James Woods

Against All Odds (1984, Taylor Hackford)

If Against All Odds had just a few more things going for it, the film might qualify as a glorious disaster. There are a lot of glorious elements to it, even if there aren't quite enough to make it worthwhile. Or even passable.

Hackford's direction is outstanding. He's fully committed to Eric Hughes's terrible script. It doesn't matter if it's plotting, logic or characters, Hughes can't do any of them. Odds is three films stuck together–Jeff Bridges as an injured football player (an absurdly old one) who has to figure out what to do with his life, Bridges and Rachel Ward's travelogue romance in scenic Mexico, and then a good old fashioned L.A. city corruption story. Actually, the first and last tie together somewhat; it's the lengthy Mexican sojourn where Odds uses up most of its goodwill.

It gets that goodwill partially from Hackford, who's got great photography from Donald E. Thorin and outstanding music from Michel Colombier and Larry Carlton. Odds always looks good and sounds good. But there's an excellent supporting cast–James Woods is phenomenal, Richard Widmark's great, Jane Greer, Swoosie Kurtz, Saul Rubinek–they're all good. The problem's the leads. Ward is awful. Sure, Hughes writes her as an object and can't figure out her character motivation, but she's still awful. Bridges isn't any good for similar reasons; silly writing, nonsense story arc. But at least he's likable.

There are a couple moments where all the good things collide and Odds is sublime.

There needed to be more.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Taylor Hackford; screenplay by Eric Hughes, based on a film written by Daniel Mainwaring; director of photography, Donald E. Thorin; edited by Fredric Steinkamp and William Steinkamp; music by Michel Colombier and Larry Carlton; production designer, Richard Lawrence; produced by William S. Gilmore and Hackford; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Terry Brogan), Rachel Ward (Jessie Wyler), James Woods (Jake Wise), Alex Karras (Hank Sully), Jane Greer (Mrs. Wyler), Richard Widmark (Ben Caxton), Dorian Harewood (Tommy), Swoosie Kurtz (Edie) and Saul Rubinek (Steve Kirsch).


Best Seller (1987, John Flynn)

Best Seller either isn’t sleazy enough or it isn’t glitzy enough.

Larry Cohen’s script about a cop who writes true crime books teaming up with a hitman desperate to be the subject of such a book needs something distinctive about it. Leads Brian Dennehy and James Woods are okay, but Cohen’s script doesn’t give them anything to do in the roles. Woods can amp it up to impress, but Dennehy looks like he’s just watching the events play out most of the time.

The problem–besides the script being really slight–is director Flynn. He can’t shoot good action scenes, he can’t shoot good dialogue scenes… he wastes every opportunity in the picture. Seller is bland, down to Jay Ferguson’s music and Fred Murphy’s photography. Some of the second unit shots are the most impressive in the film.

But there’s also the lack of supporting characters. It’s practically a road movie, with Woods and Dennehy traveling the country while Dennehy does research, only they don’t meet anyone interesting. Kathleen Lloyd pops in as Woods’s sister and doesn’t even have a line. Mary Carver plays his mom and only has three….

It’s not any better on Dennehy’s side. Victoria Tennant plays his agent, but she’s got nothing to do except occasionally be terrified or dumb.

Paul Shenar makes a good villain–but Shenar always makes a good villain–and his Mr. Big barely gets any time.

Woods and Dennehy are sometimes great together, but Flynn’s completely inept at making Cohen schlock.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Flynn; written by Larry Cohen; director of photography, Fred Murphy; edited by David Rosenbloom; music by Jay Ferguson; production designer, Gene Rudolf; produced by Carter DeHaven; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring James Woods (Cleve), Brian Dennehy (Dennis Meechum), Victoria Tennant (Roberta Gillian), Allison Balson (Holly Meechum), Paul Shenar (David Madlock), George Coe (Graham), Anne Pitoniak (Mrs. Foster), Mary Carver (Cleve’s mother), Sully Boyar (Monks), Kathleen Lloyd (Annie), Charles Tyner (Cleve’s Father), Jeffrey Josephson (Pearlman) and Seymour Cassel (Carter).


