Monday, September 26, 2016

Retro Review: MURPHY'S LAW (1986)

(US - 1986)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Written by Gail Morgan Hickman. Cast: Charles Bronson, Carrie Snodgress, Kathleen Wilhoite, Robert F. Lyons, Richard Romanus, Angel Tompkins, Bill Henderson, Lawrence Tierney, James Luisi, Janet MacLachlan, Jerome Thor, Robert Axelrod, Randall Carver. (R, 100 mins)

Charles Bronson's career in the 1980s was defined by his association with Cannon's Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Starting with 1982's DEATH WISH II and ending with 1989's KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS, Bronson starred in eight Cannon productions, with the only outliers during that period being 1984's grisly THE EVIL THAT MEN DO (released by Tri-Star) and 1986's ACT OF VENGEANCE for HBO. DEATH WISH II provided Bronson with his first hit after a string of flops like LOVE AND BULLETS (1979), CABO BLANCO (1980), BORDERLINE (1980), and DEATH HUNT (1981), successfully reigniting his career and setting the tone for the Bronson formula that, with rare exception, would typify his work for the remainder of the decade. Critics were rarely kind to Bronson's '80s vehicles, but he enjoyed a few years as a reliable box office draw, with 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983), the aforementioned THE EVIL THAT MEN DO, and DEATH WISH 3 (1985) all doing big business. DEATH WISH 3 opened the same day as William Friedkin's TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and the sequel A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE, and landed in the #1 spot. Nearly 25 years before Liam Neeson made geriatric tough guys a box office trend, 64-year-old Charles Bronson was so popular in the fall of 1985 that he emerged the victor in a box office battle with Freddy Krueger.

Much of 1986's MURPHY'S LAW is typical of Bronson/Cannon product of the period: as in 10 TO MIDNIGHT and the later KINJITE, he's playing a cop whose tendency to take the law (and sex toys) into his own hands and play by his own rules gets him in hot water with the department; he's tangling with a villain who has an axe to grind against his embittered cop; and he's directed by veteran journeyman J. Lee Thompson (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, CAPE FEAR), who would become not only a go-to Cannon guy (KING SOLOMON'S MINES, FIREWALKER), but also Bronson's favorite director as the decade went on. Thompson directed five of Bronson's eight Cannon titles, and the pair collaborated several times prior to the Golan-Globus phase of their careers, all the way back to 1976's ST. IVES. A stoical man known for keeping to himself and being standoffish until he got to know someone, Bronson was a man who didn't let just anyone into his inner circle, so he obviously felt a personal and professional connection with Thompson.

But MURPHY'S LAW also allows a bit of a departure for Bronson, which he may have wanted after the cartoonish excesses of the previous year's DEATH WISH 3, directed by Michael Winner. Now a beloved cult classic with its ridiculous plot, over-the-top characters (The Giggler!), and quotable dialogue ("It's MY CAR!"), DEATH WISH 3 is the funniest Bronson movie ever, even if that's not the intention. MURPHY'S LAW gives Bronson some room to act a little as burned-out, alcoholic L.A. cop Jack Murphy. Starting the day with a belt of booze and carrying a flask with him on the job, Murphy is pretty much a walking dumpster fire. Heartbroken over being abandoned by his cheating wife (Angel Tompkins), Murphy regularly tortures himself by going to the trashy strip club where she dances, disgusted by her and her job but still longing for her, unable to look away. A constantly hungover Murphy can barely get himself out of bed, and observing his morning routine play out is actually difficult to watch. Bronson looks like hell throughout MURPHY'S LAW, never more so than in the opening credits, where he seems to be in physical pain waking up, dragging himself to the bathroom, gargling Listerine, grunting, resting his head against the mirror, and looking like he's just about ready to give up on life. Considered a washed-up drunk by most of his colleagues (who mercilessly razz him about his ex's job), except for his only friend, horndog partner Art Penney (DEATH WISH II and 10 TO MIDNIGHT's Robert F. Lyons, another Bronson inner circler with whom the actor liked working), Murphy isn't about to get any sympathy when his ex-wife and her new boyfriend--the sleazy strip club manager--are killed with his gun. Murphy insists he's being framed by pissed-off L.A. mobster Frank Vincenzo (Richard Romanus) as revenge after Murphy kills Vincenzo's idiot younger brother in a hostage situation, but nobody cares. They're just happy to see Murphy crash and burn.

Of course he's being framed--not by Vincenzo but by Joan Freeman (Carrie Snodgress), a psycho killer who's just been paroled and is obsessed with vengeance after being put away by Murphy and his now-retired partner Wilcove (Ben Henderson) a decade earlier. Freeman follows Murphy, learns his routine, hides in his car, knocks him over the head before using his gun to kill the ex and the boyfriend while he's unconscious, and drives him home, with Murphy out cold the whole time. Assuming he blacked out in his car after a night at the bar, Murphy doesn't think much of it when he wakes up and finds himself parked outside his own house. But after he's arrested and realizes none of his fellow officers are going to help him, he orchestrates an escape, taking with him an unlikely partner-in-crime in Araballa McGee (Kathleen Wilhoite), a homeless, potty-mouthed street criminal who stole Murphy's car at the beginning of the movie. As Freeman continues a killing spree that implicates him, a now-fugitive Murphy is on the run with Arabella, now considered an accomplice, the pair determined to prove their innocence...if they don't kill each other first!

