Tuesday, October 21, 2014

AGAINST ALL ODDS: Blu-ray (Columbia Pictures 1984) Image Entertainment

A few rarely seen exotic locations, two uber-steamy sex scenes with co-stars, Rachel Ward and Jeff Bridges, their tanned, taut and very naked flesh pressed up against one another, and the prerequisite super-duper car chase, played out with a flaming red and midnight black Ferrari attempts to mask the artistic vices in Taylor Hackford’s Against All Odds (1984); a misguided, undernourished and narratively convoluted remake of Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), itself a variation on Daniel Mainwaring’s gritty crime novel, Build My Gallows High. At the very least, Tourneur’s adaptation had retained Mainwaring’s overall dramatic arc, infusing the film with all the vintage trappings of an elegant film noir. Superficially, Hackford has kept his remake a fairly stylish affair; somewhat dated now in all its California-noir accoutrements; the sun-scape of Mayan hovels, photographed in Chichen Itza, and their even more exotic ancient temples at Tulum, juxtaposed with slick, big-haired creature comforts, populated by mindless sex kittens and preening yuppie trust fund babies, cavorting inside L.A.’s Palace nightclub or tossing sweaty volleyballs along the sand-baked peninsula of California’s Manhattan Beach. It all looked absolutely ravishing; with cameos for Jane Greer and Paul Valentine; alumni from Tourneur’s decidedly scaled down original. Alas, in the final analysis, Against All Odds lacks the one essential ingredient to make everything click: star power.
Tourneur’s film was blessed with Robert Mitchum - a commanding presence, Kirk Douglas – showing off the sort of beady-eyed criminality that would become his stock and trade for nearly a decade, and finally, Jane Greer as the deliciously kitten-faced, but cat-clawing minx, set to ensnare and devour both men in her web of lies. Hackford’s remake placed its bets on setting instead of character. It also makes several egregious misfires along the way; Eric Hughes’ screenplay deviating too much from Tourneur’s classic to become one in its own right. Mitchum’s world-weary gumshoe is replaced in the remake by Jeff Bridges’ arrogant dinosaur, Terry Brogan; a star quarterback with a bum shoulder and razor-back attitude, showing more brawn than brain where Rachel Ward’s pouty princess, Jessie Wyler is concerned. Looking every inch the leading man (thanks to a crash course diet and exercise regime that shed nearly 20lbs., turning pudge into beefcake) Bridges nevertheless cannot muster up enough of the intangible ‘stud quality’ to make the illusion stick for very long; resorting to a series of pithy, wounded retorts after discovering Jessie has gone back – or rather, been reeled in by the oily racketeer, gambler and nightclub owner, Jake Wise (James Woods).
Donald E. Thorin’s cinematography gives the film its edgy appeal; transforming the Yucatán peninsula, Isla Mujeres, and Cozumel, Mexico into steamy enclaves of tropical eroticism. His splendid camerawork also lends an air of foreboding to the Hollywood/L.A. locations dominating the second half of the picture. In retrospect, Hackford is trying too hard to evoke a narrative and visual style that by 1984 had not been seen on the screen since the 1940’s; the look of a vintage noir, a queer fit for the glossy go-go eighties; its steel and concrete jungle never quite adopting that tangibly haunted pang of urban decay feeding off its humanity.  
Still, another blunder is the lover’s triangle. In Tourneur’s classic, Kathy Moffat (Jane Greer) is a grotesquely unsympathetic femme fatale; her paralytic stare as she pulls the trigger to dispense with an unwanted inconvenience, a truly vicious act of cold-blooded murder. Greer’s unrepentant mantrap is, in fact, one of the irrefutable highlights of Out of the Past. Against All Odds suffers from the absence of such a strong character; Rachel Ward’s sweat-stained harpy, looking decidedly unrefreshed from her most recent flagrante delicto with Terry inside a Mayan temple, seemingly incapable of emitting anything greater than spoiled, sulking greed and abject panic as she plugs Terry’s best friend and mentor, Hank Sully (Alex Karras) with his own gun.
It isn’t entirely Ward’s fault, though it remains a little hard to think of The Thorn Birds’ Meggie Cleary capable of killing anyone – even with her more warrior-like stance and severely chopped tresses showcased in Against All Odds. Yet, the screenplay’s attempt to transform Ward from fiery vixen to wiry, conflicted sex kitten is not altogether successful.  Ward actually seems rather clumsy and uncomfortable throughout most of the movie, tossing off her lines with a low stammer or tear-stained visage. Like Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward looks every inch the star – or, at least, what was expected of one back in the 1980’s. Naked or sheathed in Michael Kaplan’s costumes, these two make for some fairly striking eye candy. The tragedy, of course, is that neither seem to be able to act their way out of the proverbial paper bag; Bridges holding his own but never rising to a level beyond mere competency. His petulant love-struck puppy, licking wounds after Jessie has gone back to Jake, reeks of adolescent fancy denied, rather than full-blooded mature masculinity, brutalized and emasculated by this revelation.
