Sunday, October 19, 2008

THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT (1979) d. George Mendeluk & DEATHROW GAMESHOW (1987) d. Mark Pirro

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One of the most powerful combinations throughout theatrical history is the pairing of a serious actor or comedian with an absolutely ridiculous sidekick. Whether it was Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, this formula of melding the straight-faced and the supremely silly has worked time and again, even when you pair up a movie double feature. Usually when films were paired for the drive-in or the low-budget metropolitan cinema, movies tended to be of similar style, genre and vintage, but that wasn’t always the case. I remember seeing TOM SAWYER (1973) paired with TRUE GRIT (1969) at the drive-in as a youth, and while the historical theme of the two flicks was somewhat similar, I have never seen a double feature that had such a different intended audience or tone for that matter, until now. BCI Eclipse has brought together an unlikely double bill by coupling THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT (1979) and DEATHROW GAMESHOW (1987) and despite the diametrically opposed nature of both features, this pairing somehow works.

THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT is the story of U.S. President Adam Scott, who is abducted at a seemingly well-scripted rally in Toronto by a radical Argentinean revolutionary named Roberto Assante. Secret Service agent Jerry O’Connor must work with Canadian agents and troublesome colleagues within his own government to save the president’s life and keep from embarrassing the country by bowing to the demands of the kidnappers. Before the end, loyalties are tested, double-crosses are discovered and tough decisions must be made to make the crisis come out right.

THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT is a film that doesn’t feel like it was made in 1979 despite a narrative that has its feet founded in headlines of the times and the mix of highly recognizable cast members who were either at the end of their careers or were seeing a resurgence in their popularity. In spite of a violent and bloody prologue, most of this film’s pacing and action is somewhat leisurely, but not in a manner that detracts from the overall quality of the viewing experience. It just feels like this film would have fit right in if it was made 20 or 30 years earlier. It is patient and depends on a series of dramatic but not terribly surprising plot twists and melodrama that derives from character interplay. The action is fairly subdued, as are the performances of the actors. When one considers that the cast of William Shatner (Jerry O’Connor), Hal Holbrook (President Adam Scott), Van Johnson (Vice-President Ethan Richards) and Ava Gardner (Beth Richards) made careers for themselves by having a penchant for overacting, their understated acting was a great surprise, especially that of Mr. Shatner. When coupled with the grey and rainy Canadian skies, the steady of unspectacular camera work and the workman-like method of the story-telling, THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT resembles a TV Movie more than it does a theatrical release. In the end, it is an enjoyable film if you enjoy a story that depends more on a gently paced story than wild thrills and intense action. It also has some comforting and familiar faces that are or were always worth the price of admission. Although none of the principals gave stellar performances, actors like Hal Holbrook add immediate legitimacy to a film and any viewer is always on the edge of their seat just waiting for William Shatner to bust out in a fit of righteous indignation or ferociously karate-chop a bad guy in his own inimitable manner. Sadly, the latter does not occur, but you do get to see Mr. Shatner help remove a truck engine in an effort to save the day, and that kind of thing makes THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT worth your time.

What is a weakness of THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT is some of its visual elements. The print transfer was a bit grainy at times and there may have been some authoring issues with the DVD for there was a jerkiness to some of the action sequences in the film. Fortunately, the sound levels were consistent and the audio was clear. This gives the viewer the chance to revel in one of the strangest qualities of the film, its score, incidental music and sound effects. For a movie that has far more in common with older thrillers like THE IPCRESS FILE and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, the film score was a mix of very classical dramatic scoring and modern songs from some very out of the ordinary albums. In addition, some of the incidental music sounded very “avant-garde” at times and when combined with the bizarre sound effects used at intervals throughout the movie, the result was a film that looked somewhat old-fashioned but didn’t sound it at all. Whether this was good thing or a bad thing will depend on individual viewers’ tastes, but I found it enjoyable in a quirky way and chalked it up to the nature of late 1970s film-making which always seemed to be trying something new to keep from being predictable.