Pairing Bronson with a younger co-star was a good idea and the actor seems to be legitimately enjoying himself...or at least as much as Bronson could enjoy himself. If Golan and Globus had their way, Arabella would've been played by Madonna, who was offered the role but wanted more money than Golan was willing to spend. According to Bronson historian Paul Talbot in his book Bronson's Loose Again, Joan Jett auditioned and PURPLE RAIN's Apollonia Kotero and Prince protegee Vanity were also courted (Vanity would co-star in Cannon's 52 PICK-UP that same year) before the role went to the less expensive relative newcomer Wilhoite, a 22-year-old actress/singer who got an "Introducing" credit even though she already logged appearances in several films and TV shows. Best known to horror fans as the eccentric psychic in 1986's WITCHBOARD ("Psychic humor!") and to TV viewers as Sherry Stringfield's irresponsible older sister on ER and as Liz Danes on GILMORE GIRLS, Wilhoite has a likable presence despite some of the incredibly stupid insults she's required to spew. On the commentary track for Twilight Time's new Blu-ray release of MURPHY's LAW, Wilhoite says that the script by Gail Morgan Hickman (THE ENFORCER, NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET) was originally filled with some really foul and offensive lines for her that were softened to abrasive but silly-sounding zingers like "jizzum breath," "snotbutt," "dinosaur dork," "toejam," "Ya snot-lickin' donkey fart!" and "Kiss my pantyhose, sperm bank!" In spite of being tasked with playing a grating character, Wilhoite, who also sings the closing credits theme song, manages to win you over as Arabella. She does a solid job of playing off of Bronson's cranky persona, and Bronson has some legitimately heartfelt moments late in the film after Murphy finds himself reluctantly bonding with the obnoxious, troubled young woman who, of course, has a heart of gold.

In addition to allowing Bronson some unexpected character depth, MURPHY'S LAW also gives Bronson a different kind of villain in Snodgress' Joan Freeman. Like an angrier and completely deranged version of Sondra Locke's SUDDEN IMPACT vigilante, Snodgress, a Best Actress Oscar nominee for 1970's DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE, makes a memorably maniacal villain without ever going overboard into over-the-top histrionics. The film also makes terrific use of some iconic L.A. locations, from a chase scene through the Grand Central Market and the climax--where Murphy is forced to take on Vincenzo's goons and a crossbow-wielding Freeman--inside the legendary Bradbury Building, so memorably featured as the gloomy home of William Sanderson's J.F. Sebastian in 1982's BLADE RUNNER. By this point in his career, Bronson seemed hesitant to approach departure projects like he did post-DEATH WISH in the 1970s with films like the romantic FROM NOON TILL THREE (1976) and the bizarre THE WHITE BUFFALO. But 1986 saw him tackle the seemingly familiar but surprisingly complex Jack Murphy in MURPHY'S LAW as well as starring in the HBO biographical film ACT OF VENGEANCE, where he played Jock Yablonski, the doomed United Mine Workers president whose 1969 murder was orchestrated by his chief rival Tony Boyle, played in the film by Wilford Brimley.

MURPHY'S LAW opened the same day as the Tom Cruise/Ridley Scott fantasy LEGEND, landing in second place for the weekend. After that, the big-screen fortunes of both Bronson and Cannon began to wane: two 1987 releases, ASSASSINATION (where he was reunited with DEATH HUNT director Peter Hunt), and DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN (directed by Thompson) didn't even debut in the top five at the box office, and his next two films, 1988's low-key MESSENGER OF DEATH (Bronson doesn't even kill anyone!) and 1989's KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS (both directed by Thompson) only received limited theatrical releases before heading to video stores. It can't be a coincidence that Bronson's declining box office clout came at just the time huge and over-the-top Joel Silver-produced extravaganzas like 1987's LETHAL WEAPON and 1988's DIE HARD were reinventing the action genre. The comparatively low-budget Cannon productions couldn't compete, and even an unstoppable force like Clint Eastwood found himself losing audiences with underperformers like THE DEAD POOL (1988) and PINK CADILLAC (1989). Eastwood tried to fashion his own Joel Silver-esque buddy actioner, pairing himself with Charlie Sheen in 1990's THE ROOKIE, but nobody cared. It was out with the old (Bronson, Eastwood, and Chuck Norris) and in with the new (Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger). Eastwood was 62 when he managed to finally establish himself as a serious filmmaker in the eyes of the critics with 1992's Oscar-winning UNFORGIVEN, but by the time KINJITE immediately vanished from a few theaters in 1989, it was clear that, regardless of their entertainment value (KINJITE is great!), there wasn't a place at the multiplex for action movies starring a 68-year-old Bronson being directed by a 75-year-old Thompson.

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