Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Retro Review: INTO THE NIGHT (1985)

(US - 1985)

Directed by John Landis. Written by Ron Kosnow. Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Richard Farnsworth, Irene Papas, Kathryn Harrold, David Bowie, Paul Mazursky, Vera Miles, Roger Vadim, Clu Gulager, Dan Aykroyd, Bruce McGill, Carl Perkins, Stacey Pickren, Carmen Argenziano, David Cronenberg, Domingo Ambriz, Jake Steinfeld, Art Evans, Michael Zand, Beruce Gramian, Hadi Sadjadi, John Landis, Ali Madani, Houshang Touzie, Reid Smith. (R, 115 mins)

Just out on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, John Landis' INTO THE NIGHT has often been compared to Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS, another 1985 film with a similar concept of an ordinary guy finding himself in increasingly strange situations in the wee hours of the morning in unfamiliar and dangerous parts of the city. Where AFTER HOURS was set and shot in NYC, INTO THE NIGHT represents the west coast, taking place in and around Los Angeles (there's even a couple of chances to see some vintage TV commercials for legendary L.A. car dealer Cal Worthington). In hindsight, INTO THE NIGHT is often relegated to the sideline and viewed as a lesser AFTER HOURS knockoff, even though it opened seven months earlier. Landis had been on a hot streak going back to 1977's THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, with a string of huge hits that included 1978's ANIMAL HOUSE, 1980's THE BLUES BROTHERS, 1981's AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and 1983's TRADING PLACES, plus he was at the helm of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," the groundbreaking and probably the most famous music video of all time. INTO THE NIGHT grossed a very modest $7 million, not awful by 1985 standards but far below the box office Landis films generated in that period. While TRADING PLACES became a blockbuster thanks largely to Eddie Murphy, INTO THE NIGHT didn't have that kind of star power to headline it. This meant Landis' name was the main focus, and the deaths of Vic Morrow and two children on the set Landis' segment of 1983's TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE were still fresh in everyone's minds, particularly the director himself, as Landis was officially charged with involuntary manslaughter three weeks into filming INTO THE NIGHT, with a trial spread out over 1986 and 1987. Though Landis and three co-defendants were eventually acquitted, and he continued working in Hollywood (having hits with 1985's SPIES LIKE US, 1986's THREE AMIGOS, and 1988's COMING TO AMERICA), Landis' career never really recovered. His subsequent work in the '90s ranged from middling (1992's INNOCENT BLOOD) to quick paycheck (1994's BEVERLY HILLS COP III, six years after he and Murphy clashed on COMING TO AMERICA, prompting Murphy to quip "John Landis has a better chance of working with Vic Morrow than with me") to desperate (1998's BLUES BROTHERS 2000) to completely unwatchable (1996's THE STUPIDS). Landis has worked very sporadically over the last two decades, with a couple of acclaimed documentaries (2004's SLASHER and 2007's MR. WARMTH: THE DON RICKLES PROJECT), but that nearly 20-year stretch has only seen Landis directing one narrative feature with 2011's dismal, little-seen Simon Pegg horror comedy BURKE AND HARE. His last directing credit to date is a 2012 episode of the TNT series FRANKLIN & BASH.

Propelled by some bluesy B.B. King on the soundtrack, INTO THE NIGHT may not have made much of an impression in theaters, but it found an appreciative audience thanks to its incessant airplay on cable throughout the rest of the '80s. It also helps to look back at it now with star Jeff Goldblum's oddball persona firmly established. In 1985, the actor wasn't an unknown by any means, with numerous TV gigs and roles in 1978's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and 1983's THE BIG CHILL to his credit, but he hadn't yet established the quirky, eccentric "Jeff Goldblum" we know today from THE FLY, JURASSIC PARK, and INDEPENDENCE DAY. The recognizable Goldblum mannerisms are here but he plays it pretty straightforward as mild-mannered aerospace engineer Ed Okin, a quiet type who's suffering from extreme insomnia ("Summer of 1980," he replies when asked the last time he slept a full eight hours), is miserable at his job, and is coming to terms with the fact that his wife (Stacey Nelkin) is cheating on him. Wide awake, he decides to go on a late-night drive and finds himself in the parking garage at LAX, where he's as shocked as anyone when he ends up rescuing Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) from a quartet of bumbling Iranian assassins (one of them played by Landis). Once an aspiring starlet ("I'm not as young as I look," she says), Diana has fallen in with some shady characters and was returning from Zurich with priceless jewels that belonged to the deposed Shah of Iran. Her associate Hasi (Ali Madani) was killed at the airport just before she landed on the hood of Ed's car. Her contact is Hamid (Houshang Touzie), but in addition to the four assassins working for Hasi's double-crossing, vengeful aunt Shaheen (Irene Papas), she and unlikely new partner Ed are also targeted by Colin Morris (David Bowie), a dapper killer in the employ of French criminal Melville (Roger Vadim), in a madcap plot that also involves Diana's Elvis impersonator brother (Bruce McGill), her actress friend Christie (Kathryn Harrold), and her estranged, terminally ill sugar daddy Jack Caper (Richard Farnsworth).

It's not every day that you see a movie with rockabilly legend Carl Perkins pulling a knife out of his chest and using it to attack David Bowie, and INTO THE NIGHT is filled with bizarre bits throughout that always keep you intrigued. Goldblum and Pfeiffer (then best known for GREASE 2 and SCARFACE) are a charming team, but the script by Ron Koslow (who went on to create the acclaimed late '80s Linda Hamilton/Ron Perlman TV series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) has uneven tonal shifts from goofy comedy to shocking violence, with one likable character and even a cute dog being ruthlessly killed off. One of the most notable elements of INTO THE NIGHT--similar to THE BLUES BROTHERS--is Landis packing it with a ton of cameos, from small roles for Bowie, Perkins as Hamid's henchman, and Dan Aykroyd as one of Ed's engineer colleagues to appearances by a small army of Landis' filmmaker friends: Vadim, Paul Mazursky as Christie's boyfriend, David Cronenberg as Ed's boss, Don Siegel as a lecherous old man with a hooker in a men's room stall, Paul Bartel as a hotel doorman, Waldo Salt as a homeless guy, Rick Baker as a drug dealer, Jim Henson as a guy forced off of a hotel lobby phone, Lawrence Kasdan as a detective, Jonathan Demme as an FBI agent, Amy Heckerling as a waitress, and others. Roger Ebert was very critical of the plethora of director cameos, saying they were a distraction from the real actors, but Landis is careful to not draw too much attention to them. A sight gag with an old rich guy emerging from a men's room stall followed close behind by a hooker is funny regardless of whether or not it's Don Siegel. Don Siegel isn't the joke. It's a fun, running inside joke for hardcore movie nerds, but it's not a distraction for the casual moviegoer. I don't understand Ebert's gripe, because other than when it came to guys like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Henson, and Landis, it's doubtful anyone but an obsessive film fanatic was able to recognize directors by sight in the primitive, pre-internet days of 1985. Did anyone other than a movie critic watch INTO THE NIGHT and say "Hey, look, it's FOUL PLAY director Colin Higgins!"? Ebert was distracted because he knew who the directors were and apparently was in a bad mood when he watched it, but did civilian moviegoers care? Cinephiles have an added layer of enjoyment with INTO THE NIGHT, but even without that insider knowledge, time's been kind to it. It's a funny and offbeat, if frequently uneven film that remains a sentimental favorite of mine from the 1980s.

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