When somebody does stupid things in a movie I always ask myself if I would have done better in the same situation. I mean me, not some James Bond or Sam Spade or Jack Reacher. In other words, an ordinary guy thrown into a perilous situation not of my making, and me never having had to face life-or-death decisions outside of a book I’m reading or movie I’m seeing. If I’m honest with myself, I’ll have to admit that I might very well behave more stupidly than the bozo up on the screen, at least until a bit of a learning curve set in. We flatter ourselves, sitting on the couch, thinking “I wouldn’t have done that.” Actually, a lot of the time, we’d have done exactly that. It’s just that, in the movies, we want the poor dork to not fall for the same sucker punch again, nor enter the room without switching on the light, nor walk into a situation that we, sitting comfortably, think we wouldn’t do.
So here we have an ordinary guy (Tom Hulce), a cartoonist, who is suddenly beaten up and thrust into a car where someone asks the usual movie question: “Where is it?” Where’s what? He hasn’t a clue. Having made his escape entirely by accident, he sleepwalks through the next hour, learning a wee bit at a time. By the end it all starts to make sense, and he starts thinking ahead in new terms, because it has sunk in that he’s on his own, his life has changed, and there’s no going back. And this is nice to watch. If there is a problem here, it is that we sort of want this guy to quickly react with the preternatural reflexes and knowledge and street smarts and flawless planning of a Jack Reacher. That’s why we go to movies about innocent men wrongly accused, for wish-fulfillment. I’ll admit to a preference for movies like that, too, but this one is more realistic.
Hulce is supported by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Virginia Madsen (who we met backstage at the Hollywood Bowl!), both of them very good-looking and very good actresses. Madsen was 26 when this was filmed, in her prime. There is also the wonderful Harry Dean Stanton, who is still alive, 86 years old, and still going strong in films like The Last Stand with ex-Governor Arnold and Seven Psychopaths with a whole bunch of good actors. I can’t wait to see that one.
BTW: This is not the first film to play fast and loose with locations, not even the first to give a misleading impression of the Hollywood sign. But in case you were wondering, there is no place in Hollywood that would give you such a view of the iconic sign from the huge terrace of a house the size of a castle. There are such houses, many of them, but not where we see this one. We have driven every winding road in that area, and the houses, though large, are all on very small lots. Also, it is not possible to drive a car up under the sign without cutting some very heavy chains and drawing security. And finally, the sign is much bigger than what is shown in this movie. This one was made on the cheap.