Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Everybody Wants His Picture In The Paper
“I hate football,” says a character at one point in 1976’s TWO-MINUTE WARNING, a movie set almost entirely at a football game and I don't have much of an argument with that statement. One thing’s for sure, this film isn’t going to get me to change my mind. It displays the Universal disaster movie cycle at its absolute least inspired, containing very little that I think I’ll have much memory of in the future. To not be too harsh on the thing, I watched it while eating Chinese takeout and it served its purpose for that—hey, I knew what I was getting into—so as dull as the whole thing is I was at least able to enjoy the basic formula and never actually felt compelled to shut it off. But it’s a lousy, crass piece of work and maybe even seems worse the more I think about it.
It’s the day of the big Championship football game in Los Angeles. A nameless, faceless sniper, mostly portrayed through a first-person camera setup, starts his day off by shooting an innocent person from the balcony of his hotel (whether it’s for practice or to distract police is never clarified) then after he checks out, calmly drives downtown to the Coliseum where he enters with his ticket, then makes his way up to a perch above the scoreboard where he can remain unobserved (security is very lax—it’s probably harder to steal a cup of coffee from a Starbucks) and after he has assembled the rifle that he brought in under his jacket (seriously, I hope this sort of thing is harder to pull off these days) calmly waits for the moment when he will strike and cause terror among the thousands watching the game. The various characters there that day include police captain Peter Holly (Charlton Heston), SWAT team commander Chris Button (John Cassavetes), the stadium manager (Martin Balsam), the maintenance man (Brock Peters), a gambler who desperately needs his team to win (Jack Klugman), a middle-aged unmarried couple at a crossroads in their relationship (Gena Rowlands and David Janssen), a young husband and father (Beau Bridges), a pickpocket (Walter Pidgeon) and various others. For the record, George Kennedy does not appear. He must have been busy that week.
The following year’s ROLLERCOASTER, also from the Universal assembly line, contains three lengthy amusement park sections in its running time made up of observing the various little dramas going on as it builds up to the calamity that is supposed to occur. TWO-MINUTE WARNING, directed by Larry Peerce, is that basic idea only at feature length, complete with the ‘day in the life of wild n’ wooly L.A.’ feel from EARTHQUAKE that they were obviously trying to do once again here. Nothing about this film is worth sustaining suspense for the length of time that it does and since we know the sniper isn’t going to do much of anything before a certain point (you could probably guess when by looking at the title of the movie) it probably made it very easy for people to go get more popcorn, confident that they wouldn’t be missing anything. It’s directed by Larry Peerce (GOODBYE COLUMBUS and WIRED, as well as lots of TV) in a way that almost feels like it’s desperately reaching for some kind of style but never finds much beyond the stock studio look of the time. With its sniper plotline, I guess you could say that it’s the Universal disaster movie version of Bogdanovich’s TARGETS and though I was willing to look at any similarity as a coincidence, it’s hard not to notice how this film’s killer munches on a Baby Ruth before starting his shooting spree, just as it happens in the earlier film. There’s no real comparison to how each treats this subject--Bogdanovich films his sequences with a deadpan terror putting us in the place of the people terrorized by their unseen assailant. Larry Peerce seems to get off on the huge squibs that go off when any character is taken out, spurting blood all over the place, with wild zooms and shocked melodramatic reactions which feel like it’s rubbing our noses in things. Needless to say, there’s also no real position on gun control ever taken and any real point of view on the subject is avoided entirely except for one nasty swipe at the media near the very end which seems like a lame bit of DIRTY HARRY-type posturing. With little of the “Oh, the humanity!” hysteria or endearing characters of the Irwin Allen pictures, or even in EARTHQUAKE, it just becomes a dull slog after a while. Most of these films set up their characters then as the calamity occurs part of the suspense is how they will deal with it, in addition to wondering if they will survive. TWO-MINUTE WARNING just sets them up like a row of ducks and any interest we’ve invested in them—and lousy at this all is, if we’re watching people like Rowlands and Klugman we are going to be a little invested—just feels like a waste of time. When panic in the stadium does finally begin, the shots of the teeming masses of people running and screaming is kind of effective but it goes on so long that it becomes clear how ridiculous it can be to see extras running around screaming, their arms flailing everywhere. By a certain point I began to wonder if this was at all an inspiration for how John Landis staged the climax of ANIMAL HOUSE.
