Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Cannon Files: 52 PICK-UP (1986)

(US - 1986)

Directed by John Frankenheimer.  Written by Elmore Leonard and John Steppling.  Cast: Roy Scheider, Ann-Margret, Vanity, John Glover, Clarence Williams III, Robert Trebor, Doug McClure, Kelly Preston, Lonny Chapman. (R, 110 mins)

"Something about your face makes me wanna slap the shit out of it" - Roy Scheider as Harry Mitchell in 52 PICK-UP

Cannon honchos Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were at the pinnacle of their success in 1985-86.  Hits like MISSING IN ACTION, AMERICAN NINJA, DEATH WISH 3, and THE DELTA FORCE, to name just a few, made Cannon titles an almost weekly presence in movie theaters.  On top of that, Golan & Globus started to get more ambitious, fancying themselves modern-day movie moguls and using the profits from their commercial hits to finance more highbrow material, and they seemed to rely on Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky to make that happen.  Sure, they occasionally tried more serious films like Jason Miller's THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON (1982), but it wasn't until the mid-1980s that Golan and Globus got serious about Cannon being a prestigious name.  In quick succession, Konchalovsky directed MARIA'S LOVERS (1984), RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985), DUET FOR ONE (1986), and SHY PEOPLE (1987) for Cannon, with RUNAWAY TRAIN earning Oscar nominations for stars Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, and SHY PEOPLE winning a Best Actress award for Barbara Hershey at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.  With the exception of RUNAWAY TRAIN, audiences pretty much ignored these films, and Konchalovsky moved on, unsuccessfully trying to adapt to the Hollywood game with 1989's TANGO & CASH in one of the most egregiously bizarre mismatchings of director and material in all of cinema.  It didn't work, and though Konchalovsky received sole credit as director, he was fired midway through production and replaced by PURPLE RAIN director Albert Magnoli.

Cannon continued their quest for respect from highbrow critics, with Golan & Globus producing or distributing films by the likes of Roman Polanski (1986's PIRATES), Jean-Luc Godard (1987's KING LEAR), Franco Zeffirelli (1986's OTELLO), Dusan Makavejev (1988's MANIFESTO), Emir Kusturica (1985's WHEN FATHER WAS AWAY ON BUSINESS), Liliana Cavani (1985's THE BERLIN AFFAIR), Lina Wertmuller (1986's CAMORRA), and Fons Rademakers, whose THE ASSAULT won the 1986 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  But these expensive films lost a ton of money, and soon enough, audiences grew tired of the same old Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, and Michael Dudikoff movies that kept Cannon afloat and despite a couple of latter-day hits with a young Jean-Claude Van Damme (BLOODSPORT and CYBORG), the company was on life support by 1989.  52 PICK-UP, released in the fall of 1986, represents somewhat of a middle ground between Cannon's commercial fare and their aspirations to be Taken Seriously.  Based on a novel by the great Elmore Leonard that Cannon liked so much that they made two versions of it in two years (1985's barely-released THE AMBASSADOR retained almost no elements of Leonard's 52 Pick-Up novel, moving the setting to the Middle East for the Israel-Palestine conflict--hardly Leonard's specialty--and is only remembered today as a trivia note for being Rock Hudson's final film), 52 PICK-UP is a crackling, nail-biting thriller that Leonard himself co-scripted, so it's fairly faithful to the book, with the biggest difference being a change in location from Detroit to Los Angeles, which was enough to make Leonard unhappy with the finished film. 
John Frankenheimer (1930-2002)
52 PICK-UP also represents a typical Cannon practice of getting veteran personnel who can still do the job but maybe aren't as in-demand as they once were:  in addition to providing regular employment for career journeymen like Michael Winner and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE director J. Lee Thompson, another good example of this is 1985's FOOL FOR LOVE, directed by Robert Altman years before his 1992 comeback with THE PLAYER.  For 52 PICK-UP, they hired the legendary John Frankenheimer, director of such classics as THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) and THE TRAIN (1964).  Frankenheimer was in a serious slump by 1986, with his career stalled by a string of mediocre films and years of alcoholism.  Frankenheimer went into rehab after shooting 1982's THE CHALLENGE and wouldn't fully rebuild his reputation until several acclaimed made-for-cable films in the mid-1990s (AGAINST THE WALL, ANDERSONVILLE, GEORGE WALLACE), followed by a major career resurgence with 1998's RONIN.  Frankenheimer died in 2002 a respected filmmaker at the top of his game (even with 1996's THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU on his resume), something he most definitely wasn't when Golan & Globus hired him for 52 PICK-UP, but they took chances on people who had fallen out of favor and deserved another shot, like Altman and Norman Mailer, who directed 1987's TOUGH GUYS DON'T DANCE for Cannon.  52 PICK-UP was easily Frankenheimer's best film in nearly a decade.

