Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sustaining The Character


If I were going to recommend HERO AT LARGE to anybody for any reason it would be as a snapshot of New York in 1979. The opening shot of the film starts off on that one lone Diamond Vision screen that used to be in Times Square and then zooms way out to show the entire area. On the west side of Broadway there’s a massive billboard for John Badham’s DRACULA with Frank Langella covering the side of a building and when I saw it I had a funny feeling that I was going to be more interested in that DRACULA ad than anything else in HERO AT LARGE. That pretty much turned out to be the case. I think I loved this movie when I was eight but what can I say, things change.

Struggling actor Steve Nichols (John Ritter) is working part time making personal appearances for the just-released "Captain Avenger" movie (starring “Ryan McGraw” for all you LOVE STORY fans) wearing the costume of the lead character when, as he stops in a grocery store late one night after a night of work, finds himself in the middle of a holdup which he thwarts posing as the actual super hero. When word gets out in the media of what has happened, Steve decides to try his luck at being Captain Avenger for real again as both the failing movie’s publicists and the mayor’s office try to work the appearance of this mysterious hero to their advantage.


It’s amiable, fairly likable stuff but, directed by Martin Davidson, pretty unmemorable. As it turned out, I spent much of the film thinking about all the better movies it kind of resembles. A few scenes play like an early version of TOOTSIE, with an out-of-work actor dealing with unsuccessful auditions as well as an agent bearing the last name Fields, but this one, played by Allan Rich, is strictly Tin Pan Alley, not at all like Sydney Pollack. We see Steve Nichols crack up midway through an audition, under circumstances which would probably anger Michael Dorsey and it doesn’t make him more likable. It just makes us look at him as a goofball pretending he’s an actor (for a very random observation, the old woman who blows out half the candles on Michael Dorsey’s birthday cake can be spotted behind Ritter on the street early on). The basic tone of the film seems to strive for a Sturges- Capra feel crossed with a little of that 70s New York-PELHAM ONE TWO THREE feel--PELHAM’s “Old Man”, Michael Gorrin, appears here as the grocery store owner but the Jewish caricature of him and the actress playing his wife is played way up here as opposed to the matter-of-fact nature of his character in the earlier film. It’s spirited, but the whole thing winds up just being bland, not too far off from what the film would have been if Disney had made it as one of their live-action comedies of the time, not too surprising since writer AJ Carothers has some Disney credits from before this. Much more interesting are the allusions to TAXI DRIVER which turn up; Ritter is sitting in a cab in front of the Belmore Cafeteria in one scene, the Mayor is played by none other than Leonard Harris (Charles Palantine himself) and the street drummer who memorably appears as Travis and Betsy walk off to their date (“Now back to Gene Krupa's syncopated style”) even turns up during the opening credit montage. As a matter of fact, buried in this material is the potential for a twisted comic spin on Travis Bickle’s story but very little is ever made of this possibility. What we get instead is an “It’s the idea of Captain Avenger that counts” homily with the big conflict coming when the movie publicists and city officials try to corrupt Steve Nichols for their own benefit. Any real madcap satire gets lost in the idea and what remains is pretty toothless. Good-natured, but toothless.


I always liked John Ritter and though I suppose this was meant to be his big starring vehicle after THREE’S COMPANY hit it big it really isn’t one of his best roles. Steve Nichols isn’t much more than a nice guy, emphasis on the word “nice”, with very little to him otherwise—he even gratefully takes a homeless guy (character listed as “Bum” in the end credits) out for coffee when he can’t find anyone else to talk to. To underscore the point he comes from Cawker City, Kansas (sounds like a place Travis could have come from) and he remains peppy and cheerful even after being kicked out of his apartment, making him seem more na├»ve than anything. Anne Archer plays J. Marsh, the elegant Jean Arthur-type love interest from across the hall who he zeroes in on when they first meet (her first shot is of her rear as she gets out of a cab but hey, it was the seventies). She turns him down almost instantly making his continued pursuit of her kind of creepy (plus they live in the same building—boundaries, dude). She’s fairly likable in the part but a little too bland and Ritter actually has more chemistry with the briefly seen Marley Sims, playing an actress at the very beginning who he runs lines with but though they plan to meet “on Monday” we never seen her again. She kind of resembles Lisa Edelstein and looking her up reveals that Sims only made a few other appearances before moving behind the camera to work as story editor on shows like SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH. So that’s why I like her—she’s a writer. Bert Convy (looking like he just stepped off the set of MATCH GAME) and Kevin McCarthy play the publicity sleazes who try to use the Captain Avenger situation to their advantage. Archer’s rich boyfriend Milo is played by Rick Podell who looks weirdly like Convy, making me wonder what the subtext is—all nice guys look like John Ritter and all the creeps look like Bert Convy? Jane Hallaren (the victim of an aborted date with Albert Brooks in MODERN ROMANCE) plays The Bitch Reporter intent on finding out the identity of Captain Avenger and seems to represent all the cynicism in the world. Kevin Bacon appears briefly early on harassing Ritter in his costume but longtime New York residents will be interested in various local reporters from the time who turn up, including Rolland Smith, Carol Martin, Chris Borgen and John Roland (I can’t believe I actually remember some of these names).

