Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Little Danger Never Killed Anybody

The news of Sharon Stone being cast in an upcoming multi-episode arc on LAW & ORDER: SVU has caused the usual minor uproar over how far her career has fallen, something that seems to be a lot of talk about nothing. For starters, it’s hardly the first time she’s done TV. Compared with the exposure she got doing, say, a few episodes of a series on Showtime several years back (that would be HUFF and it was a good show) it seems like a safe bet that these episodes of L&O:SVU will at least be widely seen, certainly moreso than some independent film that never gets released—a few recent titles on Stone’s imdb page ring no bell at all. Yes, Sharon Stone has made a bunch of lousy movies throughout her career--things like CATWOMAN and BASIC INSTINCT 2 definitely didn’t help during the last decade--but at this point in time Hollywood isn’t exactly looking to cast any woman of a certain age whose name isn’t Meryl Streep. Her chilly nature has always meant that she’s never been one of the most beloved of stars, but that’s not really the job of a sex symbol anyway. In truth, I’ve always liked Sharon Stone and the old-school movie star vibe she exudes. It’s a shame that we don’t have one or two more decent films that made good use of her, but there are plenty of stars one could say that about. So there’s BASIC INSTINCT as well as her remarkable work in CASINO, one decent comedy in Albert Brooks’s THE MUSE plus, if I’m in a good mood, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD. We also got THE SPECIALIST, her teaming with Sylvester Stallone which can hardly be called a good movie but if I flip by it on cable it’s hard for me to shut the damn thing off. Released one week before PULP FICTION rocked the world in October 1994, THE SPECIALIST is one of those occasional star team-ups which feature its leads doing exactly what they’re famous for, demonstrating the reason they’re such big stars to begin with. The movie in question may not be very good but it still makes decent money—this one die—and then everyone can forget that they ever made it as they go off to do the films they really care about. THE SPECIALIST is pretty ridiculous stuff, but watching it now the whole thing feels like it comes from another time when this sort of R-rated thriller with sex, sleaze and violence could still get made. It’s pretty stupid stuff and barely seems to have a plotline that I feel like I could synopsize and make sense, but it’s still kind of fun in a totally trashy way. Maybe I just like looking at Sharon Stone, I don’t know. There’s also the enjoyment to be found out of watching James Woods, plus explosions. A lot of explosions.

Ten years after a job in Columbia goes bad, former CIA explosives expert Ray Quick (Sylvester Stallone) is in Miami, a freelance ‘specialist’ with bombs who has been tracked down by the beautiful May Munro (Sharon Stone) a woman intent on exacting revenge against the people who murdered her family when she was a child. Specifically, she’s after mobster Tomas Leon (Eric Roberts) and his father Joe (Rod Steiger—“who sounds like Ricky Ricardo and looks like Fred Mertz”—Maltin). May uses her beauty to make her way into their confidence in the guise of Tomas's new girlfriend, but she captures the interest of Ned Trent (James Woods) the family security head who is also Ray’s former partner and someone who has his own revenge in mind.

It’s not much of a plot. Hell, it’s a terrible plot and if there’s anything in there that was taken from the credited Specialist novels by John Shirley I’m going to guess that it doesn’t have much to do with Sylvester Stallone beating up a bunch of punks on a bus when they try to take a seat offered to a pregnant woman. There’s barely any sort of story to latch on to that makes any sense and it feels like the film knows this, or at least doesn’t care. Much of the film is taken up with Stallone on the phone all by himself meaning that the two stars don’t meet in the flesh until way past the halfway point— it’s slightly amusing that he only communicates with people via pay phones and there’s much talk that he can’t be found because no one can ever keep him on the line long enough to get a trace. “Time’s up, 58 seconds,” says Stallone as he hangs up on a call which goes over two minutes, but I guess they figured they could get away with this. When a minor plot twist comes into the mix close to the midway point it just feels like the film is trying to come up with a reason why it can’t end sooner than it does—what we learn at that point doesn’t really affect anything anyway. It’s like we’re being given some kind of fake plot revelation to trick us into thinking that we’re watching an actual movie. Not to mention how when at one point a main character has possibly been killed, it’s not clear if the film actually wants us to think this—maybe they know that we wouldn’t buy the idea that this person would be killed off so early but it just causes everything to dribble into incoherence. Even some of the details are questionable--flashbacks show Roberts playing the younger version of his character but May Malone, Sharon Stone’s character, is portrayed as a young girl. In real life Roberts is only two years older than Stone and they look about the same age anyway but…oh, forget it. The film is much more interested with showing Stallone with his shirt off (Eric Roberts too) and Stone does some so as well, though even though with some nudity there’s the feeling that the film is paying more attention to how Sly looks—maybe he threw around more weight in the cutting room. The way the film dwells on this stuff is pretty silly and makes it seems as if this is some late-night Cinemax thing, not a big budget action movie from Warner Brothers. Stallone is given a cat to befriend as well, in case someone thought that this guy who kills people for a living wouldn’t be likable enough.

