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3 reviews, 21 user ratings

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by Jack Sommersby

"A Weak 'Witness'"
2 stars

How it won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay is beyond me.

If you're more than willing to check your brain at the door and ignore numerous logic loopholes, the cross-cultural Pennsylvania-set crime drama Witness should float your bubble because it is moderately entertaining, but it could have been so much more if it had been put through the typewriter a few more times. The way the movie plays out, the mere concept of "big-city cop finds himself hiding out and living with the Amish" alone has been expected to carry the day, and so crucial elements that needed solidity have been passed off with hardly any semblances of ratiocination, so it's quite difficult to take the proceedings with a whole lot of seriousness. Which is a shame because the first thirty minutes or so are mostly superb, though the confident editing rhythms slack off and Witness becomes awfully episodic. After her deceased husband has been laid to rest, the Amish widow Rachel Lapp (played by Kelly McGillis) and her nine-year-old son Samuel (Lucas Haas) are taking a train to Baltimore to see her sister when they're faced with a lengthy delay in the Philadelphia depot; Samuel goes to the restroom and is in a stall when two men, one white and one black, enter and subsequently slash the throat of a man washing his face in the sink - through a slat in the stall, Samuel can see the face of the latter. The police are called, and Captain John Book (Harrison Ford) arrives and takes charge. He and his partner Milton Carter (Brent Jennings) question Samuel who recounts what he saw, and though reluctant to stay in the city but legally obligated to being that the child is a material witness to a homicide involving an undercover narcotics officer, Book puts them up in his sister's place. Samuel is put before a police line-up of possible suspects but for naught; it's only when he's wandering through the station that he's able to identify the black man from a photograph in a department trophy case - the man is in fact a decorated narcotics detective who's officially on vacation in Florida. (Why wasn't Samuel immediately sat down with a sketch artist, which would've resulted in a much faster identification?) And everything goes to hell soon thereafter when Book relays this information to his superior and former partner Schaeffer (Josef Sommer), who it turns out is the mastermind behind a twenty-two-million-dollar operation involving selling fifty-five gallon jugs of confiscated speed from a police locker; Book is subsequently ambushed in his apartment parking garage, where he's shot in the side but successfully chases off the cop killer McFee (Danny Glover). Realizing Schaeffer has sold him out, a wounded Book calls Carter to tell him to get rid of the witness paperwork and picks up Rachel and Samuel and drives them in the middle of the night to their farm. Due to massive loss of blood Book collapses, and he's taken in by the Amish and cared for, and it's here where the clash-of-cultures thing kicks in, and the movie becomes more conceptual than contextual.

Why on earth Book just doesn't take the endangered Lapps to the Philadelphia FBI field office for protection is anyone's guess. And so is McFee and his partner choosing to murder that officer in a public restroom when anyone could've walked in. Why is Book marked for murder before Samuel being that Book has told Schaeffer the child's exact whereabouts at his sister's? Why is going to an investigative reporter brought up and then conveniently dropped? If later on Book's partner is killed to make it look like in the line of duty, why wasn't the murdered narcotic's cop done in similar fashion? And then there's a contrived bit where Book gets into a fight with locals who pick on the Amish for their pacifistic beliefs just so a local cop can report it and thus alert Schaeffer to his whereabouts. Time and time again in Witness you're left scratching your head wondering why so much in the way of basic common sense has been so blatantly ignored. The answer is easy, of course - because there wouldn't be a movie otherwise. The screenwriters, William Kelly and Earl W. Wallace, who conceived the story with Wallace's wife Pamela, are TV-series veterans whose first feature-film effort this is, and it shows. While the dialogue is oftentimes par for the course, the plot mechanics are creaky to say the very least, and is it unreasonable to yearn for something even remotely plausible being that so much talent in the acting and technical departments has gone into it? The Australian director Peter Weir, whose much-heralded art-house picture The Last Wave was heavy-handedly metaphysical and The Year of Living Dangerously sententious, chucks overly-arty aspirations for once and does an unfussy, clean, assured piece of work. Working with fellow Aussie cinematographer John Seale, the composer Maurice Jarre, the editor Thom Noble, Weir has fashioned a handsome production with an acute eye for interesting detail, and so much so you're eager to get behind the picture for it to succeed, but what hoary hokum you're expected to swallow! When Schaeffer and his two shotgun-toting goons finally arrive at the Lapps' farm we get McFee stepping in hog manure and his partner entering a grain silo with weapon raised high when he can clearly see no one is above. And Schaeffer, holding Rachel hostage at gunpoint, all of a sudden having pangs of conscience is unconvincing. Witness lacks organic clarity - you can only genuinely respond to it on a purely surface level, and while it's pictorially lovely you can see right through the damn thing because you're constantly saying to yourself, "Why don't the characters act more sensibly?" Ultimately, the whole thing is repellent, and what's repellent is, for all the talent that went in to it, its sophomoric disregard for basic common sense. A great many critics have certainly positively responded to it, but is it because so many of the day's movies have been dire that they're willing to embrace something as specious as this because it portends to be "serious"?

