Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Hot Pursuit (1987)

Dan Bartlett (John Cusack) is distracted the entire night before his big chemistry final, resulting in his flunking.  Oh, no!  And here he was all set to go off with his girlfriend Lori Cronenberg (Wendy Gazelle, who spends about half of her screen time doing gymnastics wherever she happens to be [skilled though she is at it], because that’s just what you do, I guess) and her family to the Caribbean.  After his professor has a last minute change of heart, Dan must catch up with his gal, and all sorts of wackiness is supposed to ensue.

Steven Lisberger is most likely far better known as the writer and director of Animalympics (an animated film that was a staple of early HBO programming, and to this day, I vividly recall the scene where a male goat and a lioness fall in love during a marathon set to the strains of super-soft-rock ditty, “With You I Can Run Forever,” for better or worse) and TRON (a film I can appreciate for its technical achievements, but I’ve never found it all that entertaining), and with Hot Pursuit (aka See You Later Mr. Alligator) he tries his hand at light adventure comedy.  This is a generic mingling which can backfire pretty easily, because in order to satisfy both facets, there needs to be both humor and danger, obviously.  The problem lies in the ratio of one to the other and/or the way the two are blended.  For example, Martin Brest’s Midnight Run gets it right, primarily, I think, because it keeps the tension going in both the action and the comedy scenes.  The violence is never over the top, and it fits within the context of the narrative.  Conversely, the danger in films like Hot Pursuit feels like what it is: a device to motivate the adventure portions of the film, and the sight of dead bodies in a film, ostensibly about a puppy love relationship and the nutty lengths to which young love will go, is always jarring to me.  It’s been said that the line between horror and comedy is a fine one, and I agree, and I would further state that films such as this one are proof of just how fine a line it is (while it’s not a horror film in any way, there are those “horrific” elements).  After all of the “zany antics” (and yes, that phrase should be in quotes in regards to this picture) Dan gets into to reach his goal, suddenly he’s running around with grenades and a machine gun, and the villains are considerably bloodthirsty and savage (bolstered by the presence of a very young Ben Stiller, an actor I’ve never been especially at ease watching).   But the filmmakers’ attitude is that they want to have it both ways.  They still want us to consider this as a lark.  I’m not totally sure of what my internal criteria are for what makes this mix work or not work (in the same way that what triggers fright or laughs is very personal), but when it works, it really works, and when it doesn’t, it flops like a fish.  Hot Pursuit is just about a Muskie, in my opinion.    

There is a very sharp divide among the film’s characters along class lines.  Dan is the classic disheveled, working class attendee of an upper class boarding school (we don’t need to be told this explicitly; everything about the character and his introduction practically screams it).  He wears his tie loose, his top shirt button undone, his hair mussed.  Lori’s father (Monte Markham) is affluent and acts the part.  Nothing is too good for his daughter, and Dan will never be good enough.  He also sees Dan as a coward, and this at the very least does play into the eventual macho-fication of Dan.  But even our protagonist has preconceived notions about others in society, and the film does its best to get us to play into these prejudices.  When Dan lands on whatever island he lands on and the only taxi available gets snaked out from under him (with the warning to watch out for “the natives”), he spots Cleon (Paul Bates), Alphonso (Keith David), and Roxanne (Ursaline Bryant) in their rusty jalopy.  After making the (far-fetched) assumption that they work for the marina where Lori is staying, Alphonso invites Dan to come along with them.  Yet, the way he says it, combined with the reaction shots of Cleon, leads us to believe that something nefarious is afoot (never trust someone who smiles all the time, especially when they show you all their teeth).  Likewise, Mac (Robert Loggia) conscripts Dan into being a deckhand on his boat while in pursuit of the ship on which the Cronenbergs are cruising (actually in pursuit of someone on board; guess who).  But where Alphonso and company were all smiles, Mac is all scowls.  Everything about the grizzled old guy is rough, antagonistic, and maniacal.  Nevertheless, both groups have the same sort of attitude toward life and their place in it, as is summed up succinctly by Alphonso with the statement, “We’re not planning it, we’re just doing it.”  Furthermore, both sets of people prove to be better friends to Dan than he could hope for, a tad dubious considering how scant the amount of time they’ve known one another.  Lori’s family is not necessarily evil in contrast, they’re just generally elitist and less desirable to have as amigos.  All of this culminates in the rather facile theme of not judging a book by its cover, which we already knew, but one thing Hollywood has always loved to remind us of is how much we need to be reminded of the basics of life.

Hot Pursuit is an innocuous film in every sense of the word.  It is innocuous in characters, in plotting, in cinematography, in direction.  Everything about the film plays it safe, so the whole never ascends much past the middle ground.  The humor is cutesy and not very funny at all (again, your mileage may vary).  One could call these traits innocent since they’re seemingly ignorant of not only how the world works but how both adventure and comedy (and by extension, adventure-comedies) work.  It’s like eating pretzels without the salt.  Sure, they’re still pretzels (hell, they may even be butter pretzels, which I love), but without the coarse salt they don’t satisfy in the same way, they’re not complete.  This is the sort of film you keep on in the background while you fold your laundry or clean your house.  No real attention needs to be paid, because there is nothing going on that you haven’t seen before, and you’ve likely seen it more entertainingly done, as well (yes, I know I say that a lot, but dammit, it holds true, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).

MVT:  Cusack has his put upon, boyish charm going in full effect, and you can see there’s a reason why he was so popular in the Eighties, even while lamenting that his assets are not thoroughly utilized in this film.

Make or Break:  The scene where Dan confronts Stiller’s Chris is satisfying in that you get to see a prick get his due.  But like so much else herein, it simply doesn’t fit or work especially well enough to be all that memorable.

Score:  5.5/10      

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