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Worth A Look: 7.69%
Just Average: 30.77%
Pretty Crappy: 7.69%

1 review, 7 user ratings

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Osterman Weekend, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"Peckinpah's Puerile Final Movie is Also His Worst"
1 stars

Uh, after reading this review, it should be quite clear that reading the novel the movie was based on would be a far more advisable route than watching this near-unwatchable mess.

One of the absolute worst movies ever made, The Osterman Weekend, an adaptation of best-selling author Robert Ludlam's novel that serves as the late Sam Peckinpah's last directorial effort, is shoddily plotted, negligently acted, atrociously photographed, terribly framed, and egregiously executed to the point of certifiable dementia. It's supposed to be a spy thriller, which has always been the critically-lauded Ludlam's longtime literary domain (and the sometimes-critically-lauded Peckinpah indulged in this subgenre eight years prior with the trite The Killer Elite), but it's ragged and enervating without so much as a smidgen of sustained suspense or tension. It's been well-documented that the studio took the movie out of Peckinpah's hands eight months into post-production, which many of his admirers have claimed is the reason for this resulting cinematic calamity (in fact, Peckinpah had a history of some of his movies taken out of his hands by other studios), but that doesn't fully explain the poorly-juxtaposed scenes that are about as visually expressive as a rusty radiator, raggedly-shaped action sequences that are about as abysmal as has ever disgraced the silver screen, puerile performances that are remarkably poor given the talented cast, and zenith-level misogyny that's so repugnant you can't help but groan and grimace. Maybe there was some potential to be had from the storyline from the onset, but the way it plays out it's not so much complicated as it is constipated -- you keep waiting for the kind of juicy second-half twists and turns that would justify the pastiness and listlessness of the first-half set-up, and they never turn up. It's not that the plot doesn't make sense (it always amuses me when otherwise-astute writers like Roger Ebert lay claim to not understanding a plot when in fact the plot is easy to keep track of, it's just that it's not worth keeping track of), it's just that it possesses neither complexity nor wit. It also doesn't help that the dialogue is detrimentally dour -- they're wretched written words that would never come out of genuine human beings' mouths, and you're always getting the feeling that the movie's conflicts could be easily resolved if the characters just said to one another what the audience can clearly and logically sense they should be saying. There's a permeating inertness to the proceedings that the movie just can't seem to shake in that it plays out like a first draft without any real workable context coalescing into an organic whole. Being that Ludlam has a deserved reputation as a master in his field, it's certainly conceivable that a good deal of characterization and subplot were jettisoned; in that case, then, this project still shouldn't have gone ahead for what managed to be retained doesn't come even remotely close to cutting it, and it's the unsuspecting ticket-buying viewer who's left stuck with the tab, not to mention the suffering throughout.

In a truly nauseating opening, we're afforded the sight of a couple frolicking away in bed that soon turns deadly. While the man excuses himself to the bathroom, two masked men silently enter the room, cover the woman's mouth, execute her by sticking a hypodermic needle up her nose, and leave as quietly as they entered. When the man comes back, he's devastated at his find. It turns out that the man is one Lawrence Fassett (John Hurt), a CIA field agent, who, two years later, is still trying to find the killers; his wife was a foreign spy who made some at the Agency nervous. But in a major miscalculation on the part of the screenwriter, Alan Sharp, who penned two of the best original screenplays of the 1970s with the western The Hired Hand (with Peter Fonda) and the private-eye tale Night Moves (with Gene Hackman), the culprit behind the murder is revealed way too early on: one Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster), the director of the CIA who's widely believed to be the most powerful man in the country, who ordered the woman's execution as a favor to some "friendly" spies in the wife's home country whose government wanted to see her dead. (In fact, the entire gruesome episode had been recorded by some secret cameras in the bedroom for some unfathomable reason that's never explained, and Peckinpah makes sure we see needless replays of it throughout.) Then we're introduced to the character of John Tanner (Rutger Hauer), a Los Angeles television investigative-reporter with a penchant for putting politicians on the spot over hot-button issues, with the current one the revelation that U.S. military leaders conducted germ-warfare testing on some of their own soldiers during World War II. Tanner has always been gunning for Danforth, who he believes is dangerous for the country; he's constantly launching criticisms at him on the air, much to Danforth's chagrin. Then Fassett comes to Danforth with seeming proof from surveillance tapes (and, yes, surveillance video plays a big part in the movie akin to the quintessential use of audio surveillance employed in Coppola's classic 1974 The Conversation) that three of Tanner's former college friends from Berkeley are actually double agents consorting with a Russian agent who's part of the outfit Omega, whose forte is, coincidentally, germ-warfare testing. They are: plastic surgeon Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper), businessman Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon), and former television writer Bernard Osterman (Craig T. Nelson). Also coincidentally, the upcoming weekend is the friends' yearly get-together at Tanners' secluded home in the forest, and the CIA, appealing to Tanner's patriotism, proposes that he try to "turn" one of the friends into spilling the beans and betraying the others; in exchange, Danforth agrees to appear on Tanner's show in the near future. After being initially skeptical of his friends' actual involvement and Danforth's intentions, Tanner agrees.

