Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: THE FINAL OPTION (1983)

(UK/Switzerland - 1982; US release 1983)

Directed by Ian Sharp. Written by Reginald Rose. Cast: Lewis Collins, Judy Davis, Richard Widmark, Edward Woodward, Robert Webber, Ingrid Pitt, Tony Doyle, John Duttine, Kenneth Griffith, Rosalind Lloyd, Norman Rodway, Paul Freeman, Aharon Ipale, Patrick Allen, Maurice Roeves, Bob Sherman, Albert Fortell, Mark Ryan, Nick Brimble. (R, 125 mins)

Created in 1941 for the duration of WWII and reactivated in 1947, the Special Air Service (SAS) is a Special Forces division of the British Army that enjoyed its height of fame after the six-day Iranian Embassy siege in London from April 30 to May 5, 1980. Globally, the event was overshadowed by the 444-day hostage crisis at the US Embassy in Tehran that began in November 1979 and ended moments after President Ronald Reagan's inauguration in January 1981. But in England, the SAS' swift and precise action after being deployed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the London incident, where Arab terrorists took over the Iranian embassy to demand the release of Arab prisoners from jails in Khuzestan, brought the SAS into the mainstream, making them Thatcher-era national heroes not unlike the 9/11 first responders in America two decades later. Now involved primarily in counter-terrorism efforts, the SAS' motto has always been "Who Dares Wins," and WHO DARES WINS was the name of the 1982 film inspired by their actions at the Iranian Embassy.  Retitled THE FINAL OPTION for its fall 1983 US release from MGM/UA, WHO DARES WINS was the brainchild of producer Euan Lloyd, best known for shepherding the 1978 mercenary classic THE WILD GEESE, a film that was a huge hit everywhere in the world except America, where it was acquired by Allied Artists during their final days on life support. Consequently, the film was a flop in the States, despite being headlined by Richard Burton, Roger Moore, and Richard Harris. Nevertheless, it went on to find an audience on TV, and later, on video and is now regarded as a top action film as well as an influence on such all-star action extravaganzas as THE EXPENDABLES.

THE FINAL OPTION opens with a nuclear disarmament protest march in London, with a member of the militant domestic terror outfit The People's Lobby brutally murdered from a distance with a crossbow arrow through the mouth. The dead man was an undercover government operative who infiltrated the organization and was obviously discovered. SAS administrators Cmdr. Powell (Edward Woodward) and Col. Hadley (Tony Doyle) opt to send in Capt. Peter Skellen (Lewis Collins), going so far as to stage an elaborate, airtight cover that involves him purposely getting booted out of the SAS and, with the help of his handler Ryan (Norman Rodway), posing as someone who's disillusioned and bitter and has an axe to grind with the British government. The cover works for People's Lobby leader Frankie Leith (Judy Davis), who's powerless against Skellen's seductive charms and almost immediately offers to let him move into her place, much to the disapproval of her cohorts Helga (Ingrid Pitt) and Rod (John Duttine). Helga and Rod aren't sold on Skellen or the expertise that he brings as one who knows their enemy, and they follow him to see him having clandestine meetings not just with Ryan but also with his wife Jenny (Lloyd's daughter Rosalind) and their baby daughter. Exposed as a plant, and left on his own once go-between Ryan is offed by Helga, Skellen is forced to tag along with Frankie's half-assed plot to commandeer the home of the US Ambassador to England, where a formal dinner is taking place with US Secretary of State Currie (Richard Widmark) and top-ranking American military official Gen. Potter (Robert Webber) in attendance. Frankie and the People's Lobby have one demand:  for the US to detonate a nuclear weapon at the Holy Loch Naval Base in Scotland, a move that she somehow believes will bring about "peace."

