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Kidnapping of the President, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"Slight But Satisfying Political Thriller"
3 stars

The president of the United States is locked inside of an explosives-rigged armored truck, and Secret Service agent William Shatner must rescue him. Have I got your attention yet?

The political thriller The Kidnapping of the President is quite the cinematic anomaly in that it's possessive of a whoppingly implausible story premise yet possesses reasonably plausible story facets that manage to lend it a surprising degree of rootedness. Based on the novel by Charles Templeton (unread by me), the film tells the tale of United States President Adam Scott (played by Hal Holbrook) being kidnapped by South American revolutionary Roberto Assanti (Miguel Fernandes) and partner Linda Steiner (Cindy Girling) while on a crucial campaign stop in Toronto. Having recently rejected warnings from senior Secret Service agent Jerry O' Connor (William Shatner) to take stronger precautionary security measures in light of recently discovered information that Assanti, who was believed to have been assassinated by the CIA years before, is indeed alive and planning a major operation, the president winds up handcuffed to a dynamite-armed Assanti while making his way through a bustling crowd, led inside a nearby Banks armored truck, and locked inside. The truck itself isn't a typical one: there are three heat sensors inside each wall, movement sensors, and an electrified grid, with plastic explosives interconnected to those systems. Assanti allows himself to be taken into custody by O'Connor because he's holding quite a high card: unless he makes an appearance by a particular high-floor hotel window every thirty minutes, his fellow operative in the crowd below will blow up the truck by remote control. The rest of the film details O'Connor's doggedly determined efforts to outwit Assanti without tipping his hand.

If you can get over the fact that this is the most ineptly-protected president in screen history -- yes, he complains to his wife that if the Secret Service had their way "I'd be riding around in a Sherman tank.", but in reality the S.S. doesn't allow hordes of people to cross a barrier and manhandle the most powerful man on Earth like he'd just caught the winning touchdown pass -- then the rest of the film is mostly smooth sailing. Oh, there are some additional quibbles. Having the truck's radiator overheat on the way to its downtown destination just so a couple of cops can grow suspicious and be subsequently killed for the sole sake of serving up an action sequence is tacky. As is the needless character of a CIA agent whose antagonistic relationship with O'Connor predictably results in the president's life being put in even greater jeopardy. And the film's leftist politics are considerably overstated: Assanti is described as "a man dedicated to the destruction of capitalist tyranny"; and his partner's been written as the second coming of Patty Hearst in her deep-seated shame of having had to grow up with rich, materialistic parents. I don't know whether these originated from Templeton's novel or were incorporated into the screenplay, but they're bogus elements that either reek of a lazy adherence to cliche or exude a fundamental insecurity in tactfully communicating subtext. With a running time of nearly two hours and boasting not the greatest narrative drive, the film occasionally chokes and sputters due to these extraneous tidbits; had these been omitted -- thus allowing the narrative the chance to become more streamlined -- the filmmakers might have had a small classic on their hands.

As it's turned out, the overall whole is still entertaining. The screenplay offers up some neat twists and turns that build off one another adeptly, and the logistics involved in cracking through the seemingly-impenetrable truck are enticing. While the steps taken in getting the president into the truck are negligible, the ones proposed and the few employed in getting him out are a lot more convincing. In far too many films of this type, you can almost always envision the given conflict being resolved a good deal sooner had the hero simply used common logic rather than movie logic; they allow their brains to temporarily skip track or go temporarily numb just so a creaky plot can progress. Here, it's more than a bit of a kick watching the intelligent O'Connor constantly at wit's end trying to figure out how to get a man out of a damn vehicle with the culprit responsible for it all handcuffed right next to him. It's also refreshing to see the hero exhibit sound judgment, as well -- he's perfectly aware of the stakes, but also sensible and controlled enough to let frustration constantly eat away at him rather than take action for the sole sake of doing so (which is what makes the inclusion of that rash CIA agent character so bothersome). There's also a sound running subplot that enables the story to retain immediacy when the action shifts back and forth between Toronto and the White House: the Vice President is faced with the difficult decision of whether to authorize payment of Assanti's one-hundred-million-dollar ransom or to stick to his long-standing belief that paying blackmail money would do more long-term harm to the U.S. than a dead president.

Kudos to screenwriter Richard Murphy for not forgoing characterization for minute-by-minute thrills, and also to director George Mendeluk for keeping everything moving at a suitable, workmanlike pace. Mendeluk's directorial debut, the clunky 1979 serial-killer whodunit Stone Cold Dead, was indicative of an artist who loved film but lacked a genuine film sense for what would and would not convincingly play for an audience; it was hampered by its fair share of unintentional laughs, which wound up jarring you right out of the story. Not only does Mendeluk demonstrate better sense this time around, but better control and timing, too -- the action sequences don't suffer due to a lack of covering shots, and there's greater precision to the scene transitions. (This could be due to Mendeluk having a seventy-five-percent bigger budget than he did with Dead, and a shooting schedule of two months instead of only one.) If he doesn't quite have it in him to generate the kind of sustained tension from start to finish that, say, Roger Donaldson managed in 1987's No Way Out, he's uncommonly economical with his choice of shots, which are almost always spot-on. But his handling of the race-against-the-clock finale (which involves a bomb set to go off) is only so-so: while it's admirable that he cuts away from the last twenty seconds so as to keep us in suspense as to whether the hero succeeds, his decision to chop off whole minutes, rather than seconds, off the last ten minutes preceding the explosion dissipates some of the suspense. (Mendeluk could have taken some pointers from Richard Lester's excellent 1974 Juggernaut, which still boasts unrivaled bomb-dismantling sequences.)

The Kidnapping of the President is uneven yet assured, occasionally negligible yet consistently entertaining. The catchy story premise alone is enough to garner interest, but without the seriousness of Mendeluk's intent and the quartet of superb performances by Holbrook, Shatner, Fernandes, and Girling it would be just a routine thriller minus the crucial human dimension that lends welcome semblances of gravitas to the proceedings. Mendeluk can be his own worst enemy in overaccentuating emotional moments that manage to go from affecting to maudlin at the turn of a tide (with Paul Zaza's score cranking up the saccharine factor to the nth degree); and his failure to harness the grossly emotive performances by veteran actors Van Johnson as the indecisive Vice President and Ava Gardner as his conniving wife threatens to relegate the film to the level of camp on more than one occasion. (Almost as potentially campy is Douglas Higgins' art direction of the Oval Office: hands-down the worst replica of it I've ever laid eyes on.) However, there are plenty of standout moments that manage to balance out the excesses: a breathtaking opening shot high above a mist-covered Argentine jungle; O'Connor's bravura speech to the Toronto police to concentrate on the face, rather than the body, of suspicious characters; Assanti's seductive wooing of a female comrade right before he slits her throat; the president's take-no-shit candor with his captor; and a beautiful moment where O'Connor has to decide whether or not to shoot down a religious zealot jeopardizing the president's life by running toward the truck. The film is no classic by any means, but it's ultimately recommendable because it overcomes a lot and scores considerably more than it misses. A perfectly fine achievement, this.

See it.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=9580&reviewer=327
originally posted: 05/07/04 07:36:24
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User Comments

5/12/07 mr. mike recall it being fair to middling 3 stars
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  15-Aug-1980 (R)
  DVD: 07-Nov-2000



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