John Frankenheimer’s BLACK SUNDAY, which dealt with a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl, was happening at the same time and was based on a huge bestseller by Thomas Harris. I don’t know to what extent TWO-MINUTE WARNING was, um, ‘inspired’ by this other film being in production but it feels like a chintzy knock-off all the way and whenever it cuts to shots of the Goodyear blimp (a key plot device in the Frankenheimer) overhead, even if it does figure into the plot, it feels like it’s deliberately thumbing its nose at the other film. Now I’m wondering why I’ve never bothered to write a full piece on BLACK SUNDAY which, needless to say, is much, much better. Even though there’s a fair amount of footage in this film obviously shot at an actual game, many of the details are phony—like the game in THE SUM OF ALL FEARS it’s never actually called the Super Bowl (“What exactly is this Super Bowl?” asks Robert Shaw in BLACK SUNDAY) even though everything about it indicates that’s what it is—“Championship X” seems to be its official moniker and the two teams playing are just “Los Angeles” and “Baltimore”, no names given. Forget about how it’s impossible to believe anything here even on a B-movie level involving the police, stadium security or the room below the scoreboard that’s been checked by a single maintenance man even with the President coming to the game. Even when noted singer Merv Griffin turns up to sing the National Anthem he’s only seen in close-up on TV monitors. I guess they didn’t even want to bother with having the guy driven down to the location. On the list of memorable Merv Griffin film appearances, it’s no THE MAN WITH THE TWO BRAINS or THE LONELY GUY. There’s some nice L.A. location work like there always seems to be in these movies, particularly the circular Holiday Inn just off the 405 in Brentwood where the film opens, but this time it’s not enough.
Heston pretty much plays Heston, his performance notable only for how much he seems to be sucking in his gut the entire time, and at one point when he dramatically removes his sunglasses while trying to make a point I half-expected there to be another pair underneath. He does, however, at one point say, “Who the hell’d want to kill an assistant professor of botany?” a line I doubt he delivered at any other point in his career. Cassavetes as the second lead never seems to think anything other than that this film is a piece of shit—did he do it for cash or did he owe a film to Universal?-- but at least he gives a moderately interesting spin to his scenes in what is pretty much the Steve McQueen-TOWERING INFERNO role. He seems to play his confrontations with Heston as if he’s thinking that this big shot desk cop is just a by-the-book hack coasting on his rep, which for all I know is what Cassavetes thought of Heston as well—at least it gives this stuff an interesting subtext. His last line of dialogue at the end is just about the most naturalistic reading in the entire film, made more interesting by how Cassavetes barely seems able to contain his contempt for what he has to say. It’s hard not to wonder what he’s really thinking at that moment (for anyone curious, he and Rowlands have no scenes together). Beau Bridges’ character isn’t well-defined—he slaps his kid early on, then it’s never mentioned again—but he does take part in a few of the only effective moments late in the film, including one genuinely impressive shot where he runs through the outer corridor of the stadium only to find a huge swarm of people coming right at him, trying to flee. I’d love to hear from him what filming that particular scene was like. Considering all the big names in the film, the only one who is even remotely likable is, of all people, David “Rhoda’s Husband” Groh as a guy at the game alone who finds himself sitting next to a woman (Marilyn Hassett, Peerce’s then-wife) whose date is much more interested in the game, leading to a mutual interest developing between the two. I found myself continually hoping they would cut back to this plotline, the only part of the film where I actually cared about what was going to happen.
There’s a shot near the end involving Martin Balsam’s character, a beat designed to acknowledge all the horrific tragedy that has just occurred, kind of like Lloyd Nolan saying, “This used to be a hell of a town,” at the end of EARTHQUAKE or similar moments of reflection in other disaster films. Maybe they’re silly but we do come away remembering those things and how they valiantly grope for significance. With this film however, it just feels all the more perfunctory as if Universal is trying to stick to the formula to the very end. That prevailing dullness as well as the undercurrent to the nastiness in TWO-MINUTE WARNING makes it not nearly as much fun as some others from the cycle but I’ll freely admit that the basic structure of this sort of thing is kind of comforting by this point. Maybe I’m just easy. It’s a pretty terrible movie with next to nothing endearing about it but if you enjoy this sort of thing as much as I do you’ll probably find something in there to like. That probably shouldn’t be taken as a recommendation.