The Hard Way (1991, John Badham)

From the opening titles, it’s clear The Hard Way is going to have a lot of technical personality. The opening is set to the sounds of a street festival, the New York streets wet with rain and the neon lights vibrant.

Director Badham’s composition is excellent, Frank Morriss and Tony Lombardo’s editing is tight and the photography (either from Donald McAlpine or Robert Primes–it’s impossible to know who, Badham replaced Primes mid-shoot) is outstanding.

Only, it’s Taxi Driver. They’re ripping off Taxi Driver. It’s sort of appropriate, I guess, since the film goes on to rip off Dirty Harry for its villain.

But the film’s hook is Michael J. Fox, as an obnoxious movie star, tagging along with James Woods’s hard-boiled detective. Both Fox and Woods are perfect for the roles, able to transition when the film requires their characters to develop. Their chemistry is outstanding, which gets the film in trouble when it keeps them apart.

The filmmakers foolishly try to make the storyline plausible, inserting some pointless subplots. The most superfluous is the one with Fox bonding with Woods’s erstwhile girlfriend (an amiable, if underused, Annabella Sciorra). They pad a lot… and then feel the need to give the movie around four false endings.

But it’s pleasant and endearing throughout. The great supporting cast–Luis Guzmán and Delroy Lindo in particular–help. Stephen Lang chews the scenery as the villain; he’s never scary (or realistic) but always amusing.

And Arthur B. Rubinstein’s score is swell.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Badham; screenplay by Daniel Pyne and Lem Dobbs, based on a story by Dobbs and Michael Kozoll; directors of photography, Donald McAlpine and Robert Primes; edited by Tony Lombardo and Frank Morriss; music by Arthur B. Rubinstein; production designer, Philip Harrison; produced by Rob Cohen and William Sackheim; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Nick Lang), James Woods (Detective Lt. John Moss), Stephen Lang (The Party Crasher), Annabella Sciorra (Susan), Christina Ricci (Bonnie), John Capodice (Detective Grainy), Luis Guzmán (Detective Benny Pooley), LL Cool J (Detective Billy), Mary Mara (Detective China), Delroy Lindo (Captain Brix), Conrad Roberts (Witherspoon) and Penny Marshall (Angie).


The Specialist (1994, Luis Llosa)

Technically speaking, the best thing about The Specialist is probably John Barry’s score. Except he ripped off his James Bond scores and threw in some of his Body Heat music. Neither mood fits The Specialist, which isn’t glamorous enough to be Bond and isn’t sexy. I would have liked to say “isn’t sexy enough to be Body Heat” but The Specialist just plain isn’t sexy.

It’s supposed to be sexy, given how much emphasis director Llosa puts on stars Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone in various stages of undress (not to mention the two carry on some painful phone flirting), but it isn’t. While Llosa’s direction is lame and both Stallone and Stone are bad (Stone’s worse), Llosa simply doesn’t realize the picture right.

It might be sexy if it were about a broken-down ex-CIA assassin and a damaged woman who’s prostituting herself to avenge her dead parents (long story). But The Specialist treats Stallone and Stone as megastars, not people. The scenes where James Woods–in a great performance as the bad guy–berates her and Stone actually gets to show emotion, those scenes almost work. They suggest a film worthy of a good John Barry knock-off score.

Eric Roberts costars as her target and he’s nearly good. Alexandra Seros’s script is too laughable for anyone (save Woods, who mixes insanity and mocking contempt) to actually be good.

As for Rod Steiger’s Cuban gangster? He’d be funny if he weren’t such offensively bad.

The Specialist‘s awful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Luis Llosa; screenplay by Alexandra Seros, suggested by novels by John Shirley; director of photography, Jeffrey L. Kimball; edited by Jack Hofstra; music by John Barry; production designer, Walter P. Martishius; produced by Jerry Weintraub; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Ray Quick), Sharon Stone (May Munro), James Woods (Ned Trent), Rod Steiger (Joe Leon) and Eric Roberts (Tomas Leon).


