Friday, November 3, 2017

Retro Review: THE AMBASSADOR (1985)

(US - 1985)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Written by Max Jack. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Ellen Burstyn, Rock Hudson, Fabio Testi, Donald Pleasence, Heli Goldenberg, Michal Bat-Adam, Ori Levy, Shmulik Kraus, Avi Kleinberger, Sasson Gabai. (R, 95 mins)

It was a box office flop at the time, but 1986's 52 PICK-UP has come to be regarded as a top crime thriller of its era and one of the best films to come off the Cannon assembly line in their heyday. Adapted from Elmore Leonard's 1974 novel and directed by the great John Frankenheimer, 52 PICK-UP stars Roy Scheider as Harry Mitchell, a successful L.A. businessman caught up in a web of blackmail and murder when a trio of porno industry dirtbags (the leader constantly condescendingly calling him "Sport") videotape him having sex with his young mistress, shaking him down for an exorbitant sum of money in exchange for not embarrassing his wife (Ann-Margret), the top aide to a popular mayoral candidate. When he refuses to pay, they kill the mistress and try to frame Mitchell, not understanding that he's a self-made man used to doing things his own way, bullheadedly determined to take on the blackmailers himself, manipulating them and beating them at their own game, of course inevitably leading to Scheider delivering one of his signature "Smile, you son of a bitch!" lines just as he takes out the chief shitbag ("So long, Sport!"). It's lean, mean, gritty piece of vintage '80s L.A. sleaze, not entirely faithful to Leonard--he wasn't happy that the setting was moved to L.A. from his native Detroit--but it stands today as one of the better adaptations of the author's work, which would enjoy a significant renaissance a decade later with films like GET SHORTY, OUT OF SIGHT, and JACKIE BROWN, the latter based on his novel Rum Punch.

52 PICK-UP was actually Cannon's second adaptation of Leonard's novel. Prior to the Frankenheimer film, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus produced THE AMBASSADOR, ostensibly based on 52 Pick-Up but veering so far from the source that any mention of Leonard and the "Based on the novel by" credit weren't even included in the finished version. It was obviously a subject important to Israeli-born cousins Golan and Globus, but we may never know what it was about a decade-old, neo-noir novel set in Detroit that inspired them to turn it into a preachy polemic about Israeli-PLO relations, but that's exactly what happened with THE AMBASSADOR. The only plot point from Leonard's book that it retains is the blackmail element, but it even changes that by making it the wife's infidelity that's captured on film. One of Cannon's periodic mid '80s attempts at highbrow respectability, THE AMBASSADOR was shot in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and wants to make serious political statements, but it also wants to be a Cannon genre picture. It wants a classy, Oscar-winning actress like Ellen Burstyn to give it awards season credibility, but it needs her topless and doing Skinemax back-arching in a couple of surprisingly revealing, sweaty sex scenes with Fabio Testi, who had just been fired from Cannon's BOLERO after clashing with Bo and John Derek and sent to Israel to have simulated sex with Ellen Burstyn instead. Burstyn is Alex Hacker, the bored, frustrated wife of Peter Hacker (Robert Mitchum, in a role that was probably pitched to Cannon regular Charles Bronson at some point), the US Ambassador to Israel. Hacker is so distracted trying to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine that he's completely oblivious to his wife's torrid affair with antiques dealer Mustapha Hashimi (Testi), a shady figure with lifelong ties to terrorism. After a bombing in Jerusalem, Hacker is summoned to an abandoned movie theater where he's shown a stag film of Alex and Hashimi having sex, and is promptly blackmailed in exchange for not airing the footage on TV and creating an international incident over the wife of the US Ambassador getting between the sheets with a terrorist. The blackmailers are presumed to be from the PLO, but it's actually a rogue faction of far-right Mossad agents determined to maintain the status quo. There's duplicity and double crosses, and numerous attempts on the Hackers' lives by a renegade KGB agent (Shmulik Kraus), which sends Hacker's security chief and bodyguard Stevenson (Rock Hudson in his final big-screen role) into ass-kicking Cannon action hero mode.

Dull, overly convoluted, and bearing no resemblance to the "He's through negotiating!" thriller the poster art indicated, the barely-released and justifiably obscure THE AMBASSADOR just hit Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber, though it's one of Cannon's worst films. It never finds the balance between serious drama and hard-hitting action, and the finale goes from laughably out-of-touch to appallingly tacky, with Hacker organizing Israeli and Palestinian youth for a candle-lit kumbaya "dialogue for young people" where he delivers a series of rambling talking points while the attendees chant "peace" before being interrupted by a machine-gunning terrorist attack with a Sam Peckinpah level of gore and splatter. It's another example of Cannon trying to have it both ways by taking what they think is a high-minded, serious film and turning it into a grindhouse action shoot-'em-up (outside of the same year's existential action classic RUNAWAY TRAIN, that kind of Cannon crossover move almost never worked). An aging Mitchum looks bleary-eyed and confused throughout, never once looking like he understands the Political Science 101 dialogue he's reciting. You could make a drinking game out of how many times he mumbles "I just want to start a dialogue for young people" and it's one he'd almost certainly be up for playing. Burstyn brings her A-game but the material is simply beneath her (surprisingly, she worked for Cannon again a few years later on the expensive Golan-directed prestige flop HANNA'S WAR), while Donald Pleasence gets to ham it up a bit as the irate Israeli defense minister.

Hudson is solid as the tough-as-nails Stevenson, working well with Mitchum even though they reportedly didn't get along well at all. Hudson was under the weather throughout the shoot and he looked slimmer than he had in the years prior to his 1981 heart attack and subsequent quintuple bypass surgery, but not in an ill way that would indicate the HIV diagnosis he would receive a few months after THE AMBASSADOR wrapped production in early 1984 (the film wasn't released until January 1985; Hudson starred with an unknown Sharon Stone in the 1984 TV-movie THE VEGAS STRIP WAR and appeared on the fifth season of DYNASTY before succumbing to AIDS in October 1985). Leadenly directed by the veteran J. Lee Thompson, who would become of the top in-house Cannon guys throughout the decade (10 TO MIDNIGHT, KING SOLOMON'S MINES, FIREWALKER, DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN) and simplistically written by Max Jack and an uncredited Ronald M. Cohen (both vets of the short-lived 1981 ABC series AMERICAN DREAM), THE AMBASSADOR does offer one clever bit of caustic repartee between the Hackers (when she uses horseback riding as a cover story for some afternoon delight with Hashimi, Peter asks "English or western?" and she snidely replies "Bareback") but little else, jettisoning any connection to Elmore Leonard and wasting an overqualified cast in the process. At least with 52 PICK-UP, Cannon got it right the second time.

1 comment:

  1. My grandad, animal arranger at Ardmore studios worked with both Hudson and Mitchum on films in Ireland, Hudson on Darling Lili and Mitchum on A Terrible Beauty, and he liked Hudson, found him friendly and approachable, but found Mitchum "mean" and cold. Maybe, this clash of types caused fraction.