The credited director is Luis Llosa (later of ANACONDA infamy) and the credited writer is Alexandra Seros (also responsible for the LA FEMME NIKITA remake POINT OF NO RETURN) but in addition to the then-powerful stars I could believe the real person in charge on the set was producer Jerry Weintraub. It’s interesting to compare his approach towards this material to the one Joel Silver—who Stallone was making other films with around this time—might have taken. That version of this film would probably have had several more action beats but Weintraub is clearly more interested in keeping the stars in frame looking the best they can along with the sex, nightclubs and cigarette smoke hanging in the air through every scene (points to Director of Photography Jeffrey L. Kimball for the crisp, sleek look). At least the Miami location is well utilized—the movie certainly feels like it’s actually set somewhere—but there’s not much to all this in the action department beyond the endless amount of explosions we get near the end. One of the key setpieces involving a hotel room contains effects that are actually embarrassingly bad, something it’s hard to imagine Joel Silver ever letting get by, and just makes it all feel kind of chintzy. The sex-drenched approach extends to the score by the legendary John Barry in full BODY HEAT mode that sells this vibe as much as it possibly can and brings more legitimacy to this idiocy than the film probably deserves. The recurring action beats by Barry heard throughout are pretty terrific as well (certainly better than the lousy songs heard throughout) and is another element that almost manages to convince us we’re watching an actual movie—points to whoever decided to favor the music in the mix over the sounds of the endless explosions we’re seeing during the climax. Maybe it’s all the total ridiculousness that makes THE SPECIALIST so much fun to watch when just watching on a lazy Friday night. What, you mean you don’t own the DVD also? It can’t be defended for a microsecond but I really don’t care.

The two stars do what they’re supposed to do, knowing full well what they’ve been hired to deliver. Actually, Stallone seems to be coasting just a little bit more than Stone who actually does come off as somewhat committed to her part, bringing what is at times an admirable degree of intensity and she looks fantastic as well. Even with all the emphasis placed on the two star’s bodies during the running time, the film is easily stolen by James Woods (“And he’s welcome to it”—also from Maltin) who gives a fearless performance as the sort-of villain, eating up every scene and chomping off every bit of dialogue he has like he’s eating the best steak he’s had in months—his bit in an elevator telling an extra to get a new shirt was apparently an adlib and really is priceless. It’s massive amounts of fun throughout just watching Woods doing things like leering at extras for no real reason. More points in the movie’s favor that it knows what it has in him and doesn’t cut away during some of his best moments. Woods also has a few nice moments sparring with Sharon Stone, who seems willing to work with his craziness in their scenes (a year later they’d be seen together again in CASINO). Roberts and Steiger can’t compete with that, but every now and then I get the feeling that they’re in on the joke as well.

The film is megadumb, but nevertheless it’s a lot more fun than other bad movies I can think of. It’s an R-Rated thriller for adults, not that such a thing makes it smart in any way. But it is the sort of movie that doesn’t get made anymore, not these days. Of course, some might question if that’s in any way a bad thing. The film is garbage but it’s the type of junk that you sometimes need, especially when it features someone as willing to embrace it as Sharon Stone, somebody that there really isn’t a decent present-day equivalent of in the necessary age group. Movie stars, sleaze, great music, explosions, ridiculousness and bogus plot twists, all courtesy of Jerry Weintraub. When found in something like THE SPECIALIST, those things can be wonderful in their crazy way. Those things can be essential to how much you enjoy a movie and whether or not it’s any good sometimes has nothing to do with it.


Unknown said...

If memory serves, James Woods did an interview with FILM COMMENT years ago where he talked about working on this film. Apparently, the script was a mess (big surprise) and he largely re-wrote/improvised his role just for kicks. Gotta love that guy.

le0pard13 said...