Vampires (1998, John Carpenter)

Vampires is a mess.

I mean, there’s some good stuff in it, but it feels like the least interesting parts of the characters’ stories. There’s a little bit of sequel setup–and the never happened sequel seems a lot better–but so does a prequel to the film’s events.

It takes place over a couple days and a lot happens in them. To fill the audience in, Carpenter has a bunch of expository scenes. While they’re not terrible, they’re just James Woods swearing a lot and beating up Tim Guinee. Woods and Carpenter sell the scenes… it’s just unfortunate the scenes are so narratively unnatural.

Carpenter opens with a big vampire battle scene, introduces his characters, then proceeds to kill off most of them. He leaves Woods and Daniel Baldwin. Woods is the lead, so he has to stick around. But Baldwin? He’s not even a sidekick. Almost immediately after the movie’s done with its setup, Baldwin’s off babysitting Sheryl Lee as she turns into a vampire.

The babysitting scenes are really, really boring.

A lot of the problem is Carpenter’s approach to vampires. They’re very bestial, but by dehumanizing them, they don’t make good villains. There’s not a single scary moment in the film and some of the scenes–the vampires digging themselves out of the ground–just look silly.

The performances are okay. Guinee’s good, Baldwin and Lee have really good moments. Maximilian Schell is bad.

Nice cinematography from Gary B. Kibbe. Carpenter’s totally dispassionate, but still professional.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Don Jakoby, based on a novel by John Steakley; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Edward A. Warschilka; music by Carpenter; production designer, Thomas A. Walsh; produced by Sandy King; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring James Woods (Jack Crow), Daniel Baldwin (Anthony Montoya), Sheryl Lee (Katrina), Thomas Ian Griffith (Jan Valek), Maximilian Schell (Cardinal Alba), Tim Guinee (Father Adam Guiteau), Mark Boone Junior (Catlin) and Gregory Sierra (Father Giovanni).


Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010, Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery)

The new wave of superhero cartoons for, ostensibly, adults (because they’re rated PG-13) has turned out a handful of decent pictures. The directors of this one, Montgomery and Liu, separately, directed the entirety of that handful. So I thought I’d try it for them. Plus, this one’s written by Dwayne McDuffie, who’s a comic book writer and produced that “Justice League” cartoon everyone says is so good. After Crisis on Two Earths, I’m doubtful.

The film’s not just lame or poorly plotted (the dialogue isn’t incompetent), it’s stupid. There’s no first act, but there’s a story too big not to have one. It feels like an episode of a cartoon, really. A very special episode of a cartoon, which isn’t worth my giving it the attention of something attempting to be a feature.

And Mark Harmon’s awful as Superman. James Woods’s silly as the evil Batman, but Harmon’s just terrible. He might be the ruining factor, actually. Harmon’s casting seems a result of his being a team leader on a TV show and he’s the team leader here. But his voice is old sounding, so it doesn’t match Superman’s appearance, and it’s really just not forceful enough. He doesn’t sound like Superman.

With the exception of these cartoons actually recommended to me, I only watch them because they’re short and occasionally have good voice acting and I always get some crank leaving negative comments to my negative response to the film.

Sorry, I meant cartoon. In the pejorative sense.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery; written by Dwayne McDuffie; edited by Margaret Hou; music by James L. Venable; produced by Bobbie Page; released by Warner Premiere.

Starring Mark Harmon (Superman), James Woods (Owlman), Chris Noth (Lex Luthor), William Baldwin (Batman), Josh Keaton (The Flash), Gina Torres (Super Woman), Nolan North (Green Lantern / Power Ring), James Patrick Stuart (Johnny Quick), Brian Bloom (Ultraman), Jonathan Adams (Martian Manhunter) and Bruce Davison (President Slade Wilson).


