Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Losing Touch With Reality
Though I was taken to see Disney’s CONDORMAN in the theater when it was released way back in the summer of 1981 it’s possible that the most interesting thing about that fact is that I actually saw it on a double bill with the infamous, now-withheld SONG OF THE SOUTH. I guess this not only says something about how times have changed but also how much time has gone by. I don’t even remember very much about what I thought of CONDORMAN at the time. I suppose like most movies I saw as a kid I liked it just fine but looking at it now I’m more interested in what the Baskin-Robbins flavor Condorman Crunch that tied into the release was like. However, since I’m stuck with the actual movie I’ll just have to deal with it. There’s potential in CONDORMAN for a decent spy spoof, even one aimed at kids but it’s squandered in all the Disney blandness of that time and even some decent casting choices can’t keep this going for the full 90 minutes. There’s nothing about it worth forming a sentimental attachment to and I wouldn’t even bother with trying to show it to kids nowadays. They deserve something better.
Comic book artist and writer Woody Wilkins (Michael Crawford) is a perfectionist who has not only traveled to Paris to get a feel for where he wants to set his new book “Condorman” he also insists that anything which happens in any of his books must be tried by him first, which is why when we meet him he is attempting to fly off the Eiffel Tower in full Condorman costume (no, those aren’t wires you see there holding him up…). When his government buddy Harry (James Hampton) needs to find a civilian to handle a quick exchange in Istanbul, Woody enthusiastically dives in which results in him meeting beautiful Soviet agent Natalia Rambova (Barbara Carrera, now and forever a favorite of mine). Falling for her instantly, Woody claims to be a real spy, giving his codename as “Condorman” and soon after when Natalia chooses to defect she insists that she will only deal with the agent named Condorman on her escape. Woody works out a deal with the CIA to get them to build some genuine versions of some of the fictional hero’s gadgets but he doesn’t count on Natalia’s jealous former lover and KGB superior Krokov (Oliver Reed, as in “What the hell is Oliver Reed doing in a Disney film?”) coming after her.
The thing’s got Barbara Carrera, a score by Henry Mancini and beautiful European locations, a combo which for me is totally ideal but just about nothing in CONDORMAN maintains any interest. Directed by Charles Jarrott and written by Marc Stirdivant (inspired by Robert Sheckley’s novel “The Game of X”) the story has potential but no real juice to it and saying that it’s just a kids’ movie from Disney is no excuse—for the record, this is actually one of their earliest PG titles. There’s something wrong with any movie with location work in Paris, Monaco, Switzerland, etc. that plays so bland, not to mention one that traps you with one of the most annoying lead characters imaginable. The film continuously seems to ignore interesting paths it could go down that you wonder if they were going to be this lackadaisical with everything why didn’t they just shoot the whole thing in Burbank. The story is dull, the chase scenes are lame, the secondary bad guys are uninteresting and whole plot points feel jumped over at various points as if they just didn’t feel like going to the trouble to shoot those scenes. Any attempt at being a Bond spoof comes off as lackluster at best and even the plot point that Woody uses this opportunity to have his own designs actually made for him by the government (ridiculous, but there’s at least potential for comedy) never feels exploited in any way that ever becomes clever or fun—they couldn’t do a copy of the Q lab to go for a few laughs? There’s no real style, very little is funny (“Make it a triple” is a good line, I’ll give it that much), very little even comes close to being exciting. Even when there’s potential for conflict between the leads, the film dispenses with it as quickly as possible. All of the comic book details come off as phony as well, though I doubt anyone making it ever cared. Yeah, it’s just a Disney movie, but they made some good ones at some point, didn’t they? If I was ok with all this when I was a kid, and I think I was, I’d rather not think about it.
It’s too bad because there really is potential in a light-hearted superhero/caper combo about an artist forced into bringing his creation to real life and, so help me, it wouldn’t be a bad choice for a remake. The location work does at least give the whole thing a sense of scope and there’s one helicopter shot during the boat chase near the end (for all I know it’s second unit) in which a bad guy’s boat is revealed to be following the heroes that comes off as so purely cinematic that for a few seconds the thing actually becomes exciting. But the moment ends pretty quickly. The special effects range from blatantly visible wires holding up the stuntman in action to weak rearscreen work but if any of this succeeded in being fun how much would any of that matter? This sort of thing just worked better in the 60s than the 80s ( I guess this is where I make the obligatory DANGER: DIABOLIK reference) but either way the Disney formula at any point in time probably meant the basic approach would always have been pretty toothless.
After saying all this, it’s no real surprise that just about the best thing about the movie is the score by Henry Mancini. Yes, some of it sounds a little like pieces he never got to fit into one of the PINK PANTHER sequels (maybe they should have brought in Blake Edwards to work on the script) but it helps with the light-hearted tone more than anything that occurs on screen and the main title theme is pretty damn cool. Even a light theme for Natalia’s character comes off as reminiscent of something that the composer would have created for Audrey Hepburn back in the day and is actually rather lovely. Sadly, there was never a soundtrack album released. Since there’s not much else to say about the movie I have to point out that this 1981 film features all the credits up front, with just a card at the finale reading THE END. No end credit crawl, no nothing. If there’s another wide release film that came after this where such a close is the case I can’t think of it.
At times the lead actors seem like they’re in a very good mood, almost as if their offscreen camaraderie is bleeding over—this could be that they’re trying to be cheerful because it’s a family film or maybe everyone’s just happy to be shooting a movie in exotic locales all around Europe. You can hardly blame them, but it doesn’t mean that we’ve been saddled with a decent lead. I like Michael Crawford in Richard Lester’s THE KNACK but he’s extremely annoying here as he tries way too hard to be peppy and upbeat, shouting things like “Let’s go!” at every possible opportunity. I guess we’re supposed to like his enthusiasm but it winds up sucking all the air out of the room in scene after scene. With him in the lead he winds up being as responsible as anything else for how forced the film turns out to be. Barbara Carrera (sigh), in addition to being a much more soothing presence, is of course quite beautiful (I prefer her with darker hair, but whatever) and, particularly when she shares scenes with Oliver Reed, the two come off as so unavoidably adult in their behavior that it’s hard not to wish that they had real scenes to play. Reed seems to be putting up with all this as if appearing in a Disney film is a form of punishment by somebody. When he gets a look at Condorman in action near the end it’s hard not to read his face as wondering what the hell he’s doing in this thing. Character actor James Hampton, familiar on sight, is just about the most likable person in the whole thing--he has a decency that is genuine even in this context, with a relaxed air that gives the feeling that he’s actually willing to have some fun and not try too hard to do it.
Nostalgia has its limits. Just because I saw something when I was a kid that doesn’t mean I’m going to defend it and it sure doesn’t explain why I own it on DVD, even if it is the only way to hear the Mancini score and did I mention how beautiful Barbara Carrera is? Maybe those aren’t good reasons, but they’ll have to do. It feels like CONDORMAN had the potential to be good but was stuck in the stranglehold of whatever was happening in the Disney offices at the time and that seems to have resulted in it being as bland as possible, like the whole thing is just waiting around to fill out the running time. The Mancini fanfare occasionally almost convinces you that a really good movie is happening but the feeling never lasts. With the Anchor Bay DVD that was released a number of years ago out of print and currently fetching high prices on Ebay, one gets the feeling that Disney is keeping this film about as buried as its one time co-feature SONG OF THE SOUTH. The thing is, in this particular case, the world really isn’t missing out on anything.