You're so right with this one, Mr. Peel. It's in the it's so bad, it's fun category. Yep, and they definitely don't make them like this anymore (let's see if TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN ever generates this sense of relaxation and nostalgia). Whenever THE SPECIALIST is on cable, I can't help myself to stop and watch it--especially when Woods is in the scenes. The man seems to have so much fun in these (remember, too, he was in THE GETAWAY remake that same year). Thanks, Mr. Peel. This surely helped pick up a drab, rainy Wednesday, my friend.

Arbogast said...


Infamy?! ANACONDA is my THE SPECIALIST, I guess.

Thomas Pluck said...

Oog. The shower scene is scarier than any movie that year.

I like Anaconda because it knows it's so bad, but Specialist... thank goodness James Woods is in it, that's all I'll say.

Mr. Peel, I have awarded your lovely blog with the lovely blog award, because it is such good reading.

WelcometoLA said...

This and "Fair Game" make the perfect guilty pleasure Miami movie double bill. Rod Steiger's Cuban accent is so atrocious that you have to love it. I've been meaning to watch this again.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

I will always love Sharon Stone and think she was one of the last stars that really did exude that old Hollywood Glamour you mentioned. Plus she is one of modern cinema's great badasses as far as I am concerned and, no matter where her career might have went, I think she absolutely did it her way.
Funny you posted this as I have been thinking a lot about Sharon again and just recently rewatched CASINO. Man, she is incredible in that film...really spellbinding.
As for THE SPECIALIST. It's a mess but the opportunity to watch Sly, Stone and Woods in the same movie gurantees that I won't turn it off if it is on. Great post!

christian said...

Never responded to Stone though I didn't think she was bad. I can't bring myself to sit through this one though. Good J.Barry score.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I remember that interview, but couldn't find it when I was writing this. That's where he mentioned how the bit about the shirt was made up on the spot and someone said it would never make the movie. It's to the film's credit that they realized what they had with him and let all that stuff stay in. He's pretty great.


Happy to help out the drab Wednesday. I've had that happen to me with this on cable too. That's why I have the disc around now--you know, just in case I have the urge.

Det. Arbogast--

I never got into the whole ANACONDA thing, I can't explain it! But I know, it has its defenders.


Many thanks for that! Always nice to know that someone is enjoying this stuff. It's really appreciated.


I forgot about FAIR GAME and I even saw that in the theater! I guess that's the Miami-set film that Joel Silver did make. But shouldn't it be on a double bill with COBRA? Anyway, as Rod Steiger said, "Jew Bastardo!"


Looks like we're in agreement on this one, especially when it comes to Sharon Stone! Thanks very much!


Aw, you should watch it. OK, maybe you shouldn't. I'm guessing you heard the Barry score on CD. It's a really good album and it all flows together very nicely. At this point in time even junk like THE SPECIALIST could have a score that was actual music.

EFC said...

I remember Entertainment Weekly had an article about the last-minute additions/changes made after test screenings; the "ten years ago" bit originally ended with Woods beating up Stallone and not the other way around, and both the bus & motel kitchen fights were added as well. So at one point this Stallone film with fewer action beats than usual originally featured even LESS action beats!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I vaguely recall reading about these fixes a long time ago, but didn't remember that it was in EW. That bus fight in particular certainly serves no purpose...but I guess it wouldn't be THE SPECIALIST without it.

Don Mancini said...

Happy New Year, Mr. P. THE SPECIALIST is a real guilty pleasure for me, as well, and I think Sharon Stone is incongruously great in it -- especially in her scenes with James Woods. I almost get the feeling she didn't know she was making a brainless action movie. Often when actors take their roles more seriously than the circumstances would seem to dictate, the performance can be a drag, but Stone brings remarkable, memorable conviction to her stock character, which, really, is just a typical Bond girl, bent on revenge. (Barry's score heightens this association.) I really buy Stone's urgent need for vengeance, and, as always, she brings real emotion to her sex scenes. Plus, the way she delivers the movie's last line always leaves me in stitches.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Happy New Year to you as well, Don. Sounds like we're in total agreement on how crazily awesome Stone is in the film. It remains very cool how she was elevate something like this, as ridiculous as it is. All the best to you in the coming year!