Diggstown (1992, Michael Ritchie)

I forgot MGM still made movies in the 1990s. The aura of bankruptcy and failure has surrounded Leo for so long… it’s distracting. I remember my Diggstown laserdisc sleeve. It’s been at least ten years since I’ve seen the movie. It’s still a great time and I’m left, as I always was when finishing it, perplexed. How did James Woods not have a successful film career as a leading man? Diggstown might have even his last major lead role.

Diggstown has a large cast–figure twenty recognizable cast members–and the casting is brilliant. It might have been the first movie I ever saw Oliver Platt in. The film’s broken up into three parts (not the acts, however). The prison prologue, the set-up, then the long boxing sequence (Louis Gossett Jr. fighting ten guys, which is why the cast is so large). Each section feels different, with Woods owning the prologue, but Platt getting the most attention in the opening of the set-up. It’s a bombastic role and Platt’s perfect for it. There isn’t a bad performance in the entire film (Ritchie’s a fine director of actors), but the acting from Platt, Woods and Gossett is just amazing. Each one of them turn in singular performances–so it’s unfortunate Diggstown doesn’t offer them much more to do.

The film’s funny, endearing and constantly enjoyable, but there’s a certain lack of depth to it. There’s nuance in the film–when Gossett and Woods meet up at the beginning, they’re having an intricately guarded conversation, combining the acting, the direction and the editing. But the nuance doesn’t carry over to the film. It has a simple close. There isn’t much opportunity for a deeper story here, but there’s some (the flirtation between Woods and Heather Graham evaporates as the boxing part of the film begins).

Instead, it’s just a good time, with a great, self-aware performance from Bruce Dern. I’m not always a fan, but when Dern’s on, he’s really on. The supporting cast–John Short, Duane Davis, even Michael DeLorenzo–has some standouts as well.

Diggstown is a well put together film–Ritchie doesn’t have a single unsure directorial moment, every move is confident–and it makes Diggstown one of the finer junior members of the era’s films. Diggstown is a contained, inclusive filmic narrative–the viewer isn’t supposed to engage with Woods as a celebrity, only his performance. There’s even a “Roots” reference and, even if it was supposed to be an in-joke with Gossett, it doesn’t come off as one.

Before I finish up, I need to mention James Newton Howard’s score. The score’s great, really changing pace as the film does–not only does Diggstown have those twenty or so characters for the viewer to remember, it has a lot of locations too–Howard keeps up with everything, developing the score inline with the narrative.

On one hand, I wish Diggstown had a little more depth–the film has room for it, Ritchie and the cast can certainly handle it, but maybe not… It’s a solid, smart, well-made comedy. I remember when I first saw it, on videotape, I couldn’t wait to see what Woods and Platt did next. Platt did well enough, Woods provided a frequent disappointment. Even this time through, sixteen years after it came out, it’s hard not to be excited at the talent on display in the film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Ritchie; screenplay by Steven McKay, based on a novel by Leonard Wise; director of photography, Gerry Fisher; edited by Don Zimmerman; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Stephen Hendrickson; produced by Robert Schaffel; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.

Starring James Woods (Gabriel Caine), Louis Gossett Jr. (Roy Palmer), Bruce Dern (John Gillon), Oliver Platt (Fitz), Heather Graham (Emily Forrester), Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb (Wolf Forrester), Thomas Wilson Brown (Robby Gillon), Duane Davis (Hambone Busby), David Fresco (Fish) and Willie Green (Hammerhead Hagan).


True Believer (1989, Joseph Ruben)

True Believer is never quite anything it sets out for (story-wise)–it’s not the story of a lost man finding his way, it’s not a legal drama, it’s not the story of a young lawyer spurning riches for morals. Instead, it’s a courtroom movie with corruption, chase scenes through metal shops, a great Brad Fiedel score and some wonderful New York location shooting. It’s a Hollywood movie, but one with an energetic James Woods running the show and a (just) smart enough script. Wesley Strick almost seems to know he’s using genre standards, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s using them really effectively. However, it’s kind of impossible (Strick’s premeditation) because he couldn’t have known it’d be Woods or Joseph Ruben directing or Fiedel’s score and all three are essential. The score’s a funny thing to be essential, but Fiedel gives Woods’s civil rights lawyer turned drug defender (the first ten minutes play like the unseen “Practice” pilot) a hero’s theme. It’s like Superman or something and it’s a great choice, because Woods does great things playing a hero here.