On the subject of being unpredictable, let us now talk about the silly foil to the serious THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT, its cinematic double feature sidekick, DEATHROW GAMESHOW. DEATHROW GAMESHOW is the story of the “Live or Die” Game show hosted by shlock-meister Chuck Toedan. Chuck’s ratings juggernaut is designed to entertain the masses while giving condemned convicts a chance to extricate themselves from the chopping block, provide their family with a little extra cash after their demise or at least give the audience a few laughs before they take their final bow. However, Chuck runs afoul of the mob after frying a crime boss a humiliating manner. It is up to Chuck and his unwilling accomplice, TV critic Gloria Sternvirgin to keep their heads about them even as thugs are trying the put in a bullet in them during the broadcast.

Despite being a bad movie, there is something appealing about DEATHROW GAMESHOW. Possibly it is the fact that it is one ludicrous scene of unsubtle mockery, blasphemous imagery and slapstick buffoonery after another. While the fusillade of foolishness does wear a little thin by the end, you have to admire a film that pulls out all the stops and goes for broke in a manner that would be considered thoroughly “politically incorrect” today. Any film that has a scene where a clearly Cro-Magnon convict is given the choice between savaging a succulent turkey to satisfy his saliva-flecked lips or ravishing a red-dressed Game Show assistant, and who eventually chooses to copulate with the turkey and does so for several ensuing scenes, it is hard not to think highly of such a ribald and brave little shlock comedy. The camera work is very typical of what you might have seen on TV back in the late 1980s on Married with Children, so while it was unspectacular, it was certainly viewable and there is some fine pulchritude at times too. The acting was pretty poor for the most part, but most of the cast of DEATHROW GAMESHOW were nobodies then and had years ahead in which to “hone their craft” as it were. A dubious “strength” of this film was its wonderfully tacky 1980s fashions and hairstyles at the very apex of that decade’s days of excess. While many people spit on and scoff at that strange time in our country’s past, and I know that it was one of the uglier phases of our cultural development, take it from someone who was a an adult when this film came out, there is something horrifyingly nostalgic about the teased curls, “Miami Vice” shirts and slacks and high-cut thong girls’ underwear of that time that brings a tear back to my eye. Whether it is from the pangs of lost youth or even sharper pains brought on by a pretty ridiculous flick, it isn’t really clear.

DEATHROW GAMESHOW does not suffer from some of the visual issues that THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT, but it has its own problems. The transfer is still a bit grainy at times, but even worse are the inconsistent audio levels. I didn’t have to turn up the volume repeatedly, but I did have to adjust every now and then. Such shouldn’t be the case. Part of the problem could have been a sound-mixing issue with the original film, for background sounds didn’t seem to be a problem at times, while dialogue was a bit tinny and low.

One of the sadder realities of this disc is a total lack of an extras menu. In the case of THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT, most of the cast is probably either uninterested in revisiting a film that has disappeared into the mists of the past or have gone to their reward, but the director George Mendeluk is still out there and working and an interview with him recounting his experiences working with some of the luminaries of that film would have been a very worthwhile addition to this DVD. The same can be said of DEATHROW GAMESHOW. While not as historically compelling as THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT, all of the cast and crew are still making films, and a look back at their days on the set of this booby prize would have probably been a hoot. Since the bottom has dropped out of our nation’s economy, it more important than ever that the consumer feels like he is getting a “bang for his buck”. An empty bonus features menu is not the way to instill a feeling of having spent your money well. Even if it was just an interview with director Mark Pirro and a look through his eyes at his film DEATHROW GAMESHOW, and nothing added that was related to THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT, it still would have left that incalculably important feeling of “grocer goodwill”.

When you sit down to a double feature, it is often the case that people want a pairing that offers them a double helping of similarly themed goodness. Sometimes though, you just want your viewing experience to be a little eclectic and throw you the proverbial curveball. The double feature DVD of THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT and DEATHROW GAMESHOW isn’t a curveball, it is a true screwball, as if thrown by the great Fernando Valenzuela. The pitch starts out looking like any old fastball, but it goes in an entirely unforeseen direction and leaves you with a look on your face like you’ve just seen a ghost without its sheet. If you want your Saturday afternoon home theater experience to be a little out of the ordinary, this disc is for you.

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