It’s this sort of ‘wet behind the ears’ take on human sexuality, the act itself procured between decidedly improper strangers, that really weighs the movie down as we segue into the convoluted third act; Hackford apparently aware he is in trouble, puffing out the piece with an ill-timed big and splashy production number, ‘My Male Curiosity’ – featuring a zoot-suited Kid Creole (a.k.a. Thomas August Darnell Browder) and his ‘Coconuts’ (a trio of big-haired pseudo-Rockettes, who should have paid a little more attention to the unshaved hair dangling from their exposed pits than their teased and tweezed bleached blonde tresses shaped like spikey haired football helmets).  Taylor Hackford is a fine storyteller, as movies like 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman and 1995’s Dolores Claiborne attest. But with wooden performances from his central cast and the unnecessary insertions of a few needless – if chart-topping – pop tunes (Phil Collin’s ‘Take A Look At Me Now’ becoming the movie’s anthem) Hackford isn’t cutting the mustard on Against All Odds - or even the cheese, for that matter – the odor left behind, one of quiet desperation.
On a $13,000,000 budget, Against All Odds grossed $25,000,000 domestically; a marginally impressive money maker for Columbia Pictures. Alas, the film has no staying power; its cardboard cutout stick figures, utterly disposable and easily purged from the memory once the houselights have come up; the movie’s incessant cling to then trending pop tunes badly dating it ever since. And the story, such as it is, makes no sense at all. We’re not talking about John Huston’s The Big Sleep (1946); a classic noir in which none of the pieces fit and yet everything seems to click anyway; primarily because of the sensual on-screen chemistry between co-stars Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. And lest we forget that Bogie and Bacall turn up the heat without shedding a single strip of clothing! If only to have had the good fortune of such kinetic attraction between Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward there might have been something in Against All Odds to pin the movie’s smoldering mantra of distasteful sex in a place where not only the janitors could admire it.
Hackford does give us some marvelous set pieces; Jophery Brown and Bill Burton’s doubling for Bridges and Woods in the harrowing car chase down the narrow, winding corridors of Beverly Hills, is a first-rate tour de force; Hackford placing himself in harm’s way in the camera car, the triage of vehicles careening in and out of oncoming traffic and truly raising the blood pressure more than a notch or two. In another sequence, stunt man extraordinaire (but then novice) Carl Ciarfalio (doubling for a deceased Alex Karras) performs a dead fall off a seventy-five foot precipice into a murky lagoon; the belly flop knocking him momentarily unconscious, but nevertheless earning him his stripes to rise to the top of his profession. For what it’s worth, the Kid Creole production number, clumsily hacked together and frequently interrupted with inserts of Terry and Jake at each other’s throats, is mildly amusing for its audacious display of hairy female armpits and misappropriated James Brown moves; Creole, looking as though he’s raided Cab Calloway’s wardrobe for the evening.
However, there are too many loose ends left at the end of the movie; too many good performers utterly wasted and/or lost in the shuffle. There is, for example, no good reason to draw our attention to the likes of Terry’s controlling matriarch, Mrs. Wyler; Jane Greer – looking surprisingly youthful and vibrant (despite her gray hair) – but given short shrift in a walk-on part any B-grade middle-aged actress could have filled without drawing attention to herself: ditto for Richard Widmark’s truncated appearance as the family’s looming attorney, Bill Caxton. Greer and Widmark are old hams with more to deliver than what they’ve been offered. The appearance of Swoozie Kurtz – as a frizzy-haired ‘his gal Friday’ – and Saul Rubinek - the disreputable pseudo-villain/fop, Steve Kirsch – do little to augment the story. Both are making their movie debut in Against All Odds. But neither makes much of a ripple; more distraction than solid, integral characters needed to propel the story along.    