Woods is not the whole show, however, which is kind of odd, given his presence. Woods is so good, almost nothing else (except Ruben and Fiedel and Strick’s mainstream competence) matter. The movie’s not short–running almost an hour and fifty–and it’s beautifully paced. There’s no pacing mistakes here, if anything, it occasionally gets too short. The big “mistake” is Robert Downey Jr.’s character, who’s in the film to introduce the audience to Woods and get him on the path of righteousness again. Besides some later discoveries and some important observations, Downey has almost nothing to do. He and Woods play well off each other, but he’s a cog in the script. Even worse, he’s new to town so he’s got no texture… the movie never even explains where he, unpaid, lives (especially since Woods’s lawyer lives in his office).

Downey is in the movie because he needs to be there, much like Margaret Colin’s detective. She’s there because Woods–as a defense attorney–needs a detective; he’s got a sidekick, a detective and a cop buddy who always lets him in the evidence room. Strick’s not reinventing the wheel here, just setting it up for–with a solid production–a good spin. The supporting cast is all great–really great. Tom Bower’s got a five or six minute part and he practically got tears out of me. Same goes for Yuji Okumoto as the (of course) innocent client. Very few big scenes, but he makes the most of them–holding up against Woods, which is no small feat here. Kurtwood Smith’s a good adversary, since it’s Kurtwood Smith, and Charles Hallahan has a nice part… so does Graham Beckel, who has a tiny part with a lot of room for effect. Strick’s plotting is so good, these actors can come in for just a few minutes but have these incredibly successful scenes.

At one point, in the third act, it seems like True Believer might elevate to a higher Hollywood level. It doesn’t, after coming real close. But it wouldn’t have been particularly special, and as a Woods vehicle and a well-produced mainstream legal thriller, it does a fine job.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joseph Ruben; written by Wesley Strick; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by George Bowers; music by Brad Fiedel; production designer, Lawrence Miller; produced by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring James Woods (Eddie Dodd), Robert Downey Jr. (Roger Baron), Margaret Colin (Kitty Greer), Yuji Okumoto (Shu Kai Kim), Kurtwood Smith (Robert Reynard), Tom Bower (Cecil Skell), Miguel Fernandes (Art Esparza), Charles Hallahan (Vincent Dennehy), Sully Diaz (Maraquilla Esparza), Misan Kim (Mrs. Kim), John Snyder (Chuckie Loeder), Luis Guzmán (Ortega) and Graham Beckel (Vinny Sklaroff).


Badge of the Assassin (1985, Mel Damski)

Mel Damski, if Badge of the Assassin is any indication, might be the finest TV movie director ever (who never went on to good theatrical films anyway). He understands composition, camera movement, editing–how to let actors do what actors do–beautifully. Badge of the Assassin looks like a TV movie and that description is, thanks in large part to Damski, not at all a pejorative. Admittedly, he has a lot of help. The film’s perfectly as cast, top to bottom. Alex Rocco, Larry Riley, Richard Bradford, all three are particularly good, but there are no bad performances. David Harris is real good too.

But the film really belongs to Yaphet Kotto. Even though James Woods gets a lot to do, he never gets as much to do as Kotto… and he doesn’t get to do it as long. It’s sort of cheap, since the film’s about black militants killing cops and Kotto’s a black cop struggling to understand. Woods’s basically just the driven district attorney, not wanting to disappoint the grieving widow (and the film’s source book is from the real district attorney, so it’d be interesting if the Kotto emphasis was in there too). However, regardless of what a terrible film McQ is… screenwriter Lawrence Roman is of a definite pedigree and his influence is probably significant.

