The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
Movie Reviews - I, J, K
Invasion U.S.A.
1985, Cannon, Rated R

Chuck Norris
Richard Lynch
Melissa Prophet

Directed by Joseph Zito
Written by James Bruner & Chuck Norris from a story by Aaron Norris & James Bruner

Back in the 1950s, when the Cold War was at its hottest, a movie called Invasion U.S.A. played on American paranoia about the Commies and portrayed a scenario in which the Russkies try to take America. In the 1980s this scenario was taken down from the shelf, dusted off, and used in a variety of projects -- a television miniseries called Amerika and movies such as Red Dawn and this Chuck Norris vehicle. Norris, who was beginning to establish himself as a credible action star with films like Lone Wolf McQuade, Missing in Action and Code of Silence, plays American agent Matt Hunter, who is forced out of retirement when his old nemesis Rostov (Richard Lynch) masterminds an "invasion" of the United States, leading dozens of heavily-armed and highly-trained commandos in a campaign to spread terror and destruction from coast to coast. It looks like Hunter is just about the only effective countermeasure we have; almost singlehandedly he turns back the Red tide and lures Rostov and his commandos into a trap from which none escape.
Like most of the Golan-Globus products, Invasion U.S.A. is long on action and short on plot and character development. It was clearly an attempt to bank on the Norris name without much concern for quality. The history between Hunter and Rostov is never fleshed out, nor is the connection between Rostov and a drug dealer (whom the Russian kills in a particularly gruesome manner), nor is Hunter's uncanny ability to arrive on the scene just in time to thwart one evil scheme after another. And Hunter is a character with less depth, personality and interaction with others than even Stallone's Rambo. That was probably okay with Norris, who was still honing his limited acting skills. Melissa Prophet had the most thankless job of all; she plays a female photojournalist whose part is completely irrelevant to the movie. She isn't even the "love interest" -- Matt Hunter is far too busy gunning down bad guys to give her the time of day. Nonetheless, the action scenes are often inventive and entertaining; a particularly good one involves Hunter in a shootout with some of Rostov's killers in a mall, which is virtually destroyed when the bad guys hotwire a display vehicle and drive it through the concourse at top speeds. There's something to be said for a film that never pretends to be anything else but an opportunity to watch massive mayhem. So if a body count that defies description is your cup of tea, check your brain at the door, make yourself comfortable, and watch Chuck Norris teach those pesky Russians a lesson they'll not soon forget.

Eighties Club rating: **

US box office: $17.5 million
US release date: 9.27.85

It Takes Two
1988, United Artists, Rated PG-13

George Newbern
Leslie Hope
Kimberly Foster

Directed by David Beard
Written by Richard C. Matheson &Thomas E. Szollosi

Travis Rogers and Stephanie Lawrence (George Newbern and Leslie Hope) are getting married. They've been sweethearts since childhood, and it's always seemed inevitable that they would one day tie the knot. But there's one slight problem. Travis has developed a perfectly natural case of cold feet. He tries to talk to Stephanie about it -- he has always been able to talk to her about anything -- but she's so busy with preparations for their big day that she doesn't have time to listen. Travis heads for the big city to buy a car and sinks all his hard-earned money into a sporty number that turns out to be a real lemon. In fact, he is taken advantage of at every turn. His only ally is Kimberly (Jonni Tigersmith), who helps him deal with a crooked car dealer, as does a whacked-out chief mechanic named Wheels (Anthony Geary). Travis sleeps with Kimberly, and finds himself on the verge of missing his own wedding. Will he take off with Kimberly to California? Or will he settle down with Stephanie?
     The plot of It Takes Two is a tried-and-true Hollywood formula, and moviegoers have seen it many, many times. But it would be a mistake to pass on this film for the simple reason that director David Beaird had the foresight to spice up the story with eye-catching scenes, while writers Richard Christian Matheson and Thomas E. Szollosi provide a laugh a minute. What they craft is a delightfully quirky and entertaining comedy that is pure Eighties -- a lot of style augmented with enough substance to deal out a moral or two along the way. It Takes Two proves that your story doesn't have to be all that original, as long as you tell it in an original way.