To get the friends paranoid about Tanner's possible knowledge of their purported double-agent activities (which really doesn't make a lot of sense being that Tanner's best bet at turning one of them without the others suspecting would be the element of surprise), Fassett manufactures Omega insinuations in their homes just before the weekend. Suffice to say, when they arrive at Tanner's, which Fassett and his agents have bugged to the eyeballs with secret cameras, they're more than just a little bit on edge. Also figuring into the weekend are Tanner's wife and young son, and the wives of Tremayne and Cardone; the wives, to put it gently, have never been able to put up with one another much, adding a little bit more in the way of conflict; and Tanner isn't a particularly persuasive actor -- Osterman, in particular, can clearly see that his friend is on edge and has something other than pool parties and barbeques on his mind. In a successful motion picture given this kind of story situation, what should transpire would be a fascinating series of psychological games and bottled-up tensions simmering among the men accentuated by the isolation of the setting, but the characters are so weakly drawn and ill-defined that we never really get a sense of what's bound them together all these years, so the story doesn't really seem grounded in anything in particular. There's nothing resembling a dramatic interpretation having been implanted onto the material -- we couldn't care less about any of these guys, so we have zero interest in whether Tanner's friends are actually out to betray him or whether Tanner has the willingness to follow through and betray them for the good of the country or whether they're truly double agents in the first place. More so, we never get any real impression that any of Tanner's friends are particularly sinister and dangerous because the Omega connection is given such vague treatment -- they might as well be conspiring to open up a steakhouse in a vegetarian hippie commune in a ploy to chase the inhabitants away so they can claim their land. The resentment among the wives isn't worked out well, either, and seems to have been thrown in just for the sake of having more characters uncouthly yell and scream over the weekend; and it doesn't help that they're dimensionless ninnies -- as typical in a Peckinpah movie when the director is in his ultra-insensitivity mode, they cede to the male characters and eventually just take off their clothes. Fassett's always spying on them, but this is another aspect that's not followed through upon -- rather than him getting some kind of nasty, voyeuristic thrill out of it, Hurt, usually a marvelous thespian, has been directed to just stare blankly at it all with the detached demeanor of a filling-station attendant. (The only witty moment in the entire movie is when Fassett, talking with Tanner through a tiny TV in the kitchen, has to pretend to be a weatherman reading a forecast when Osterman walks into the kitchen all of a sudden and a technical malfunction prevents him from switching his image off the screen.)

Nothing in The Osterman Weekend feels genuinely thought-out and developed. It's a miserable miasma of clunky parts that don't go together in any real way, like an assortment of random pickings from a junkyard taken from different makes and models that simply don't fuse into a workable whole. While the screenplay has more than its share of problems (with some truly rotten dialogue infesting the actors' mouths like the bubonic plague by the likes of, "Think of them as fleas on a dog hit by a car driven by a drunken teenager whose girlfriend just gave him the clap. It will help your sense of perspective"; The Killer Elite also contained a joke about a sexual disease, and it wasn't funny there, either), Peckinpah's direction is stunningly amateurish and just plain bad. This is a director who's best in wide-open spaces with larger-than-life characters who're so vivid they manage not to be emasculated by the luscious landscapes surrounding them; whether it's his westerns The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country or even his trucker-comedy Convoy, Peckinpah has an undeniable eye for 'Scope composition and an uncanny instinct of how best to place his characters in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio that can be beautifully expressive. This isn't to say he can't work well with a non-widescreen 1.85:1 ratio as he demonstrated in his superb Straw Dogs, which conveyed a lot more in the way of inimical isolation with its central setting of a farmhouse in the English countryside under siege from a horde of revenge-seeking thugs; but here the camera never seems to be in the right place even in the simplest dialogue scenes, and the actors are almost always awkwardly blocked as if Peckinpah were a feral jungle native who never happened upon an actual indoor setting in his life before. And he flunks out at getting anything going with the exterior settings, as well. We're not allowed any coherent, lucid spatial logistics of Tanner's retreat, so when danger finally makes itself known and some of the characters try to escape, we've no earthly idea where they are in relation to Fasset's agents who're pursuing them or how close they are to any civilized road. When compression is most needed, Peckinpah's inept camera choices keep jarring us right out of the movie, rendering us dumbfounded at how a director is allowing elemental things to slip right through his fingers that even soulless-hack directors of which Peckinpah is not are able to competently get right on a regular basis. And I doubt whether Peckinpah has ever staged action as incompetently. Whether it's an early-on car chase with a helicopter thrown in, a hand-to-hand fight in a narrow room, an agent (who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn) chasing someone through the woods firing from a submachine gun, two characters escaping gunfire by diving into a swimming pool just so it can be set on fire so they then have to escape out of it, Peckinpah keeps the camera too close in and employs an eye-rolling overreliance of childish, solipsistic slow-motion technique that's more suited for the avant-garde and wreaks merciless havoc in terms of continuity. They're simply a bona-fide embarrassment to watch.

