Sunday, August 10, 2008

Overpopulation


As THE DESTRUCTORS opens, some nasty types in a car chasing someone down a dark, deserted street, pause before pinning him to turn some classical music on. It sounds like it could be the opening of some post-Tarantino thriller from the nineties but THE DESTRUCTORS aka THE MARSEILLE CONTRACT (thank you, TCM) actually dates from 1974 and is directed by Robert Parrish, best remembered now for being one of five directors on the 1967 CASINO ROYALE. At the very least, THE DESTRUCTORS is another item to check off on the list of 70s Michael Caine films to see. There’s the added interest of music by Roy Budd, composer of the legendary score for GET CARTER, which certainly helps. THE DESTRUCTORS isn’t exactly a total bust, but I don’t feel particularly enriched after having seen it either.

When Steve Ventura (Anthony Quinn), a U.S. narcotics agent who heads up the Paris bureau becomes frustrated at not being able to take down drug kingpin Jacques Brizard (James Mason) he decides to seek out a hit man that turns out to be old friend John Deray (top-billed Caine) who he sends to Marseille to do the job. Naturally, things do not go exactly as planned.


At first it appears that Quinn is the lead here and that Caine, who enters close to one-third in, is taking a supporting role but once he turns up his manic energy takes over the movie to the point that it becomes a little unclear what and who THE DESTRUCTORS is really about. Is it about Quinn? Is it about Caine? Both of them? I suppose this question is ultimately answered, considering the direction the plot takes, but for a while it makes things rather confusing and Quinn, considering he seems to be the lead, is offscreen way too long in the middle section. He’s given a subplot where he is having an affair with the wife (DAY FOR NIGHT’s Alexandra Stewart) of an agent who is killed. The guilt over this presumably spurs him into action to seek out Caine’s hitman but when Stewart disappears from the movie soon after, the motivation feels muddled and gives the impression that something is missing. As Caine takes off for Marseille to get mixed up with James Mason and his people the focus soon becomes lost. Caine’s scenes are enjoyable throughout—when asked what aspect of the environment interests him he replies “Overpopulation”--but the film needs more and never gets it. Ultimately, it feels like one of those movies where not very much happens and things still wind up being overly complicated.


Given the timeframe the film was made in, it’s no surprise that it seems somewhat like THE FRENCH CONNECTION, to put it kindly, and setting much of the film in Marseille slightly before FRENCH CONNECTION II actually gives the slight impression of cramming elements of both films into one. The most distracting element of this is the casting of CONNECTION bad guy Marcel Bozuffi (he’s the one being shot by Gene Hackman in the famous poster) in essentially the same role here. This actually makes James Mason’s kingpin come off as even more of a second-rate Fernando Rey than he already seems like—really, Phillip Vandamm deserves better. A more surprising resemblance to another film comes when Caine, in an effort to get near Mason’s Brizard, deliberately pursues Mason’s beautiful daughter played by Maureen Kirwin in his car around the hills over Marseille as they engage in a flirtation on wheels (of course, it’s a prelude to romance). It’s shockingly like the sequence where Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond first encounters Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp on the road over Monte Carlo in GOLDENEYE right down to certain shots and angles being recreated for the Bond film (me sitting alone watching THE DESTRUCTORS at this point: “Hang on a second!”). Looking around the net I discovered I’m not the first person to make this connection (a similar sequence in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II has also been pointed out) but either way, Martin Campbell has something to answer for.

At one point late in the film, Quinn makes a dramatic statement and walks off into the sunset as a gentle theme plays. It’s probably designed to add some weight to the character even though by that point the film has been taken over by Caine and it seems like the sort of thing which could confuse somebody only half paying attention into briefly thinking, “Huh? Is the movie over?” For whatever reason, a variation on the shot actually occurs when the credits really do roll. In their scenes together, you can feel Quinn working it while he quietly gets blown off the screen by Caine, who seems to achieve the proper weight without displaying any effort (Quinn’s best moments are when Caine isn’t around). Actually, Caine’s autobiography doesn’t even mention the film and elsewhere it’s been reported that Caine accepted the part without reading the script for the sole reason that it would be filmed in French locations during the wintertime. Even if the character of John Deray isn’t the sort of tough guy performance which will be ranked among his best, he’s still a lot of fun to watch.


James Mason, who also appeared in THE LAST OF SHEILA and 11 HARROWHOUSE around this time, doesn’t seem to do much with a role that, again, we’ve pretty much already seen played by Fernando Rey. Pierre Salinger, of all people, plays a government official in a scene with Quinn and he isn’t bad. I recognized one minor player as being the castle butler from INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE and when I looked up Vernon Dobtcheff, the man in question, I encountered an actor with hundreds of credits to his name, including the bookstore manager in BEFORE SUNSET. I point this out only because something like this makes me think of the connection movies we know very well have with movies which are unknown and, well, I can’t think of much else to say about this movie.


The score by Roy Budd is enjoyable, although sometimes it feels like it’s working a little too hard to make the action scenes more exciting than they really are and at times it feels like some of the action would have worked better with no music at all. One of these scenes is a car chase where Michael Caine has to drive a van against oncoming traffic which sounds great, but it’s hurt by multiple close-ups of him obviously pretending to steer on a mock-up (other shots elsewhere are just as clearly him on location, so go figure) and the feeling that the big stunt that climaxes the sequence either didn’t get the appropriate coverage or is just clumsily staged. There are a few points throughout where I also found myself rewinding to unclear catch bits of action of the “Did he just get shot?” variety. Even the ending was one of those things where I found myself torn between admiring the staging and thinking, “That wouldn’t work”. THE DESTRUCTORS has a slick sort of European 70s vibe to it which is fun, but the whole thing feels undernourished and maybe a little too polite, with too many elements that don’t seem to amount to anything in the end. Michael Caine/Roy Budd completists will want to seek it out. Everyone else should make it a point to see GET CARTER and become a Michael Caine/Roy Budd completist.

2 comments:

Jason said...

What classical music did they play in the opening of THE DESTRUCTORS?

Marc Edward Heuck said...

Maybe I've been spending too much time in Tarantinoland, but do you suspect naming Caine's character Deray is homage to French crime drama director Jacques Deray (THE OUTSIDE MAN)?