Monday, August 23, 2010
That's In The Past
I guess sometimes you never really know. Sometime last year I saw EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE for the very first time. How it escaped me all these years is something I really couldn’t say. Maybe the box in the video store always looked too goofy to me, maybe just the idea of Clint Eastwood teaming up with an Orangutan while country music is heard in the background wasn’t my idea of a good time. And, sure enough, I got next to nothing really out of the experience and it was one of those cases where the whole thing was so lacking in any sort of enjoyment that it took me several days just to get through the damn thing. When I mentioned to the great Kim Morgan that I was watching it she said something like, “That movie even looks like it smells bad.” And she was absolutely on target with observation (of course, Kim Morgan usually is) and I doubt I could think of anything else during the rest of the film. To give it a few random points in its favor, there was something about the film’s late seventies portrayal of L.A. working class stiffs up in the farthest reaches of the valley that I found interesting in a time capsule sort of way. Plus I freely admit that a few months ago when visiting Taos, New Mexico I was standing in the main square of the town when somebody showing me around mentioned that a sequence from EVERY WHICH had been shot there. I actually recognized where I was immediately at that point, so something about the film must have stuck in my brain. I just didn’t like it very much.
Anyway, recently looking for something to Netflix that would be appropriate for the waning days of summer I decided to check out the sequel, ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN. I guess I felt like it was something I needed to do for completist’s sake and what do you know: I actually genuinely enjoyed it. I’m not even sure why that is because it’s not like I was in a better mood this time since I’ve been in a pretty consistently lousy mood lately. And I wasn’t exactly more receptive to the idea of watching it—after all, who looks forward to a part two when they didn’t like part one? It’s as if when Clint & Co. agreed to make the sequel, giving Warner Brothers an automatic hit, they somehow figured out the tone this time—it’s pretty much an overlong goof, but it’s a likable overlong goof, one that focuses on the characters having fun over any kind of plausibility or jeopardy caused by the plot and it got me smiling along with it right from the start. It even looks like it smells better, to continue with what Kim Morgan was saying. So go figure. In a two-star review at the time it was released in December 1980, Roger Ebert called it “not a very good movie, but it’s hard not to feel a grudging respect for it.” His review is never quite harsh enough to warrant a meager two stars and I wouldn’t be surprised if later on he thought he had been too hard on it. Janet Maslin in The New York Times, never exactly a paper to go for this sort of thing, called it “better and funnier than its predecessor.” So maybe this surprised reaction isn’t just me.
After whatever happened at the end of EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, trucker and bare-knuckle fighter Philo Beddoe (Clint Eastwood) is still hanging out with faithful pet orangutan Clyde, pal Orville (Geoffrey Lewis) and his Ma (Ruth Gordon), still taking part in fights for money but decides to quit while he’s ahead when he realizes he’s starting to enjoy the pain. But when an offer comes in for one a fight with the notorious Jack Wilson (William Smith) it’s too much money for Philo to turn down. Philo also happens to run into Lynn Halsey-Taylor (Sondra Locke) who nastily spurned him at the end of the last movie but is now only too happy to fall back into his arms. With things seemingly going his way Philo decides to turn down the fight but he soon discovers that he doesn’t have a choice in the matter anymore.
The release of ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN came just six months after the opening of the lovely Eastwood-directed comedy BRONCO BILLY and there’s a feel to this one that Clint and his crew just decided to keep going with the fun spirit they achieved on that film. (Director credit on this one goes to Buddy Van Horn, Clint’s stunt coordinator and director of record on THE DEAD POOL and PINK CADILLAC) The good vibes seem to infect this sequel throughout with a Hawksian feel of camaraderie coming from the various characters and I found myself enjoying just hanging out with them. Even the main adversary is somebody who very quickly achieves total respect for Beddoe and the feeling becomes mutual as they get to know each other. It’s almost as if Clint himself was dissatisfied with the grimey, overly serious and sour vibe of the first film, even if it was a huge hit about a monkey, and decided to essentially redo it by making everything more fun, likable as well as even a little endearing in the end. The approach this screenplay by Stanford Sherman takes feels more correct for a movie that is at least partly about an orangutan who hangs out in bars and gets beers poured for him while practically no one complains (“Clyde is a clean ape.”). Even the stuff with Clyde is more fun this time around and with the exception of a side trip to Bakersfield midway through for a romantic rendezvous with a female orangutan (all pretty silly, really) the movie somewhat surprisingly never goes overboard with those scenes—having him strip cars, the ‘right turn’ running gag or merely messing around in Philo’s backyard and just keeping him hanging out in the background at times is really enough without his presence overwhelming everything. The problems between Philo and Lynn are smoothed out relatively fast—maybe it’s a stretch considering the nasty way their relationship ended in the last film but it’s not that big a deal and why would we want to spend half the movie with them sorting things out anyway? Besides, Locke comes off as way too charming with those big eyes to resent her for very long.