The film centers on Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider), a successful, self-made man with blue collar roots, who got rich when the U.S. government bought his steel patent to use in manufacturing airplanes.  Mitchell's got a nice house in the suburbs, a restored Jag, and a loving wife in Barbara (Ann-Margret), who's about to launch a city council campaign at the urging of her D.A. candidate boss (Doug McClure).  Mitchell's also a sugar daddy to 22-year-old Cini (Kelly Preston), who works part-time in a Skid Row "live nude models" dump.  He's got Cini set up in a nice apartment and he's also got a problem:  he's being blackmailed with a sex tape showing him on a vacation with Cini ("You told your wife you were at a convention!") and the two of them in a motel room.  The blackmailers are a trio of drug dealers and scuzzy sycophants in the L.A. porn underworld:  ringleader Raimy (John Glover), a financial whiz and amateur pornographer who manages a XXX theater; nervous, weaselly Leo (Robert Trebor), and coke-addled psycho Bobby Shy (a terrifying Clarence Williams III).  They've got Cini and demand $105,000 from Mitchell in exchange for the tape.  Mitchell doesn't want to jeopardize Barbara's political aspirations, so he confesses the affair to her and decides he isn't paying the blackmailers, instead sending them an envelope stuffed with paper and a note reading "Bag Your Ass!"  Raimy breaks into Mitchell's house, steals a sportjacket and Mitchell's gun and uses it to kill Cini and frame Mitchell (all on videotape for Mitchell's benefit), and now demands $105,000 per year for the rest of Mitchell's life in exchange for their silence.  Mitchell, who prides himself on never relying on others, knows he'll never be rid of these shitbags but refuses to go to the cops, opting to set up an elaborate plan to deal with them himself, using his wits and street smarts and turning the three of them against one another.

It's not only a more high-minded Cannon product with a rejuvenated Frankenheimer onboard, but also with talent like Scheider and Ann-Margret heading the cast (and reunited from the 1973 French thriller THE OUTSIDE MAN).  At 54, Scheider was nearing the end of a hugely-successful decade-plus run as an A-lister, and while 46-year-old Ann-Margret wasn't exactly at the peak of her career, she brought not just name recognition but a certain degree of class to the proceedings that wasn't normally inherent in a Cannon film.  But in aiming toward comparitively older moviegoers, Cannon made the same mistakes they made in many of their Bronson films:  an overabundance of violence and sex that much of that demographic found off-putting.  Frankenheimer spends a lot of screen time with the sleazy dealings of Raimy and his cohorts, including a wild party that features cameos by several famous porn stars (Jamie Gillis, Herschel Savage, Amber Lynn, Barbara Dare, Sharon Mitchell, and, of course, Ron Jeremy), and a few nude photo shoots, etc.  52 PICK-UP is one of the sleazier Cannon outings, but the nudity, the seedy L.A. locations, the drug abuse and the general unpleasantness (an enraged Raimy abducts Barbara late in the film, shooting her full of heroin and--offscreen--raping her) are vital to the film's atmosphere and the sense that Mitchell is leading himself and his wife into a dangerous and destructive world.  Indeed, Glover, Trebor, and Williams vividly create three of the most loathsome, repulsive villains you'll ever see.

But the center of the film is the relationship between Harry and Barbara, and Scheider and Ann-Margret both do excellent work here, especially in the scene where Harry confesses the affair.  With very little dialogue, Ann-Margret conveys the pain and the hurt, saying she's sensed it for a while and quietly says "22...that's young.  We've been married 23 years.  That's longer than she's been alive."  And when Harry keeps fumblingly saying "It's not that simple," Barbara practically spits "Oh...did you play Daddy?"  Some of Leonard's trademark snappy wit shines in the script as well, with Harry explaining the situation to his trusted attorney (Lonny Chapman) and saying "I must've thought I was falling in love.  What an asshole," and when he goes to ambush Raimy at his porno theater, Harry asks the cashier "The movie...is it any good?" to which she deadpans "Beautiful...five bucks."  Scheider was an unheralded master at disposing a villain with a smartass quip or, better yet, taking a bad guy's snide catchphrase and throwing it back at him at the best possible moment.  One could argue that this started with "Smile, you son of a bitch!" from JAWS, but it was also reflected in his turning the obnoxious "Catch ya later!" back at Malcolm McDowell in 1983's BLUE THUNDER, and around the 28th time Glover's Raimy snottily calls Scheider's Mitchell "Sport" in 52 PICK-UP, you know that'll be coming back to bite him in the ass.

Ultimately, despite good reviews, many citing it as Frankenheimer's best film in years, and extensive publicity, 52 PICK-UP was a box-office dud, landing in 8th place its opening weekend and going on to gross just $5 million.  Scheider and Frankenheimer teamed up again for 1990's little-seen THE FOURTH WAR, an interesting and underrated post-Cold War thriller.  While Frankenheimer's career picked up, Scheider's wound down.  He stayed busy for the next two decades in supporting roles, straight-to-video movies, and spent a couple of years on the NBC series SEAQUEST DSV (and reportedly hated it, essentially quitting the show after two seasons but making three brief appearances in the third season after being replaced by Michael Ironside), but by the end of the decade, like Cannon, Scheider's big-screen movie-star days were essentially over.  He died in 2008.  Leonard had already seen several of his stories and novels turned into films, going back to 1957's 3:10 TO YUMA, 1967's HOMBRE, 1969's THE BIG BOUNCE (remade in 2004), 1974's MR. MAJESTYK, and 1985's STICK, among others.  The most famous big-screen Leonard adaptation is probably Quentin Tarantino's JACKIE BROWN (1997), based on the novel Rum Punch, but GET SHORTY (1995) and OUT OF SIGHT (1998) are also held in high regard, along with the FX series JUSTIFIED, with Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, a character in several Leonard works.  Now 87, Leonard is still writing and still living in the suburban Detroit area, which he's called home since he was nine years old.

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