Hackford has trouble breaking into the point of his story. In Out of the Past, the narrative flashback structure greatly benefited from Robert Mitchum’s voice-over narration; one of the main staples of film noir. Hackford opens on a series of cryptic visuals; Terry Brogan driving through the streets of Cozumel, confronting its citizenry on foot with a snapshot taken of Jessie Wyler seated next to Jake Wise. He’s unsuccessful at learning the whereabouts of this mysterious heiress; Hackford regressing into a clumsy and prolonged flashback to explain away the particulars. We see Terry Brogan as the high paid quarterback for L.A.’s Outlaws – a team that hasn’t won a single game all season. The owner, Mrs. Wyler isn’t pleased. Actually, she’s not even concerned; her interests presently invested in a new housing development project met with considerable resistance from local Greenpeacers, fronted by activist, Bob Soames (Allen Williams). All this is back story of a kind; ditto for the head coach (Bill McKinney) putting Terry through the ringer with a tackling dummy. Just come off a fresh and supposedly career-ending shoulder injury, Terry is asked to prove himself. But assistant trainer, Hank Sully is a good friend. He hates to see Terry ruin his chances for a comeback this way.
There’s a light skirmish of words between Hank and Bill Caxton, the latter, a mouthpiece for Mrs. Wyler. Terry is unceremoniously cut from the team without explanation, barging into Steve Kirsch’s office for some answers – or, at least, sound legal advice – after Steve refuses to take any of Terry’s phone calls. Kirsch’s secretary, Edie, attempts to do some damage control. Actually, she’s a groupie with a severely transparent crush on Terry who, even out of his shoulder pads and spandex, cuts an impressively handsome figure. It’s no use, however. Terry has revenge on his mind. It won’t keep either. In the meantime, an old ‘friend’, Jake Wise offers Terry a chance to make a cool $30,000; chump change compared to what he was being paid to play for the Outlaws, but a definite means to an end to shore up his ailing cash flow and keep his lavish lifestyle afloat. It seems Jake’s girl, none other than Mrs. Wyler’s spoiled daughter, Jessie, has run off to parts unknown after stabbing Jake in the leg with a letter opener. Jake’s a notorious racketeer with his fingers stuck in too many pies; his latest endeavor – The Palace nightclub – a hip and trendy place where the elite meet to compete.
After a perilous game of cat and mouse through the congested streets, Jake proposes to send Terry in search of Jessie; not to avenge the wound that has left him dependent on a cane for the time being, but because he wants her back in his bed. Terry isn’t interested – at first. But then he thinks of how such an investigation might place him in closer proximity to Mrs. Wyler and Caxton; using their accidental/on purpose ‘chance meeting’ at the country club to beg for his old job back. Too bad, Mrs. Wyler makes it perfectly clear how disposable she considers him. She doesn’t need another aging football star. As far as she’s concerned, Terry’s best days as a player are behind him. But she will sweeten this bitter pill to swallow by offering Terry twice Jake’s stipend if he will bring Jessie back to L.A. for her. Words are exchanged, and Terry allows his arrogance to overtake and ruin his chances to take Mrs. Wyler’s money instead of Jake’s.  Sully forewarns that accepting Jake’s wager can only end in tears – possible, worse.  Sully campaigns to find Terry a coaching job. But Terry bungles this too, showing up to Mrs. Wyler’s fund raiser and assaulting Kirsch; tossing him into the bandstand after the two have words about Steve’s betrayal of their friendship. Again, all this is back story to the actual plot – and most of it fairly inconsequential to what will follow it. Terry storms off in a rage, informing Sully he has decided to take Jake up on his offer.
We return to the present – or rather, the point where we were when the credits first rolled: Terry locating Jessie in Cozumel. However, Terry’s ‘I’m too sexy for my shirt’ routine doesn’t win him any points with Jessie. She’s cold and aloof and becoming more suspicious by the moment. His offer to take her to dinner is dismissed outright. Now Terry asks if Jessie’s aversion is to football players, tacos or beer. “I like tacos and beer” she dispassionately explains before speeding away on a motor scooter. The next day Terry tries to wear down Jessie’s resolve once again. His ill timing is compounded when he fails to meet the ferry leaving with Jessie on board for a remote island getaway; Terry chartering a speed boat posthaste to make chase across the open waters. He finds Jessie perched atop the Mayan ruins and flirts with her again. She is belittling and belligerent, and Terry – having had enough – tells her what she can do with herself in no uncertain terms.
