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1 review, 4 user ratings

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by Jack Sommersby

"A Film That Mirrors its Post-Production Troubles"
2 stars

Starts out acceptably, but it grows illogical and asinine and never recovers.

After a smashing success with his mesmerizing 1981 police thriller Sharky's Machine, Burt Reynolds' star had ascended to an all-time high. In both starring in and directing that screen adaptation of William Diehl's excellent novel, Reynolds demonstrated not only an unexpected assuredness and style behind the camera but a considerable force and touching vulnerability in front of it. But he quickly squandered the considerable goodwill worked up there with the lackluster comedies Best Friends and Stroker Ace (a film he opted to star in as a favor to Smokey and the Bandit director Hal Needham, even though that meant having to turn down the plum role in Terms of Endearment that won Jack Nicholson an Academy Award); and his supposedly unbeatable pairing with Clint Eastwood in the production-plagued City Heat laid a major goose egg. So Reynolds, a consummate artist when not coasting on charisma in unchallenging star vehicles like The Cannonball Run and Paternity, opted to direct and star in another screen adaptation -- this one based on best-selling crime novelist Elmore Leonard's Stick. Alas, the production, like that of City Heat's, was quite the troubled one: after turning in his original cut to Universal Pictures, the studio, unhappy with Reynolds' presumable faithfulness to the source material (the novel, after all, functioned more as a wry fish-out-of-water black comedy than a crime thriller), forked out an additional three-million dollars for Reynolds to incorporate more action sequences into the mix; and Reynolds' deteriorating health -- stemming from an excruciatingly painful jaw injury incurred during a stunt-gone-awry in City Heat that led to an addiction to painkillers -- was more than apparent with his dramatic weight loss and overall gaunt appearance (though his donning a pink Members Only jacket in a couple of scenes was his own unwise doing).

At first, though, Reynolds' performance seems perfectly in keeping with the title character of Ernest "Stick" Stickley, who's been recently released from a Detroit prison after serving a seven-year stint for armed robbery and has arrived in Miami. From the opening credits till about the twenty-minute mark, the audience is afforded not a distinctly original character in Stick, but a distinct character nonetheless. Reynolds plays him low-key -- almost subliminally so -- as if Stick had just awoken in a foreign country, unsure exactly how to act and react in the modernized '80s; bearded and clad in a listless suit jacket and hat, Stick has to learn to feel his way through his decisions -- his instinctive streetwise manner is too crass for the posh, contemplative Palm Beach society he soon finds himself in (when he encounters an abrasive "short eyes" at a marina bar, he bashes the man unconscious on the counter right after setting his pants on fire with a book of matches). And he's determined to lead the straight life, because he's got a fifteen-year-old daughter, Katie (Tricia Leigh Fisher), who he wishes to make up years of lost time with, and because he knows a life of crime has cost him not only his marriage, but his self-respect. But he can't help clinging to his "jailblock stubborness" when his ex-cellmate, Rainy (Jose Perez), is viciously killed by an albino hitman named Moke (Dar Robinson) at the bequest of drug trafficker/addict Chuckie (Charles Durning) as retribution to drug kingpin Nester (Castulo Guerra) for his having unknowingly allowed a narc to infiltrate Nester's operation, which resulted in the death of one of Nester's top men. Stick works his way into the employment of millionaire stockbroker Barry Braun (George Segal) as a chauffeur to get at Chuckie, who's been trying to score legitimate deals with Braun.

The big difference between Reynolds' adaptation and Leonard's novel isn't really a contextual one (though a fair amount of liberties have been taken) but one of tonality. Where Leonard is a virtuoso at blending humor and tension into breezy literary mixes about characters who care more about money than morals, Reynolds is something of a fuddy-duddy in that he isolates both of these elements and pounds them home for the sake of producing Movieland "moments." The humor here is not only much broader but downright amateurish at times, especially when it's involving Chuckie's fidgety nervousness around Hester's goons; and even in a comic scene involving Stick and a couple of other chauffeurs conversing on the value of the stock tips overheard from "the back seat," its potential is undercut by the cutting-up of its star, who resorts to tired double takes and mugging for cheap effects. And Reynolds is too blatant in telegraphing the payoffs, so the tension that should be underlining the scenes seems to come and go at the mere invite of Joseph Conlan's embarrassingly revved-up music score. When Leonard's work is successfully captured on film, as it was in 52 Pick-Up, Get Shorty, and Jackie Brown, you can get a real high responding to the dialogue rhythms and textures and behavioral idiosyncrasies of his well-etched crime worlds; but those components are all but bereft in Stick, where everything's been shaped to adhere to a beefed-up revenge plot that possesses not so much as an iota of immediacy and provides no emotional investment for the audience. Toss in a newfound sense of shame heaped upon its hero -- which is about as detrimental here as a garlic necklace around a vampire's neck -- and you have a complete and total breakdown in the basic understanding of what makes Leonard such an irreplaceable (though smug) joy: his sense of irreverence.

