Friday, June 28, 2019

Is Shaft (2019) the Best Movie of the Year? You're Damn Right!

            It is a rare moment when my lovely bride and I can escape the worries and needs of being parents.  When those moments come, we take advantage of them with all speed.  So if Grandma says that she’ll watch the three little dickens for an evening and if you’re a harried parent, take my advice: drop those kids off and run.  Just run.  Throw cookies and Dog Man books over your shoulders and keep running!

            When my wife and I caught our breaths from sprinting to the car and escaping at the speed of light, that is if light travels at a safe 45 miles per hour through that neighborhood, we found ourselves at a local movie theater, Junior Mints in hand, each with a ticket to see the family film of the summer.  No, not The Secret Life of Pets 2: The Quickening!  We saw the new Shaft!  You’re daaaaammmn right.

            Golly, can a movie with this small of a budget be worthy of such ire from the social consciences out there in the wilds of the internets?  I thought this type of volume was only reserved for Ghostbusters reboots and Marvel Universe movies with femaley C-list characters as the lead.  Why would we even see such a film?  Were we fans of racism, misogyny, homophobia, bad language, violence, millennial bashing, stereotypes, sexism, and good soundtracks?

            These were the questions that faced us as the lights went down in the cinema.  My Junior Mints weren’t too melty and as the familiar face of Samuel L. Jackson occupied the screen, we prepared for one of the worst things that social justice has condemned in the total history of the past week: the 2019 Shaft sequel.

            Annnnnnnnd…we loved it!  The crowd loved it too.  By the way, the audience for this showing was one of the most diverse that I had ever seen.  We were all laughing together at the right moments, enjoying the right beats of action, oohing and aahing whenever Sam Jackson’s John Shaft did something smooth and gratifying onscreen.  I can’t remember the last time when a movie was exactly represented by every trailer I saw.  This movie was just plain damn fun.  

Here John Shaft employs the art of negotiation.

            So here as always, are my randomly arranged bullet points of topics that crossed my mind when seeing Shaft.  Yes, there be spoilers ahead and no, I won’t shut my mouth because I can dig it.

·         If you’re going to see Shaft to watch Samuel L. Jackson be the best damn Samuel L. Jackson he can be onscreen, you won’t be disappointed.  The brakes are off, the gas pedal is floored, and I don’t think that I’ve seen him be this enjoyable recently outside of a Tarantino movie.  You can just tell he relished shooting this movie.  Perhaps after the barrage of Nick Fury-ing, it was just great to see Sam Jackson kicking ass and being too cool to take names once again.  Thankfully, the film knows where the bread is buttered and Jackson is a constant welcome presence.

·         Jessie T. Usher as John Shaft’s son JJ, is wonderfully fun too!  Yes, he is a millennial character, filled with all the stereotypes that go along with that.  But he is not just the cliché, he shows intelligence and sense of humor about the circumstances.  He just doesn’t have the street smarts like his father does.  That being said, JJ isn’t just letting the old school methods of Shaft stomp over everything.  JJ displays his saavy, tech skills, and marksmanship throughout the film as well.  This is clearly a movie that isn’t just about the differences in generations, but about differences in culture as well.  And it shows how one can learn from those differences.  Perhaps I’m laying it on a bit thick, after all this is just a Shaft sequel, but this movie was getting it laid on pretty thick by those that unfairly bashed it, so I’m okay with it.  Bottom line: Usher is quite good throughout.

Critics wish their bashing comments could be as smooth as these coats.

·         Speaking about differences in culture, let’s just acknowledge that Shaft is completely aware of the targets it goes after.  Everything is fair game.  No one is considered a sacred cow that is beyond comment.  In that sense, everyone is considered…dare I say it…equal.  Whoa.  That’s truly profound on my part, isn’t it?  Are there race jokes?  Yes.  Are there homosexual jokes?  Yes.  Are there religious jokes?  Yes.  Are there sexual jokes?  Yes.  Everyone makes the commentary list, no one is beyond it.  On that level Shaft is an equalizer and for that I think it is rather refreshing.  Rather than worrying about causing some dreaded offense, Shaft plows through and essentially says, “Yeah, I did that.  And I don’t care if you or you or you have a problem with it.”

·         On the demerit side of the ledger, I have to say that the villain in question isn’t overly memorable or threatening.  While it is satisfying to see his final comeuppance, it would have been so much more if we had seen this guy’s history with John Shaft.  At the very least, seeing him be more a dangerous bad guy as he goes throughout the movie.  Granted, this would take time away from Sam Jackson on the screen, but just a few throwaway scenes displaying how vile a baddie this dude is would have been welcome.  And it would have made Shaft going after him to be all the sweeter, knowing the stakes that were involved.