It’s hardly an intricately plotted film but at least it never quite crosses the line into being flat out cartoonish, even with the return of the Black Widow motorcycle gang from the first film which was honestly maybe the one element that caused me to roll my eyes but in the end I still just went with it. There are some low points like the two (count ‘em) scenes involving Clyde doing his business on someone’s car seat before the film is even a third over and the old guy who suddenly becomes infatuated with Ruth Gordon, seeing her head on Bo Derek’s body in some “10” fantasy footage from and yet I by a certain point the earnest, amiable nature of it all got me to brush over those sections. There’s even the occasional visually clever moment in the direction, particularly in one camera setup during the Bakersfield section that both gets a laugh as well as continuing the progress of the story in a very economical way. At a few minutes less than two hours it’s probably way overlong—when Philo first accepts the offer for the fight the movie just seems to forget about it for the next twenty minutes—but at least it’s enjoyably overlong and the movie does more with the Jackson, Wyoming setting for the big third act fight than it ever does with the valley locations in either film. I guess all these rich gamblers of all types descending on this sleepy Wyoming town is sort of the Clint Version of the endearingly crazy Americana seen in the Reynolds-Needham SMOKEY and CANNONBALL movies, which is broad, but never too far over the top with a sight gag involving a private plane that, so help me, actually got me to laugh out loud. There’s even a bar fight where Clint and William Smith team up together to defend Sondra Locke’s honor as the band onstage sings a song called “The Good Guys and The Bad Guys” and that very image almost says all you need to know about the film—these people really are the good guys. Even the band up onstage knows that. The big final fight between the two of them also works pretty damn well and in the end the whole thing plays as pretty satisfying entertainment. Which is probably exactly what it was supposed to be.
The characters are fun to watch together and it’s easy to believe in how well they’re getting along. Clint is totally confident and relaxed, Sondra Locke never stops being endearingly spunky and Geoffrey Lewis is backs up his costar as much as his character is always willing to back up Philo. As Jack Wilson, William Smith is a terrific addition to the cast, totally believable in how physically threatening he is but also sellling how the character quickly acheives a genuine respect for his potential rival. Ruth Gordon gets a few funny moments but disappears as the movie moves to Jackson—was the actress not well enough to go on location? Michael Cavanaugh, also in THE GAUNTLET, goes heavy on the dese-dem-dose mobster accent like he’s in a Damon Runyon knockoff. Harry Guardino (the captain in DIRTY HARRY), Barry Corbin, Bill McKinney, James Gammon and various other familiar faces appear throughout. Julie Brown is spotted in there too. The orangutan who plays Clyde, a different one than the first film, gives a very enjoyable performance as well. Even the songs are kind of catchy and I say that as somebody who never much likes country music—performers include Fats Domino, Glen Campbell singing the title song (the title song—truly a lost art), Locke of course doing a nice job with “One Too Many Women In Your Life” and Clint & Ray Charles performing the fun “Beers To You” over the opening credits.
I don’t want to make any big case for the experience of seeing ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN and if I pause on one of the scenes with the Black Widows too long I may regret writing this. It definitely hasn’t inspired me to revisit the first film. But in the end it’s a very likable movie, catching just the right spirit that never becomes mean in any way. With the obvious exception of the mobster bad guy stooges everyone winds up getting along, including Clint’s main adversary, all the people who show up in Jackson, Wyoming to see the big fight, even those damn bikers. When you come right down to it, there’s something kind of refreshing about a movie that ends with a big knuckle-down fight between two guys who actually respect each other yet are both completely determined to come out on top. It’s not so much about beating the guy you’re fighting, it’s about doing the best you damn well can even if you’re being forced into it. There’s a feel of camaraderie that practically everyone onscreen can join in with and it’s the sort of innocent fun that seems very 70s. Maybe this film could almost be seen as a noble farewell to that type of filmmaking. Clint got another big hit out of it this sequel but instead of making a part three he quit while he was ahead and moved on to other things. Which was probably the right choice. Maybe he knew things were changing, maybe he wanted to do other things, maybe he was happy to let Burt Reynolds go on making this sort of film with Hal Needham—and, well, we all know how that turned out in the end. ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN isn’t anything all that special but it sure is likable, with moments throughout that got me smiling from its genuinely likable nature and on occasion, even laughing as well. Philo and Clyde probably aren’t remembered as much these days as Burt’s Bandit and Jackie Gleason’s Buford T. Justice are but in this followup that’s a lot more fun than the first, the pairing does what it needs to do. Onward.
“Right turn, Clyde.”