Reynolds had his vision severely compromised by the studio, but that still doesn't excuse the pathetic shaping and staging of the sequences; by looking at them you'd swear they couldn't possibly have come from the same Reynolds who delivered such jazzingly-alive ones in Sharky's Machine. When Nester, the main villain, is introduced, the music revs up and the camera pans down to his feet as he steps out of his car right after Rainy's murder and then pans up where he's then silhouetted in profile against a gorgeous sunset while smoking a cigar. (Yep, this is Mr. Big, no doubt!) When Stick is being chased by Moke and another man in a public park, he all of a sudden stops, looks casually around as if he had all the time in the world, and then ducks into a bathroom(!) as a master stroke of elusion; and after disarming one man, he gets to his limo, speeds away, and then stops at an intersection, looks back for Moke to come chasing after in his truck, speeds off, then, instead of driving toward the nearest police station, abandons the car in a deserted part of downtown and runs into an empty indoor-soccer stadium where he can face down a professional hitman unarmed. Yes, you read that right: unarmed. The way the character has been presented, Stick detests guns -- when he disarms someone, he tosses the gun away, even when there's another armed man in the nearby vicinity; during the final confrontation, when Stick infiltrates Nester's high-rise building and systematically takes his bodyguards down, he then reluctantly picks up a machine gun before dealing with Nester himself, but of course he shouldn't have even made it this far considering that in the previous scene, where Moke has Chuckie at gunpoint on a balcony, the unarmed Stick just casually walks out and joins them (it's only because of a panicked Chuckie rushing Moke that Stick survives).

When Stick tries to be a thriller, it's an appalling botch. And when it tries to work as a character study, it's not any better because Reynolds' lead performance is wildly uneven -- there isn't a whisper of tension anywhere in it (though it is appealing in an undemanding sort of way). Luckily, there's plenty to be had in the sprightly performance by Segal as the carefree, megalomaniacal Braun. The way Segal plays him, Braun is simply agog over being rich, of being smart enough to make it while having undiluted fun while doing so; and he makes no qualms about his good fortune -- when he steps off his yacht right outside his mansion, he bellows, "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like a three-and-a-half-million-dollar home!" When Segal's on-screen, he jump-starts the film with a much-needed lifeforce that's reflective of the spirit of Leonard's novel. Able support is also provided by the superb Richard Lawson as Braun's houseman (when he sings "I've Got the Early Morning Erection Blues" while cleaning the pool, it feels like a shot of fresh oxygen) and Candice Bergen as Braun's financial advisor (her calm skewering of a sleazy movie producer's tax-fraud proposal in front of a group of investors is a jewel). But the buck stops with Reynolds' Stick, who simply isn't interesting enough to sustain interest. In the novel, there was fun in having Stick trying to make sense of stock-market terms like "over-the-counter" and trying to blend into a society he had nothing but disdain for; in the film, he's morally superior and has the upper hand on everyone, and that's both unbearable and boring. Stick manages a few good jovial and affecting moments, and its opening segments are reasonably assured, but the follow-through is banal and incompetent enough to make you wish for, well, another Smokey and the Bandit sequel instead.

Would the film have worked without the studio interference? Probably. Leonard himself wrote the original screenplay and let it be known that he disowned the project after re-shoots were ordered, so it's unlikely that Reynolds would have had Leonard adapt his own work if he meant to decimate it later. But it's baffling why Reynolds, a major box-office star at the time (number two, in fact, right behind Clint Eastwood), allowed himself to be bullied into the re-shoots: it doesn't seem plausible that the studio wouldn't have caved to the star's demands had he taken a stand, which is exactly what Leonard publicly abhorred Reynolds for not doing. (One of the advantages Eastwood has is producing his own films through his Malposo company and having Warners Bros. distribute them.) And while Reynolds can't be blamed for the additions by late-to-the-game screenwriter Joseph C. Stinson, he can for the substandard action sequences and letting the social-comedy aspects get a bit too broad at times. Still, Stick has its moments. I admired Reynolds for getting through a father/daughter reconciliation scene without pushing the maudlin buttons, and he and Bergen work up some genuine romantic chemistry -- the relationship itself may not exactly add up, but the two manage to give the impression that it does. He's also to be commended for casting in the role of the psychotic Moke veteran Hollywood stuntman Robinson, who exudes menace and an intensity that just about sears through the screen. Lastly, he had the good sense to have Anne Murray sing the love song "I Don't Think I'm Ready For You" over the closing credits. However imperfect as Stick most certainly is, it at least ends on a lovely note. You just can't go wrong with an Anne Murray love song, ya know.

Check out "Sharky's Machine" instead.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=9611&reviewer=327
originally posted: 05/17/04 11:47:12
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User Comments

8/19/07 mr.mike fairly stunk up the screen , and i'm a burt fan 2 stars
6/13/05 Chuck O'Leary I loved this movie, and found it far more entertaining than the book. 5 stars
9/23/04 Agent Sands Not nearly the best Elmore Leonard movie, but it's still enjoyable. 4 stars
5/18/04 y2mckay Lackluster, but has it's moments. Albino hit-man was cool. SHARKY'S MACHINE was better, tho 3 stars
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  02-Mar-1985 (R)



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