Eighties Club rating: ***

US box office: $344,000

Jack's Back
1988, Paramount, Rated R

James Spader
Cynthia Gibb
Rex Ryon

Written & Directed by
Rowdy Herrington

A killer stalks the streets of L.A., exactly duplicating the grisly murders in London that were attributed to Jack the Ripper 100 years ago.  The original Jack's tally was five, and this film opens with the murder of the modern Jack's fourth victim.  Idealistic med student John Westford (James Spader) knows the pregnant prostitute who ends up being the fifth victim, and he's blamed for the killings when he's found hanged in the clinic where he was interning.  But his identifical twin Rick knows better; he claims to have seen the real killer (who also did away with John) in a nightmare.  The police begin to wonder if perhaps Rick isn't the real killer -- and so do viewers in this quirky thriller dominated by Spader, who does an excellent job in the dual role of the Westford twins.  His Rick Westford is a rather odd, menacing loner who seems strangely unmoved by his brother's death.
     Writer/director Rowdy Herrington had a tough job pulling this off, but he manages to keep us guessing as to the killer's real identity until the very end.  Unfortunately, he also keeps us guessing about a lot of other things; the film can be confusing at times, as Rick, pursued by the cops, pursues Jack Pendler (Rex Ryon), John's co-worker and the man he saw in his nightmare.  Rick is aided by another of John's co-workers, Chris Moscari, played by Cynthia Gibb, who had starred in the early Eighties television series Fame.  In the end, Rick catches the modern-day Jack when the latter goes after Chris, though it isn't clear why she becomes a target.  Still, there are enough twists to this film to keep the viewer intrigued.  Note Herrington's use of colors -- warm gold and cold blue -- in many of the scenes, adding a dreamscape ambience to the work.

Eighties Club rating: **

US box office: $500,000
US release date: 5.6.88

Johnny Handsome
1989, Carolco, Rated R

Mickey Rourke
Morgan Freeman
Ellen Barkin

Directed by Walter Hill
Written by Ken Friedman from the novel by John Godey

John Sedley (Mickey Rourke) is a career criminal, the son of a prostitute, horribly deformed at birth, a man with the cards stacked against him and few redeeming virtues save his loyalty to friend Mikey Chalmette. It's Chalmette who persuades Johnny to participate in a jewelry store heist. Two other members of the gang, Rafe and Sunny (Lance Henriksen and Ellen Barkin) pull a doublecross, killing Chalmette and leaving Johnny to take the rap. Our flawed hero spends his time behind bars plotting revenge. Enter Dr. Fisher (Forest Whitaker), who brings Johnny into a rehabilitation project that includes plastic surgery and speech therapy. With a new face a new identity, Johnny has a chance to make something of his life when he gets parole, and for a while he seems to be walking the right path, getting a shipyard job and dating a nice girl (Maureen McGovern.) But hardboiled detective A.Z. Drones (Morgan Freeman) is a skeptic; he thinks Johnny will revert to a life of crime for the express purpose of killing Rafe and Sunny.
     Directed by Walter Hill (48 Hrs.), Johnny Handsome is a lean, taut action yarn without a frame wasted, a superb score by Ry Cooder, and a great cast. Mickey Rourke is in top form, coming into this project with a string of electric performances in movies like 9 1/2 Weeks (1986), Angel Heart (1987) and A Prayer for the Dying (1988). Given the inherent limitations an action film places on character development, Rourke brilliantly crafts Johnny into a fatally flawed yet sympathetic protagonist. Director Hill expertly captures the slick but gritty realism of the film noir, and the streets of New Orleans provide a perfect backdrop for a plot that, while it's been done many times before, has seldom been done with such panache. It's nice to watch professionals at work, and that's what you'll see in this underrated film.