Frankie's plan isn't the most logical, but then, neither is most of this film. Davis, in between her breakout debut performance in 1979's MY BRILLIANT CAREER and her Oscar-nominated turn in 1984's A PASSAGE TO INDIA, turns in a committed performance even though she would later denounce the film over its political messaging.  When it was released in the UK as a slobbering, shoot 'em up love letter to the SAS, the glorification caused a fair amount of controversy for those opposed to the actions of the SAS and the general culture of Thatcher's England. THE FINAL OPTION was labeled "right-wing propaganda," and there's no denying where its politics lie: the nuclear disarmament crowd is portrayed across-the-board as broad-stroked, frothing-at-the-mouth lunatics; the SAS are largely "shoot first and ask questions later"; Frankie, calm and collected in the early part of the siege, quickly turns emotional and frazzled when she's grilled by Currie, Potter, and a bunch of angry, old American men (Widmark gets the film's best line when he barks "Why don't you hijack a plane?  It's more fun. Hell, kids can hijack a dinner!"), and, in its most hysterical and over-the-top plot development, after Skellen and the SAS save the day and blow everyone in The People's Lobby away, a left-wing politico (Paul Freeman) is seen complaining about the level of violence in the raid and questioning why the SAS instigate such an extreme level of national pride just before he meets Malik (Aharon Ipale) for lunch.  Malik is seen very early and is established as the key source of funding for The People's Lobby. So here's the end of the film, with the left-wing member of Parliament literally walking arm-in-arm with the primary money man who's bankrolling domestic terror, not just sympathizing with his cause but clearly conspiring with him as both men chuckle over future terrorist plots against England. There's no mistaking the message there: you're either onboard with the actions and the philosophy of the SAS, or you hate England and want to see it burn.


WHO DARES WINS was released in the UK in the summer of 1982, and it would be over a year later before MGM/UA released it in the US in September 1983 as THE FINAL OPTION. Perhaps MGM felt that the action and the notoriety of the two Iran-related hostage situations would trump the sections of British politics that many potential American moviegoers likely didn't follow too closely. While the film certainly delivers on the action in the climax--with the SAS raiding the US Ambassador's house in a relentless, ferocious barrage of explosions, grenades, splattery squibs, shoulder-rolls, Skellen going on a Rambo-esque rampage against the People's Lobby stooges shortly before anyone knew who Rambo was; and even several shots from the through-the-helmet POV of an SAS officer that presciently foresees later first-person shooter video games, all propelled by Roy Budd's catchy, waka-jawaka-tinged score--it nevertheless bombed in US theaters, opening in 12th place with $750,000.  To put that in perspective, FLASHDANCE landed in seventh place that same weekend, grossing $1.4 million in its 23rd week of release. THE FINAL OPTION made a quick turnaround to VHS and cable, where it developed a cult following through seemingly constant airings on HBO throughout the '80s. While the film didn't catch on in America during its brief theatrical run, it did manage to find one unexpected fan who got a special screening at his residence arranged by producer Lloyd and cited it as the most realistic depiction of a terrorist situation and a counter-terrorism response that he'd ever seen on the big screen. Who was this FINAL OPTION superfan? President Reagan.

Regardless of your political leanings (if this were released today, it would be a Fox News wet dream), THE FINAL OPTION is a solid action thriller, especially in its nail-biting climactic rescue sequence, which even the film's detractors will usually reluctantly admit is brilliantly-handled by director Ian Sharp, a TV vet who worked on THE PROFESSIONALS and was brought in by Lloyd because he already had a solid working relationship with series co-star Collins. Sharp never distinguished himself beyond this film other than with the acclaimed 1988 Showtime espionage miniseries CODENAME: KYRIL, which reunited him with Woodward, who's sadly underused here. THE FINAL OPTION was originally conceived as a story by journalist and espionage writer George Markstein, best known for writing some early episodes of the 1960s series THE PRISONER. Markstein's outline was commissioned by Lloyd and simultaneously turned into the novel The Tiptoe Boys by James Follett and a script by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Reginald Rose, who honed his skills in the early days of TV drama before writing Sidney Lumet's classic 12 ANGRY MEN (1957). Rose also scripted THE WILD GEESE, and when that became a hit everywhere in the world but America, the same creative team--Lloyd, Rose, star Moore, and director Andrew V. McLaglen (MITCHELL)--reunited in 1980 for the WWII actioner THE SEA WOLVES, another "old guys kicking ass" EXPENDABLES prototype, where the still relatively youthful Moore (then 53) joined forces with 64-year-old Gregory Peck, 70-year-old David Niven, 67-year-old Trevor Howard, and 58-year-old Patrick Macnee. Rose had entered the hired-gun phase of his career by this point, but found a late-career niche with Lloyd, and after WHO DARES WINS/THE FINAL OPTION, they planned a sequel for Collins that would've involved his Capt. Skellen character in the ten-week Falklands War between the UK and Argentina in 1982, but it never materialized.  Instead, Lloyd and Rose went to work on WILD GEESE II (1985), directed by Peter Hunt (ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE), and starring Scott Glenn, Barbara Carrera, Laurence Olivier, and Edward Fox, a last-minute replacement for Richard Burton, who died shortly before filming began.  The film flopped in the UK and was barely released in the US, and Lloyd retired from the movie industry. Now 91, Lloyd was most recently heard on a WILD GEESE DVD commentary track with Moore in 2004. Rose scripted the 1987 CBS TV-movie ESCAPE FROM SOBIBOR and took a few freelance gigs before his death in 2002 at 82.