Nothing excites a woman like Jessie like rejection. And so, a short while later a shirtless Terry is surprised to find Jessie tapping on his hotel door. The two verbally spar again, but this time it leads to an invitation from Jessie; to her private hideaway where she’s been staying ever since leaving America. In this remote tropical oasis the two become lovers; Jessie confiding her fears about going home and Terry promising to protect and cover for her. He lies to Jake about not having located Jessie just yet, but then confides in Jessie, how Jake knows about his shaving points off an important game to cover a gambling debt. Jessie and Terry share a few blissful weeks together, spending long hours naked in each other’s arms. Ah, but then Sully arrives; another stooge involved in Jake’s sports syndicate and sent by Jake to investigate; catching the lovers in their latest bump and grind inside a darkened temple at Chichen Itza. Wielding a pistol, Sully demands Terry turn Jessie over to him. Terry attempts to chivalrously defend Jessie’s honor. But Sully’s an old pro with at least thirty solid pounds on him. The men spar, Terry losing badly until Jessie seizing the discarded pistol. She fatally shoots Sully, who dies in Terry’s arms. Terry insists they go to the police, but Jessie shrieks about how naïve Terry is and what will become of them if they confess their complicity to a murder. No one, least of all the corrupt local officials, will believe it was self-defense.
So, Terry reluctantly carries Sully’s corpse to a nearby lagoon, weighing the body down with a heavy rock and tossing him over the edge of a high precipice. Returning to his hotel suite, Terry discovers Jessie has fled. He returns to L.A. without her, ready to tell Jake his trip abroad was not a success. Too bad for Terry, Jake already knows this. How? Why from the horse’s mouth; Jessie having returned to his side.  Jake now orders Terry to break into Kirsch’s office and steal some incriminating documents for him; Kirsch also a part of the points-shaving enterprise. Alas, this too is a setup, Terry discovering Kirsch already dead in his office; planted there by a security guard hired to shoot Terry, presumably for committing the murder himself. Instead, Terry manages a daring escape; hiding Kirsch’s body and hooking up with Edie at a nearby local watering hole. He confides what has happened and she tells him about a secret box in Kirsch’s office. This contains the incriminating documents about the entire syndicate.  In one of the clumsiest entanglements, Terry forces Edie to return with him to Kirsch’s office to retrieve these files; encountering a pair of corrupt security guards, but managing yet another successful escape with the files in tow.
Terry now confronts Jake at The Palace nightclub, seemingly for no other reason than for director, Hackford to stage the aforementioned production number with Kid Creole; also to show off the cleverness in Richard Lawrence’s production design; effectively combining Jake’s office set with inserts of Creole’s performance, repeatedly glimpsed through a frosted art deco two-way mirror. In Hackford’s original edit, there ought to have been a scene to follow this in which Terry jealously observes through a window as Jake makes love to Jessie; waiting for Jake’s post-coital departure before bursting into the bedroom to ravage Jessie himself. Apparently, to avoid an R-rating, Hackford was forced to cut Terry’s tawdry observations, the scene (as it exists in the film) incongruously switching from the nightclub confrontation to the moment where Jessie – already alone – is confronted by Terry, who takes his liberties as he pleases. It should be pointed out that the sex scenes in Against All Odds are handled with a general and marginally cruel distaste for the nudity: the…uh… passion, played with the venom of two feral cats, recklessly forcing themselves on each other. There’s even more contempt at play during the aforementioned final encounter; the mutual craving almost devolving into a pseudo-rape; Jessie given to her hunger to possess Terry for what will ultimately be their last time together.
Jessie professes her love for Terry, confiding in Caxton her intimate knowledge of Jake’s spurious racketeering, also his complicity in Kirsch’s murder. What Jessie is unaware of is Caxton is actually the puppet master of the whole syndicate. Caxton sets up a midnight rendezvous with Terry at Mrs. Wyler’s construction site where he intends to murder Terry and make it look like an accident. Instead, Terry manages to disarm Caxton’s henchman, former assistant coach and Jake’s thug muscle, Tommy (Dorian Harewood). Terry barters Jake’s life for the files. When Caxton suggests it would be a fair trade, Jake pulls a gun on Jessie, forcing Terry to emerge from his hiding place and drop his gun. Jessie seizes the opportunity and murders Jake instead. Blackmailed by Caxton for Jake and Sully’s murders, Jessie is forced to return to her mother’s side or face the prospect of going to jail.  A short while later, Terry attends the inaugural of Mrs. Wyler’s construction project; casting flirtatious glances at Jessie from across the way, much to Mrs. Wyler’s chagrin. It seems she has been instrumental at providing Terry with an offer to play pro football in Miami.  “Remember, Brogan,” Caxton reminds Terry, “You’re out of her life.” But Terry knows better, replying, “I figure that's up to her. You're not going to control us forever.”