That New York flavor we get even extends to a late night car chase through midtown around Grand Central that ends with a crash at about Park and 53rd, as well as a fight scene on an elevated train somewhere in the outer boroughs. None of it’s done with any particular flair but it’s fun to see these kind of sequences filmed on location. During one exterior outside of Sardi’s we can see THE CHAMP on the marquee of the Loews Astor Plaza down the street, placing when the scene was shot at somewhere between April and June of 1979. Once again, I’m finding myself more interested in the stuff going on in the corners of the Manhattan frame than the actual movie. I was paying so much attention to this aspect that when the film got to the big burning building climax (a lot of elements in this seem to have turned up in the SPIDER-MAN movies, but that probably comes with the territory) and familiar face Kenneth Tobey turned up playing the firechief I figured this section had to have been filmed on a backlot in Hollywood (no local reporters turn up here either). It was probably easier considering all the logistics involved and the movie manages to cover it well—the sequence climaxes in a pretty impressive physical effect as well. Immediately following this, the film even cuts back to location footage in New York for the final shot and the result is pretty seamless. Things like that probably impressed me more than anything else in HERO AT LARGE and while it’s ultimately kind of forgettable, it’s too likable for me to get worked up over. And yes, it sucks that John Ritter is still dead.

7 comments:

Joe Valdez said...

Excellent review, Peel. I remember Hero At Large playing on HBO in the early '80s and being mad that Ritter wasn't flying around like The Greatest American Hero. Now it's hard to say which of those is worse. Please review Dracula next!

Mr. Peel said...

I can't make any promises on DRACULA, but we'll see what the future holds. Thanks very much!

mark tinta said...

I'm totally hooked on late '70s NYC location-shooting. There's really nothing else like it, especially in all the Italian horror/exploitation flicks of that era, where the New Yorkers can't resist gawking right into the camera. Check out Antonio Margheriti's THE SQUEEZE to get a literally chilling look at NYC in the winter of 1978. Also, I think that huge DRACULA billboard you mention as being visible in HERO AT LARGE is also seen in the opening NYC sequences of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, if I'm not mistaken. Must've been shot at the same time.

Mr. Peel said...

I haven't seen CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST in years, but I always enjoy the NY location shooting in those Italian movies as well, especially in Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE. It always feels like the footage in those films is shot totally on the fly and in most cases it probably was.

Jeremy Richey said...

Funny,
I just recently got a copy of this after having not seen it for twenty plus years but haven't revisited it yet. Really love and miss Ritter which is the main reason I am wanting to watch it again...

Mr. Peel said...

Jeremy--

If you do watch it, I don't know what you'll think. But yeah, Ritter is very much missed. This may not be his best role, but he was a great talent.

CawkerCityKid said...

After 33 years, I finally saw "Hero At Large." I remember I had just graduated from High School when John Ritter was being interviewed on a Kansas City Radio Station. When asked about Steve Nichols' home town, Ritter thought the place was just made up by the writers. The station was bombarded with calls confirming the fact that "Yes, John, there really is a Cawker City." It is mostly known today as the home to the World's Largest Ball of Twine. But the connections with Hollywood are more interesting. MGM silent movie star Claire Windsor aka Clara Viola Cronk, grew up in Cawker City. The writer, A. J. Carothers worked for Walt Disney who was also familiar with Cawker City. As a young boy growing up in Kansas City, Disney used to ride the Central Branch of the Missouri Pacific railroad all the way to Downs and back to Kansas City just for fun. Unfortunately, Mr. Carothers passed away in 2007 so I can not ask him how he learned of Cawker City, but it is possible he knew Clair Windsor personally. If anyone reading this has any information about the film or A. J. Carothers, please email cawkercitymuseum@yahoo.com