With THE FINAL OPTION, Lloyd didn't go for the geezer adventure approach of THE WILD GEESE and THE SEA WOLVES and instead tried to make a movie star of British TV actor Collins (1946-2013), who was nearing the end of a six-year run on the popular adventure series THE PROFESSIONALS, from AVENGERS creator Brian Clemens. THE FINAL OPTION marked Collins' first starring role in a feature film and for a brief period in 1982, Lewis Colllins almost happened when he auditioned to take over the role of James Bond. After 1981's FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, Roger Moore informed 007 producer Albert R. Broccoli that felt he was getting too old to play Bond and wanted to quit, and the search was on for a replacement.  Collins and Ian Ogilvy (who already had experience replacing Moore--he was best known at the time for playing Simon Templar on TV's RETURN OF THE SAINT) were on the short list, and Collins would later say that Broccoli found his presence "too aggressive." Broccoli went with the wild-card pick of none other than American James Brolin, who was cast as 007 and set to star in 1983's OCTOPUSSY until an eleventh-hour deal was struck with Moore, who begrudgingly returned for OCTOPUSSY and 1985's A VIEW TO A KILL before leaving the franchise for good at age 58. Despite WHO DARES WINS' success in the UK and his TV popularity, Collins' career never really picked up after losing out on the 007 role. Having played an SAS officer on THE PROFESSIONALS and in THE FINAL OPTION, Collins was essentially the UK's celebrity face of the Special Air Service, even passing the physical endurance test required to join. For a while, Collins parlayed his SAS persona into steady work in a trilogy of West German/Italian WILD GEESE knockoffs from director Antonio Margheriti and producer Erwin C. Dietrich: CODENAME: WILDGEESE (1984), COMMANDO LEOPARD (1985), and THE COMMANDER (1988). CODENAME was released in the US in 1986 by New World, but the other two never found American distribution.  After displaying some convincing action chops in THE FINAL OPTION and still stinging from losing the Bond gig (he frequently called it his biggest career missed opportunity), a wooden Collins doesn't even camouflage his boredom in the Margheriti films and his deflated disappointment over the direction of his career. THE COMMANDER proved to be Collins' final feature film role, and other than co-starring with Michael Caine and Armand Assante in the 1988 CBS TV-movie JACK THE RIPPER, he drifted into increasingly sporadic TV guest spots. He eventually retired from acting in 2002, when he moved his family to Los Angeles and became a 56-year-old college student, enrolling in UCLA to study screenwriting, eventually moving on to create an L.A.-based computer sales and equipment company. He survived a 2008 bout with cancer and was attempting an acting comeback in 2012 when his illness made an aggressive return.  He died in November 2013 at the age of 67.

THE FINAL OPTION was recently released on DVD as part of Shout! Factory's latest four-film "Action Adventure Marathon" set, along with I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND (1973), SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL (1959), and TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS (1983).  They also released it as a double feature Blu-ray with I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND.

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