So with so much contextual vapidity and moxie-less moviemaking, you'd think, given the terrific thespians on hand, that there could be some solace to be had from the performances; but except for one, alas, this is also a lost cause. As the head villain, a bored-looking Burt Lancaster fails at emanating much in the way of danger; this veteran actor is clearly sleepwalking, and his punching-the-clock, bored demeanor fails at drawing us into the story right when we need to get initially hooked. John Hurt is pallid with his inconsistently written part. Chris Sarandon odiously overacts (his flare-ups are more amusing than threatening), Dennis Hopper (looking worrisomely anemic) unctuously underacts; Cassie Yates and Helen Shaver, as their bimbo wives, look like they'd like to kill their agent for allowing them to agree to appear in such nonsense. Meg Foster, while boasting truly luminous blue eyes, can't do much as Tanner's wife even though she's supposed to be strong but only displays fits of strength only when it's convenient to move the plot along. In the crucial role of Tanner, Rutger Hauer is unaccountably mediocre and leaves the movie without much of a center. He's way too recessive and jejune to register much as a TV journalist who loves sitting atop a catbird seat and reveling in grilling his sweat-stained subjects who he has by the shorthairs. There's no fire to Tanner, and we never know just what makes the guy tick. He's intended to come across as a feverishly dedicated American who boils in outrage over the misdeeds his corrupt fellow Americans are doing to his country, but he comes off as just a pretty boy with handsome swept-back blonde hair and fancy clothes making a big salary. There's no passion to him, and Hauer, in addition to remaining fatally remote on an emotional level, doesn't even use his body expressively -- he's more reactionary than anything else, and you don't know if Hauer, a Dutch actor who can be slyly witty and fascinatingly contemplative when he wants to, was simply uncomfortable with this his first leading role in an American movie or was encouraged to pull back by a director whose heroes in most of his previous movies were more about mystic reserve than cerebral intensity. (Where Hauer was highly watchable and vivid as cop Sylvester Stallone's foreign-terrorist nemesis in the fine New York crime thriller Nighthawks, here he's dead weight on the silver screen.) The only performer who manages to come through is Craig T. Nelson, who has concentrated energy and a real forcefulness that occasionally makes you believe you're at a real movie. I don't know if his character makes a whole lot of sense -- how many ex-TV writers are there who are black-belt karate experts who can take even a trained CIA agent out with the ease of crushing a beer can? -- but Nelson is as amiable and appealing as he was as the laid-back, pot-smoking father just the year before in Poltergeist. He takes a role without much meat on it and manages to fill in some gaps with the utmost confidence that the camera will reach in and get what he's going for. His Osterman may be sinister, he may be innocent, and the magnetic Nelson expertly walks the tightrope between the two so we're consistently drawn to him. Worthy of applause is Nelson's Osterman rather than Sharp/Peckinpah's Osterman.

The always-reliable company Anchor Bay Entertainment has given it a much better 2-disc packaging than it deserves, believe me. If you are a fan of "osterman" (glutton for punishment, perhaps?), it's well worth a purchase.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=9388&reviewer=327
originally posted: 05/14/11 15:36:53
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User Comments

5/27/15 action movie fan flawed but good movie with good action and a great cast-see it 3 stars
9/05/13 mr.mike Recall it as an OK crime flick. 3 stars
5/14/11 JW Don't forget the cringe-inducing lite-jazz soundtrack 3 stars
12/01/09 Charles Tatum Really dumb, makes "Convoy" look like "Citizen Kane" 1 stars
4/28/04 John a solid if a little confusing thriller - great tension and excellent action finale! 4 stars
4/28/04 Jack Sommersby Convoluted and absurd, yet it's a highly watchable piece of trash. 3 stars
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  14-Oct-1983 (R)
  DVD: 23-Mar-2004



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