And it's a shame Witness is underwhelming because Harrison Ford does what's possibly his finest screen work. Taking a break from his larger-than-life heroics as Han Solo and Indiana Jones he seems to relish playing a straight-laced three-dimensional character for once, and he acquits himself wonderfully and without strain. He succeeds in making Book innately honest without going didactic on us - we accept his dedication as a cop to do nothing but good and chagrin at Schaeffer's disloyalty in going to the "other side." It's sometimes problematic in conveying a hero's righteousness without acting in italics, and if there's a single false note in Ford's performance I for one didn't spot it. He even manages to get something of a romantic rapport going with an actress as wooden and remote as McGillis, who's all technique and little spontaneity - he's "natural" while she's "studied." (In just two brief scenes as Book's sister, that stage actress Patti LaPone has a much more commanding presence: she's alert whereas McGillis is remote. Besides, Sally Field and James Garner had considerably more chemistry in a rural setting earlier in the year in the marvelous "Murphy's Romance.") And little Lucas Haas is that rare child actor thankfully devoid of precociousness - he's so sweetly appealing you wish a whole movie could've been centered around Book and Samuel. Witness isn't a total loss. The standout scene is a superbly staged one where Samuel identifies McFee, with Weir adeptly using slow motion and cutting to make it a riveting piece of understated work; and the gritty Philadelphia exteriors are nicely contrasted with the idyllic farmland ones - Weir can certainly do texture, but he could do something about his judgment, for there are too many scenes that lack girth and proper dimension. He's serving the material diligently, but a real artist can see through the muck and make something considerably more than what's been shabbily written, and as persuasively handled as Witness is you can see right through it - it's quintessential matter-over-manner. (Note: there's a barn-raising bit right out of Stanley Donen's 1954 Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and it's no accident that the Wallaces scripted an episode of its TV-series knockoff.) Is Witness recommendable? I don't know. You want to surrender to its visual allure, but at the same time you can't help resisting the number it's trying to put over on you. Granted, except for McGillis the casting is spot-on, and the movie is never boring, but ultimately it's too much of a lost cause because the writers have dumbed things down to the point where you have to abandon what should be sacred to a moviegoer: their sense of pride. To grant Witness respectability you in a way have to give away a part of you that takes genuine art seriously, and that's a sacrifice no one should have to partake in.

Ford's and Weir's 1986 follow-up "The Mosquito Coast" was more interesting.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=5864&reviewer=327
originally posted: 09/14/20 20:00:52
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User Comments

1/24/20 Kate The barn dance scene is a beautiful highlight 5 stars
7/05/17 Suzanne Saw it again after 32 years; the music, the romance, the story - still great 5 stars
6/11/07 al smith excellent movie ford should have won best actor oscar 4 stars
11/04/06 MP Bartley Classy and intelligent filmmaking. A superior picture of the 1980s. 5 stars
5/16/06 Josh Standlee Worse than Firewall! Amish people do not belong in action movies! Fuck this shit! 1 stars
8/10/05 fob_kween Pretty Shit 1 stars
5/31/05 Naree Very good culture mix 4 stars
10/15/04 LS not very good acting 1 stars
9/01/04 A upton Mick Jagger can`t sing,,and is ugly,,,but damn would I like to be in his shoes. 5 stars
8/14/04 dish ur a mole 4 stars
5/31/04 graham plathworhy this movie is a terriffic indicator of the ideals of life and the jorney of john book 5 stars
5/30/04 Frazier Entertaining but unrealistic how Amish would behave--McGillis in the nude is pure Hollywood 3 stars
4/14/04 Judy Good cinematography - useful educationally 4 stars
2/24/04 Dr.Lecter Interesting culture study, and good-hearted 4 stars
3/08/03 Jack Sommersby Entertaining but stupidly plotted. Ford is exquisite. 3 stars
2/07/03 natasha_theobald sweetly subtle and well-crafted romance, drama, thriller 5 stars
8/21/02 Jerry Well gone movie 4 stars
5/20/02 Charles Tatum Very good, with Weir's underrated direction. 4 stars
5/19/02 R.W. Welch Harrowing, well-told tale with strong performancs all around. 5 stars
4/05/02 Zargo A grat movie of the 80s, with probably Harrison Ford's best performance ever 5 stars
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  08-Feb-1985 (R)
  DVD: 23-Aug-2005



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