Eighties Club rating: ***

US box office: $7.2 million
US release date: 9.29.89

1989, Gordon/Universal, Rated PG-13

James Belushi
Mel Harris
Kevin Tighe

Directed by Rod Daniel
Written by
Steven Siegel & Scott Myers

1989 was the year of cop-dog buddy movie, with the release of K-9 and Turner and Hooch. Inevitably, comparisons must be made. While both movies were built around boilerplate plots, K-9 wins by a hair -- or should we say a whisker? -- thanks largely to the talents of Jerry Lee, the German Shepherd. James Belushi stars as Mike Dooley, your stereotypical cowboy cop, the kind who doesn't let little things like proper police procedure get in the way of his quest to bring down a drug lord named Lyman (Kevin Tighe). When he asks for a drug-sniffing dog to check out one of Lyman's warehouses, he's saddled with Jerry Lee, a dog with more personality than Lassie and more attitude than Hooch. It doesn't take Dooley long to realize what an asset Jerry Lee is; not only does the dog save him from a gang of hardcases in a bar room brawl, but the canine also manages to placate Dooley's girlfriend Tracy, played by thirtysomething's Mel Harris, who is exasperated by the fact that Dooley seems far more committed to getting Lyman than he is to a relationship with her. The clash of wills between Dooley and Jerry Lee is fun to watch as they establish the parameters of their own relationship, and before long the two become an unbeatable team as they rescue Tracy, who's been kidnapped by the bad guys, and crack down on the drug smuggling operation.
As an action-comedy, K-9 has it all -- plenty of action, with Belushi deftly handling the tough-guy aspects of his role, and lots of laughs, most of them centered around the activities of Jerry Lee, who cavorts ecstatically through a park after a tryst with his poodle girlfriend, or rips the radio out of Dooley's car after Dooley has subjected him to a pass through a car wash because he smells bad, or leaves Dooley with a doggy mess to clean up in retaliation for being closed in a room all night so that Dooley and Tracy can have some quality time together. In Turner and Hooch, Tom Hanks seemed a little uncomfortable sharing scenes with a big, ugly, drooling pit bull -- and who wouldn't? In K-9, Belushi is smart enough to know who the real star is, and always plays to the dog. The monologues he directs at Jerry Lee are right on the money, and often highly amusing.  Only once does the film get too cute -- when Jerry Lee pretends to be dead while Dooley breaks down and tells him what a great partner he'd become. Turner and Hooch grossed more at the box office ($71 million versus $43 million), but that's attributable to the star power of Hanks and nothing more. A 1999 sequel to K-9, entitled K-911, reunited Dooley and Jerry Lee.

Eighties Club rating: ***

US box office: $43.2 million
US release date: 4.28.89

"I Feel Good," James Brown
"Oh Yea," Yello
"Car Wash," Rose Royce
(& more)

The King of Comedy
1983, RCA/Columbia, Rated PG

Robert DeNiro
Jerry Lewis
Sandra Bernhard

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Paul D. Zimmermann

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, who collaborated in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, reunite for this 1983 film -- and once again deliver a product that is both a gripping character study and a searing indictment of modern society. Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is a wannabe stand-up comedian as well as an obsessed fan of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a late-night talk show host a la Johnny Carson. Pupkin stalks Langford, trying to talk the host into putting him on the show. At the same time, he lives in a fantasy world in which he has become the "king of comedy" to whom even Langford must bow. Pupkin's problem is that he confuses fantasy with reality, propelling him to ever more bizarre behavior -- until, with fellow Langford groupie Marsha (Sandra Bernhard), he kidnaps Langford and blackmails himself onto the show. The ultimate irony, of course, is that by this act Pupkin becomes the celebrity he has always wanted to be.
     Some film critics have theorized that Scorsese had an ulterior motive for doing this film. The theory is that he was so stung by criticism of his previous work, Taxi Driver -- because it allegedly served as a catalyst for the mad actions of would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley -- that he set out to lay the blame for maladjusted individuals such as Pupkin (and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver) on society in general and the press in particular. Regardless of this, The King of Comedy is a darkly humorous and sometimes unnerving exploration of the pathology of celebrity that tends, to some degree, to grip us all. As usual, De Niro makes Pupkin so real that you will not soon forget him. Sandra Bernhard, who got her start as a standup comic, is stunning in her film debut as the neurotic Marsha. But it's Jerry Lewis who commands the highest praise of all. He commands every scene of which he is a part, and is eminently believable as Langford -- a man as tortured by celebrity as Pupkin is by his desire for it. Also notable is Diahnne Abbot -- the real Mrs. De Niro -- as Pupkin's girlfriend. A disturbing expose of our love affair with the rich and famous, The King of Comedy is endowed with a moral we would do well to heed.

Eighties Club rating: ***

US box office: $2.5 million
US release date: 2.18.83

"Come Rain Or Come Shine," Ray Charles
"The Finer Things," David Sanborn
"Back On The Chain Gang," The Pretenders
"Fly Me To The Moon," Frank Sinatra
"Swamp," Talking Heads
"Rainbow Sleeves," Rickie Lee Jones
"Wonderful Remark," Van Morrison
(& more)

London Critics Circle Film Awards
Film of the Year