The script is another area Badge really makes a model TV movie. The character content, which is considerable–scenes with Rocco, Woods and Kotto all have a lot of weight–occurs over a really long time. The film’s present action is something like four years. Besides the first act establishing of the characters, nothing is known about what happens in their lives other than in relation to the case at hand. It’s precise, not sweeping. Damski’s a master at knowing how best tell that precise account… and Roman’s script really focuses on the best possible way to get the lengthy period into ninety-four minutes.

Adding to the film–and I’m not not mentioning Woods because he isn’t great, but because it’s depressing how good he used to be (before he came a personality with Casino)–is the location shooting. It helps immensely, forcing the viewer to engage with the reality of what’s on the screen in front of him or her.

In the end, Badge of the Assassin sort of runs out of time. It doesn’t run out of story so much as it runs out of scenes it can enact well. It’s a good looking film, though, with some great acting.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Damski; screenplay by Lawrence Roman, from the book by Robert K. Tannenbaum and Philip Rosenberg; director of photography, John Lindsay; edited by Andrew Cohen; music by Tom Scott; produced by Daniel H. Blatt and Robert Singer; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring James Woods (Bob Tannenbaum), Yaphet Kotto (Cliff Fenton), Alex Rocco (Bill Butler), David Harris (Lester Bertram Day), Steven Keats (Harold Skelton), Larry Riley (Herman Bell), Pam Grier (Alie Horn), Rae Dawn Chong (Christine Horn), Richard Bradford (L.J. Delsa), Kene Holliday (Washington), Toni Kalem (Diana Piagentini), Tamu Blackwell (Gloria Lapp), Richard Brooks (Tony Bottom), Akosua Busia (Ruth) and Alan Blumenfeld (Charlie).


Eyewitness (1981, Peter Yates)

Eyewitness gets a lot of abuse.

Peter Yates has become a punch-line to many a film joke, usually by people who love Breaking Away and don’t remember he did it. Eyewitness is an incredibly odd film–and not entirely successful, the protagonist (William Hurt) tends to talk to Sigourney Weaver straight from the id, no filtering. Her character is the film’s most complex (since the whole situation deals in a gray area of morality) and Weaver doesn’t always get it. There are a few scenes where she does, and it’s beautiful.

This film is incredibly gentle. It’s all about the character relationships. Writer Steve Tesich (also Breaking Away) even gives the cops personal conflicts, which is a little too much. But there’s a lot to appreciate in Eyewitness‘s indulgences. It makes for an odd experience–though Hurt’s character is so unbelievably straight-forward, it’s one of his best performances. Hurt tends not to play the identifiable character and, seeing him do it, is a special experience.

As for the mystery/thriller aspect of the film… it’s not really there, which may be why there’s such a hostility to the film. There’s a contract between artist and reader (or viewer) and Eyewitness does not deliver what the title (or the poster) promise. The score, or lack thereof, lets the viewer know the contract’s broken in the opening titles. I’m not much a stickler about the title contract when it comes to film (Pearl Harbor, for example, broke the shit out of it too, and so did Star Wars for that matter).

I’ve recommended Eyewitness in the past and had people look at me funny after watching it. Not every film needs to break your heart (like The Missouri Breaks). Hell, films don’t even have to engage your intelligence (Animal Crackers). But films do need to make your invested time worthwhile–and Eyewitness does. Just not if you’re looking for a mystery/thriller, rather a story about people.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Peter Yates; written by Steve Tesich; director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Cynthia Scheider; music by Stanley Silverman; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring William Hurt (Daryll Deever), Sigourney Weaver (Tony Sokolow), Christopher Plummer (Joseph), James Woods (Aldo), Irene Worth (Mrs. Sokolow), Kenneth McMillan (Mr. Deever), Pamela Reed (Linda), Albert Paulsen (Mr. Sokolow), Steven Hill (Lieutenant Jacobs), Morgan Freeman (Lieutenant Black) and Alice Drummond (Mrs. Deever).


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