Friday, 18 March 2011

Volunteers (1985)

A Bridge on the River Kwai for the hi-life set...

Volunteers (1985, Nicholas Meyer)

Starring: Tom Hanks, John Candy, Rita Wilson, Tim Thomerson, Gedde Watanabe, George Plimpton, Xander Berkeley, Professor Toru Tanaka

Tagline: ‘Tom Hanks and John Candy are building a bridge between two cultures - even if nobody wants it.’ 

Trailers: Zanzibar!, Adopted Fury II: Street Justice, Tropic Of No Return
Cherrypick: Albert Speer once said, 'Fear is victory's fuel!' You spend a few years with me, pal, and we’re going to turn that fear into high-octane!”

By the mid-Eighties it was plain that the loose-leaf auteur theory that had held sway throughout the choc-chip gold of American cinema’s honeycomb centred Seventies was in total abeyance. Michael Cimino and William Friedkin had been busted down to hustling hired gigs, Francis Ford Coppola was directing theme-park ride segments, and shining lights such as Bob Rafelson and Hal Ashby had variously lost interest, lost their way, or, as in the case of Dennis Hopper, simply gotten lost. One can, in retrospect, make out the greasy outline of Tinseltown’s told-you-so hard-on brought about by the dimming of their stars: studio nabobs had given these beardy film school tyros enough rope and, almost to a man, they had ended up dancing the fresh air shuffle. Now the execs were back in charge, and boy, were they loving it.

A decade in thrall to such uppity writer/director partnerships as Roman Polanski and Chinatown scribe Robert Towne, and Scorsese and his irascible script wizard Paul Schrader, and Hollywood’s patience with this demeaning status exchange had been stretched tighter than Pacino’s Shylock. Divide and conquer was the new strategy. Load a project with a writers’ round table of colourless hacks and install a clueless, grateful soda jerk as nominal director and you had all manner of leverage with which to pry a film apart and put it back together again to your (wife’s aromatherapist’s interior designer’s) vacillating specifications.

It was just this sort of ‘collaborative process’ that brought together the clown school behind Volunteers.
'And what's that, a kebab? Yeah, I'll take a couple dozen...'
Working from a cruel brainwave from Oscar nominated documentarian, Good-bye Cruel World titles designer and ‘Chimp Vocalisation Coordinator’ on Matthew Broderick’s Project X, Keith Krichlow, writers Ken Levine (a former Seattle Mariners colour-man, Creative Consultant on 'Frasier' and Environmental Production Advisor to the big-screen Flipper) and David Isaacs (writer of sundry TV episodes of self-satisfied canned-laughterfest, 'MASH') forged an unfuckable nine-sided whore of a script that seemed to fit somebody’s idea of a red hot sure thing.

A scarcely credible opening scene in which a trio of teeth-sucking, barely civilised, knife-wielding pimp daddies are card-sharped by teen playboy Tom Hanks’ bubble-permed dickspalsh sets the tone for both the unfettered racism and the nipple-aching applesauce that is to follow. Sporting a white tuxedo and an occasional honking Boston foghorn accent that makes Bobby K. sound like Cassius Clay, Hanks’ ponderous delivery, combined with some herky-jerky editing, ‘odd’ framing choices and a synth-ragtime score render a world that’s as convincing as the holodeck from 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'. It’s all just about tolerable up until the gut-dropping moment it becomes apparent that this is not some horribly misjudged pre-credits dream sequence from which Hanks - that loveable, wry everyman/smug, flip bozo – will ever emerge. Nope - the holodeck’s bust and we’re all fucked.
Linedancing, Thai style
A flurry of increasingly whimsical/mathematically incalcuable wagers later and Tommy Boy is soon (actually it’s about forty head-scratching minutes in) on the run from an arm of the Mob that makes Bugsy Malone look like the dark, venal underbelly of the American dream. Luckily for Tom though, the dial on the holodeck was set for 1961, which enables him to escape the impending Meatball Opera and high-tail it to another plot altogether by joining JFK’s newly-minted Peace Corp (aka World Police), with whom he travels half way around the globe to trade the frying pan of Mafia vendetta for the cosy glow of a Thailand gearing up to serve as the clearing house for the Vietnam War.

The Corps’ ostensible mission is to help some indifferent Thai villagers build a bridge across a nearby river, but this ineffectual Liberal do-goodery takes a muscular turn when the film casually sucker punches us with the chortlesome revelation that the bridge’s actual purpose is to transport the local albino despot’s primo smack to an Air America landing strip run by those nice people from the CIA.

You can guess the rest. Well, actually you couldn’t, but whatever you were to come up with would play out at least as well as the shit-and-fried-eggs that the flagging script-jockeys have the temerity to proffer as a last reel, so let’s just leave it - okay?
The future Mrs. Hanks (right)
Playing a role only Chevy Chase or Bill Murray could successfully carry off (if they both didn’t look as if they were born when they were 45), Hanks aims for ‘louche’ but merely wings ‘goony’ before lodging firmly in the hindquarters of ‘annoying’. Working from a script of such dispiriting incompetence it would be unfair to entirely blame Volunteers’ family-sized shortcomings on him alone, but it is notable that he eighty-sixed the goofball schtick - along with any other rough edges - as he neared the base camp of his mystifying ascent to the top of the pile that came via such copper-bottomed greats as Punchline, The ‘burbs, and  Joe Versus the Volcano. No, America had enough glib loudmouths coming through the ranks; what they really wanted was a walking Hallmark card with a nice line in sweaters and an avuncular air of droll resignation.

In other words; Hanks, but no Hanks.


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