Sunday, November 30, 2008
Leap Before You Look
On Saturday night the New Beverly Cinema had their “Vanity Insanity” triple bill, which consisted of three movies--NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE, ACTION JACKSON and THE LAST DRAGON--that starred the one and only Vanity. It seemed like it was a lot of fun if you stayed around for the whole thing, but the truth is that I showed up to see just the film that was running in the middle of the evening. For reasons that I cannot explain, I had never seen ACTION JACKSON, in spite of the fact that it came out in 1988 when I was a teenager and logically should have gone to see something like it and I usually want to see any action movie produced by Joel Silver anyway. But even though I can’t explain why I never bothered to get to it until now, at least this was the chance to take care of the matter. As it turns out, it’s kind of interesting to watch it to see how the Silver style was still developing in that period between LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD but ultimately it seems like a misfire. But at least it’s no longer a mystery.
Hotshot Detroit Police Detective Jericho “Action” Jackson (Carl Weathers) is investigating murders that he believes are connected to auto magnate Peter Delleplane (Craig T. Nelson), who was connected to a notorious case that resulted in Jackson being demoted in the department (Delleplane is being honored as “Man of the Year” in his first scene, so we know he’s evil). After getting the trust of his suspect’s new wife Patrice (Sharon Stone), Jackson is framed for murder and he is forced on the run with Delleplane’s heroin-addict mistress Sydney (Vanity). Trying to avoid capture, Jackson has to take down Delleplane once and for all as he also attempts to clear his own name. Or something like that. In all honesty, I started to zone out by a certain point.
In one scene Sharon Stone’s character asks the question, “Why do they call you Action, anyway?” just before a cab nearly runs them both over. It’s a logical question for her to ask, because at that point we’re nearly a third into the movie and we haven’t even seen the guy do anything yet to warrant that nickname. The first few scenes of the movie seem to be taken up by characters talking about what a badass he is and once he’s finally introduced we still don’t get much more than Bill Duke’s Captain lecturing him with a lot of exposition filling us in on more backstory than we want to listen to. It’s as if the movie thinks that we wouldn’t have much interest in actually seeing any of the things we’re being told. To use an example, it’s as if the Silver-produced DEMOLITION MAN opened without the 1996 prologue where we first see the Sylvester Stallone character in action and for a while we just heard about how great he was. I’m not saying that DEMOLITION MAN should be used as a model of screenplay construction (there’s probably a better example, but it’s what came to mind) but in movies like this we don’t want to hear about how cool a character is—we want to see it. In LETHAL WEAPON, we already have an idea how crazy Mel Gibson’s character is by the time we hear other people saying it, so we don’t need to be convinced. But in this movie, we’re never even given a good reason why he’s called action—Carl Weathers is never given the chance to be all that charismatic and he certainly isn’t as borderline as Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs was. We hear so much about what went down between Jackson and Delleplane that it almost seems like that’s the movie we should be watching instead since it’s where all the exciting stuff happened. Oddly, the plot has the main character stripped of his gun before the start so Weathers has to play the rare movie cop who doesn’t get the use of one through much of the movie. It’s an odd choice which seems deliberate in the screenplay, maybe an attempt to force the character to use other methods but it never pays off in any particularly interesting way. I also can’t help but notice that the film’s poster has the character holding a gun anyway. As it is, ACTION JACKSON is the rare Joel Silver film that is flat-out dull. It’s got all the ingredients that his movies are supposed to have—chases, violence, wisecracks, gorgeous girls. But there’s no pizzazz to any of it, nothing to distract us from how haphazard the story seems to be constructed. Many of his movies get away with such flaws—LETHAL WEAPON 2 has one of my favorite story holes of all time, but the movie is so much fun that I don’t care. The Silver films are like that. ACTION JACKSON is stupid in all the right ways, but that doesn’t make it any good. The plot is dull, it’s directed like a bad TV show, characters don’t seem consistent from scene to scene and even the music by Herbie Hancock and Michael Kamen is boring, even when some of Kamen’s trademark wise guy touches are heard like an ominous “Here Comes The Bride” underscoring a tense scene between a married couple. The film was directed by Craig R. Baxley, who also made I COME IN PEACE a few years later before moving on to a lot of TV and was written by Robert Reneau whose few credits also include co-story and co-screenplay credit on, um, DEMOLITION MAN. Paula Abdul is credited for the choreography, in case anyone’s interested, so she’s probably responsible for Vanity’s movies during her nightclub musical numbers. The songs are pretty bad.
Much of the tone and humor is very obviously going for a touch reminiscent of LETHAL WEAPON, which Silver had just produced the previous year, but that film also had director Richard Donner and writer Shane Black who were able to make the mayhem look easy—when Mel Gibson chases Gary Busey’s car on foot we accept something so ludicrous because the film is already larger-than-life anyway. In ACTION JACKSON we have a hero who successfully jumps over a car coming right at him and in another scene drives a car into a house, up a staircase and towards the room the villain is hiding in but the movie hasn’t established a tone where any of it really works. Sometimes it takes a bad film to show just how hard it is to really make a movie and ACTION JACKSON is one of those. Just about the most interesting thing about the movie is the number of actors who appear in other Joel Silver films from around this time such as LETHAL WEAPON, PREDATOR and especially DIE HARD which opened five months after this hit theaters. There are at least ten familiar faces from these other films that turn up, give or take, with a handful of other people who are just familiar from being in 80s films in general (Nicholas Worth from SWAMP THING and DARKMAN turns up as a bad guy), with maybe the best being Robert Davi who plays a jittery police informant—at least it’s an interesting case of casting against type. It’s almost like ACTION JACKSON is some sort of conduit where the elements of these various movies can meet and co-exist. Or maybe I’m just trying to come up with something to say about it. A few PREDATOR posters can be seen at one point as Weathers, who of course co-starred in that film which was probably in theaters when this was being shot, walks past them.
As for the man who is Action Jackson, I like Carl Weathers. Everyone likes Carl Weathers. But maybe he just wasn’t an action lead. Certainly the script doesn’t do him any favors. Vanity is pretty bad, while Craig T. Nelson and Sharon Stone seem stranded by the material, with neither of them getting much of a chance. Stone in particular doesn’t seem like she was directed much at all. Bill Duke has some potentially funny moments as Captain Armbruster but he doesn’t get enough screentime to make a real impression like he should. The most genuine enjoyment comes from Thomas F. Wilson (Biff in BACK TO THE FUTURE) and Roger Aaron Brown (James Caan’s doomed partner in ALIEN NATION) as a pair of uniformed comic relief cops, pretty much the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern of the movie (did I just type that?). They actually get some laughs from what they do but, again, there’s just not enough of them to make much of a difference. ACTION JACKSON is forgettable and, considering some of the people involved that I usually like, a disappointment. But it’s still fun to go to see something like this at the New Beverly. I’m sure the next movie I see there will be better.