew what he was doing.

There are stories from the casting that mean things could have been very different – Tom Cruise was the first choice for the lead, but accepted a different role just before being signed up. But then again the role of the plucky mechanic McCoy, the standout performance in the film from Amy Madigan, was written as and intended for a man (interesting, but not surprising, that the only decent female role in the film was meant for a man).

They originally wanted a Bruce Springsteen song to close the film, but two days to the deadline and the rights didn’t come through. They then approached Jim Steinman to write a couple of songs in a couple of days, and I think that was a blessing. Steinman’s songs are as over the top and histrionic as any of his output with Meatloaf. The closing song is called ‘Tonight Is What It Mean To Be Young’ for god’s sake.

Streets of Fire 06

Here’s the chorus of Nowhere Fast:

‘You and me we’re goin’ nowhere slowly

And we’ve gotta get away from the past

There’s nothin’ wrong with goin’ nowhere, baby

But we should be goin’ nowhere fast’

Great, slightly silly, stuff. And that’s what the film is like. The music sets the tone. Why is evil biker Willem Dafoe wearing fishing waders? Why does he walk back into the fire? Why is Bill Paxton… like that? Why does Tom Cody right hook his sweetheart? Listen to the music and it all starts to make sense.

Almost.

Streets of Fire 01

It almost makes sense…

The Verdict

Terrible… but enticing. While the film is clearly going nowhere, at least it’s going nowhere fast.

Coming Attractions

We’re back to normal service now. It’s Tim’s choice and he’s got a surprisingly good cast to choose from: Dafoe, Diane Lane, Ed Begley jr, Grand Bush, Paxton… And in 2008 a sequel to Streets Of Fire came out, also starring Michael Pare… just sayin’.

@BornToPootle