Monday, 16 May 2011

Best Defence (1984)

... the result is like a hideous fever dream. Murphy delivers his dialogue through tears of confusion and bounces around ‘Kuwait’ with the military bearing of a black Bilko...

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Best Defence (1984, Willard Huyck)

Starring: Dudley Moore, Eddie Murphy, Kate Capshaw. David Rasche, John A. Zee, Sander Westerveld.

Box Notables: “Strategic Guest Star – Eddie Murphy”

Tagline: ‘Unfortunately, they’re both on our side’

Trailers: King David, Summer Rental, The Explorers, Beverly Hills Connection, Witness

Cherrypick: “I got nothing against I-wrack! I love I-wrack!! I’m not in this war!!! I’M FROM CLEVELAND!!!!”

1984. By now it was obvious even to Hollywood executives that home video was more than a fad or a boom. It was, rather, that verdant Elysian upland they had always sought - a permanent captive audience. The same sniveling mouth-breathers that were suffering the black flower of MTV to bloom would be the renter drones who would allow this broiling school of venal, pony-tailed sharks to turn the Hollywood dream factory into a tawdry piss machine in just a few short years.

At the same time as MTV saturation meant that kids were in their bedroom watching bands rather than out forming them, VHS meant that films became seen as little more than extended TV shows. A crop of slack-jawed Beavises and snickering Buttheads was lowering the bar to the floor. Industry expectations - and therefore budgets - were slashed accordingly and a generation of troublesome film school brats was replaced by an endless supply of slick, vacuous idiots and inadequate journeymen. Musically, a seventies of Blondie and Bruce had given way to an eighties of Tiffany and Terence Trent D’arby. Similarly, the likes of Mean Streets and Five Easy Pieces were out; Weekend at Bernie’s was in, and - make no mistake - this whole sorry state of affairs was YOUR FUCKING FAULT.

Symptomatic of this creeping malaise and reeking of pity and regret is this cankerous shelf-filler that star Eddie Murphy would later profanely disown in a full page ad in ‘Variety’ and the very mention of which would go on to cause co-star Dudley Moore to hyperventilate into his golf-bag.
Keep it together, Dud!
Cuddly Dudley is cuckolded weapons designer Wylie Cooper - the kind of guy who gets egg on his tie and sex on his birthday. When he’s not trawling East LA for cooze, he’s coasting to retirement in the snug laboratories of a Mom’n’Pop mass destruction set-up. After a bit of preamble and a volley of mix-ups so wincingly unlikely as to make an Edwardian playwright butter his crumpets we’re swiftly dragged - via a bout of shrillness of the sort Moore reverted to in many of his films to cover his embarrassment in having drunkenly accepted the role in the first place - into a maelstrom of KGB pansies, scheming aliens and an electronic silver plastic rugby ball that somehow holds the key to all future desert warfare. In other words - business as usual.

If the film had adhered to the boilerplate, BesDef would be of as much interest to the ERH files as Dud’s workaday paean to bigamy Micki and Maude or the wholly unasked-for Arthur 2: On the Rocks, but something was about to happen that would ensure it’s place in the darkest of halls of film history. Associate Producer Kip Sherry takes up the story. “We screened an early cut of the film out in Pasadena. This was in the early days of audience testing, which we didn’t really know all that much about at the time, but it was pretty obvious people didn’t like it. They started ripping up the seats, urinating on the screen - they just went batshit. That was some bad day, man. Bad, bad day…”

The solution might seem obvious now, but in 1984 it was considered as much of a bold stroke as it was, in retrospect, actually just another step toward the abyss. Second Unit Director, Joe ‘Jigsaw’ Jensen; “They decided to film a whole other movie and splice it in with what they already had. They got Eddie Murphy in, and me and my guys filmed him driving a tank around the Mojave desert, blowing shit up. I think it was supposed to be doubling for Iran… no-one really seemed to be sure.”
'Y'all hear of Richard Pryor? No? Good!'
The result is like a hideous fever dream. Murphy delivers his dialogue through tears of confusion and bounces around ‘Kuwait’ with the military bearing of a black Bilko. Moore, meanwhile, unaware of the producers’ eleventh-hour tinkering, is said to have chewed through his lower lip at the film's premiere.

Reviewing it in the San Bernardino Examiner, critic Richard Hesseman called Best Defence, “The greatest single blight on the American consciousness since Wounded Knee” and promptly resigned. Audiences stayed away in such numbers that the National Congress of Theatre Owners of America would forever remember the films opening night as ‘Dread Friday' and continue to mark it every year with a bizarre and arcane ceremony that is shrouded in secrecy and lore to this day.

Paramount Pictures kept their own dark council. Critical reception and box-office takings were mere bagatelle to them by now. They simply did what everybody else was doing – took their lumps on release, rushed the film into an insatiable video market and burnt their New Rome whilst we fiddled.

The barbarians were at the gates. But which way were they running?

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