Against All Odds has its’ moments, but they never quite come together, perhaps because sex and car chases are poor substitutes for substance, regardless of the stylish nature by which each is brought to the big screen. Classifying Taylor Hackford’s efforts as an ‘erotic thriller’ doesn’t give the movie cache, class or star power; the latter absolutely necessary to make the enterprise click as a whole. The biggest transgressor against making any of it memorable is the performances. There’s not a standout among them; the players going through mere motions. The most that can be said of the chemistry between Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward is they look good when pressed up against one another, like a pair of peel and stick dolls from a Colorforms play set; perhaps one that only Fredericks of Hollywood would approve. In the role originated by Kirk Douglas, James Woods – though a generally fine actor – is a wan ghost of his predecessor. Pasting Woods’ gaunt frame into a skin-hugging black wife-beater during the moment of confrontation between Jake and Terry only serves to exaggerate the meagerness of his physicality. True, like Douglas’ Whit in Out of the Past, Woods’ Jake Wise is meant to be ‘lesser than’. He rules by fear. But unlike Douglas, Woods isn’t believable in the part; the penultimate showdown at the construction site revealing a scared little man, cowering when pushed into a dead end situation.
The other big mistake for this remake is keeping both Jessie and Terry alive to rue the day they ever met, but to continue to be stirred by the remnant sting of their obnoxious lust for one another. Jacques Tourneur’s classic wisely dispatched every ne'er-do-well to their untimely – but justly deserved – end. Hackford’s finale is as impossibly unsatisfying as one might expect; Terry going off to wreck his body for another team as its organ grinder’s monkey – albeit, a high-priced one – and a tearful, and seemingly reformed, Jessie left to lament the loss of the only man who could show her a good time and really mean it; her doleful gazes caught across a crowded room and played to the syrupy strains of Phil Collin’s ‘Take A Look At Me Now’. Concluding the movie on this pop ballad, played under the end credits, leaves a truly sour note behind; the song’s twang ‘upbeat’ promise of hope and love springing eternal, possibly made renewable somewhere in the near future (most likely after Jessie has managed to pump another bullet into Caxton or drive his car over the edge of a cliff and poison her own mother with some arsenic-spiked herbal tea), is much too plucky and promising to cap off these terrible peoples’ truly sordid lives. Not only is it untrue to the original film, but it is essentially unconvincing to the remake.
There ought to have been no light at the end of this darkened tunnel; something Tourneur understood in Out of the Past. The original movie begins and ends under the cover of night. Against All Odds betrays its noir roots by starting and finishing in the stark pall of California sunlight. Have we been teased into the proverbial happy ending or merely betrayed by Hackford into thinking Jessie and Terry will have a future together someday; one that doesn’t require sandy beaches, swaying palms or perpetually love-making to satisfy and sustain them? Interestingly, Rachel Ward’s enterprising film career was cut short by her marriage to Bryan Brown (her costar in The Thorn Birds); evidently, the two contented to start and raise a family; the couple still happily married – a Hollywood rarity, indeed. Both Taylor Hackford and Jeff Bridges have gone on record, stating Brown seemed to have no problem with his then newlywed wife performing some fairly scandalous nude scenes in the movie. Perhaps Brown was merely confident he had married the right girl. But Ward spends an awful lot of the film completely nude; Donald E. Thorin’s artful placement of the camera and co-star, Jeff Bridge’s limbs providing a sense of false modesty.
Against All Odds debuts on Blu-ray via Image Entertainment in a stunning 1080p transfer licensed from Sony Home Entertainment. This has to be one of the most impressive offerings from Image which, in more recent times, has devolved into a company with a really spotty track record in providing us with such exemplars in the hi-def format. Against All Odds is a reference quality disc. There is absolutely nothing to complaint about: a pluperfect mastering effort, typified by exquisite color reproduction – richly saturated, gorgeous flesh tones, superbly rendered contrast, naturalistic film grain and a complete eradication of age-related artifacts. Wow, and thank you! If you are a fan of this movie then you are going to love this disc. The 5.1 DTS stereo is equally superb; yielding remarkable bass for a vintage 80’s flick. Larry Carlton and Michel Colombier’s score sounds fantastic. We get a pair of audio commentaries; one featuring Taylor Hackford, Jeff Bridges and James Woods, who spend the bulk of the track waxing about superfluous points of only marginal interest. More satisfying on the whole is the secondary track with Hackford and his screenwriter, Eric Hughes. As a matter of interest, the famous poster for Against All Odds (also depicted on the front of this Blu-ray case) depicts a moment never seen in the finished film. This, along with other excised portions, is included as deleted scenes. We also get a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: while I have my doubts about the movie, this Blu-ray is very highly recommended for quality: a fantastic effort!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
5+
EXTRAS
3.5

No comments: