Monday, August 22, 2016

Best Seller (1987)

As far as bringing together two powerhouse actors, “Best Seller” is a success! The casting of Brian Dennehy and James Woods is ingenious, with the two working off of each other splendidly! Both are saddled into familiar roles: Dennehy the calm & calculated officer, Woods the charismatic and diabolical criminal. The criminal brings out the inner demon in the cop. The cop brings out the humanity in the criminal.

The two are brought together in clever fashion. Brian Dennehy is Dennis Meechum, a Los Angeles cop who moonlights as a best-selling author. His first book, an account of his experience in a near-fatal holdup that opens the film, is wildly successful. Fifteen years later, he’s penned numerous fictional and non-fictional novels, but is now struggling in churning another one out. The death of his wife, the pressures of police work, and the grind of single parenthood are stifling his creativity.

In comes James Woods as Cleve, a hitman offering Meechum a golden goose on a silver platter. He will give him his life’s work to pen, as well as incriminating evidence against crime boss David Madlock (Paul Shenar). In return is a mystery, as Cleve never reveals his true intentions. It’s clear after watching him for a while that his reasoning isn’t salvation, but salivation. He craves power and gets off on controlling others. He’s able to manipulate Dennis into this agreement after initially being handcuffed simply due to his cunning wit. He pries on emotions, using his charm to trick people into letting their guard down. He has grown tired of senseless killings, now desiring a challenge in working alongside an officer. He gets off on the impending doom.

It is Cleve’s arresting personality (pardon the pun) that leads us to believe that Meechum would take him up on his offer. He is exactly as Cleve describes him: tired and stuck in a rut. He needs inspiration and, as much as he hates to admit it, Cleve represents that. It is with hesitation that he probes the hitman for answers all the while resisting the urge to book him. This power struggle between the two is tantalizing, with director John Flynn balancing it nicely.

Thus sets up multiple sequences in which Cleve drags Meechum to his old stomping grounds. Former murder hot spots set the scene for the detective/author to illustrate, while a meeting with the criminal’s family acts as a doorway to the book’s psychological analysis. Sprinkled in throughout are hints at Cleve’s involvement in Dennis’ past and evidence to frame Madlock with. The former produces an intense fight between the two

The relationship between Cleve and Meechum plays out like it would in a pulp crime novel. Cleve appears out of the blue, saving Dennis from a fatal gunshot during a shootout. He disappears into the night, only to reappear at will. He stalks the man’s daughter, Holly (Allison Balson), convincing her (and him) that he’s a friend, not a foe. He’s able to avoid catastrophe with ease, such as evading a bomb planted in a taxi. It’s all too good to be true, the workings of a fictionalized character. This should suffer when implemented into a real-world scenario, but Larry Cohen’s script is sharp enough to avoid the pratfalls. It’s all meant to play out like this as a way of complementing Meechum’s stories.

Where the script stumbles, in turn causing the direction to suffer, is in its handling of David Madlock. He’s kept to the sidelines, which is understandable considering the true villain here is the puppet master Cleve. However, the reasoning and subsequent takedown of his operation is flimsy, leading to a half-baked finale. After sufficient build, the film sputters out dramatically.

A lot of this can be attributed to the film’s short running time. The film is only eighty-five minutes long when it could’ve done with an extra thirty. The first hour is all setup, with the finale being rushed through in order to attain the story’s purpose. More time was needed to build up Madlock as well as more info on Cleve to sink one’s teeth into. “Best Seller” is a novella that needed to be a novel.

While “Best Seller” may crash and burn, the ride up to it was smooth. Brian Dennehy and James Woods are actors whom I could watch read the phone book and be engaged, so it’d be a near impossibility for their interactions to warrant apathy. They were able to keep my attention throughout, elevating the material when it began to flounder. If only they were bolstered by a stronger third act that didn’t sacrifice their hard work in the first two.

MVT: Most definitely Brian Dennehy and James Woods. Picking just one would be a crime, as the two work as a cohesive unit here. Without the other, they would crumble (as it should be).

Make or Break: The fight between the two in the bar. Intense and perfectly encapsulates what both men represent.

Final Score: 6.5/10

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