·         Did I mention how wonderfully badass Jackson is in this movie?  I did?  Hm.  Well, I’m mentioning it again.

·         Just as a matter of warning, this is more of a direct sequel to 2000’s Shaft rather than the Shaft films and TV movies of the 1970s.  We follow Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft more than we follow Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft.  This is by no means a bad thing, mind you.  However, I do wish there was more Richard Roundtree in the overall film.  He is a delight in this movie and I couldn’t get rid of my smile as soon as Jackson and Usher come to see him.  Damn, I miss the 1970s movies and God Bless Richard Roundtree.

If you think you can ever be as cool as a leather-clad Roundtree 
swinging into a room while firing a gun, you never will be.  Just give it up.

·         Is the film misogynistic?  Let me start off by saying that I hate social labels to pigeonhole a movie.  Does anyone remember that the original movie received an Academy Award for a score that contained the phrase “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”  Hm.  I wonder what the atmosphere will be like in a film in this series?  That being said, the two main female leads, JJ’s friend and longtime crush Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) and JJ’s mother Maya (Regina Hall) are both fantastic.  Shipp more than holds her own with Usher and Jackson and isn’t some bimbo/damsel in distress.  Hall as Shaft’s ex-wife is equally good.  She doesn’t put up with Shaft’s bull and knows how and when to read him the riot act.  Are there some throwaway female characters in the movie?  Yes.  But there are plenty of throwaway male characters in the movie as well.  Most of them get shot by Jackson.  Pretty even-Steven actually. 

·         The film even addresses misogyny directly, which you can see in the trailer.  When a female crime boss is brandishing a bat, JJ calls Shaft’s going for his gun as an act of misogyny.  Shaft directly says that he’s not calling gender into this.  He just sees someone with a bat, threating them.  Shaft doesn’t care what you are or who you are if you’re intending to do harm to him or his son.  Hm.  Sounds like he treats everyone equally.  Hm.  Sounds pretty progressive.  Nah, I’m sure the more social justicey souls out there are right in their criticisms.

·         Another point is the plot or what there is of it.  The story at hand isn’t a daring and complex action thriller, full of twists and turns.  Nope, not at all.  It is pretty standard for the genre.  However, remember that the original 1971 Shaft wasn’t a radically plotted movie either.  When you pare away everything to the core, the 1971 Shaft was a fairly standard detective movie.  The 2019 Shaft is the same.  However, you don’t watch either movie for the plot, you watch it for the lead character, the atmosphere, and the attitude throughout.  What was amazing for the 1971 Shaft was how vibrant and confident Richard Roundtree was.  He spoke to an entire generation and became an icon.  This wasn’t Virgil Tibbs or a subservient lackey, this was John Shaft.

I hope this cigar appreciates being smoked by this icon.

·         The same goes for the 2019 Shaft.  It shows how far the world has come along.  I’m not black.  Neither is my wife.  We are some pale translucent folks indeed.  Yet, we love the character of John Shaft.  We admire the sheer cajones on him and the fact that he doesn’t put up with anyone’s shit.  He’s quick on his feet, he’s quick with his wits, he’s too cool for school.  In certain circles of racial hatred, this character was reviled in 1971.  Almost 50 years later, I can sit in a theater with an audience from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds and we can all enjoy John Shaft together.  That is some amazing progress indeed. 

            Which brings to mind the most narrow-minded group out there regarding this movie: the dismissive social justice critics.  Yowza.  Who would have thought that the most blinkered people for a Shaft movie would be this group?  After all, John Shaft if nothing else, is a strong character of color.  We went from some racially intolerant people that couldn’t stand the 1971 Shaft movie to the social justice voices that can’t stand the 2019 Shaft movie.  This doesn’t seem very progressive, does it?

            If one looks at Rotten Tomatoes, which one should never do when determining what movies to see, the critical score isn’t that great.  Some critics enjoyed the movie, more sat from on high with their dismissive bon mots, enjoying what they thought were witty withering comments.  However the audience score is in the mid-90th percentile.  What does this tell us?  It tells me that the general public isn’t interested in a heavy drama about race and gender issues in America today.  No, save that for Academy Award nominated films that no one aside from these critics are going to see.

Even this many Junior Mints aren't as cool as Shaft!

             Instead, the people apparently want to see something fun.  Something that breaks down the barriers.  Something where one can relax and enjoy some escapist entertainment and wish fulfillment.  The 2019 Shaft knows what it is and doesn’t apologize for it either.  In this day and age that is refreshing, but it is also quite sad that we’ve come to this point culturally.

            To close, I just want to give a little backstory.  Back when I was a freshman in college, the local grocery store had quite a selection of VHS tapes for rental.  The non-new releases were dirt cheap.  Also I should mention that I went to the whitest college on earth.  Only certain Mormon universities lacked more melanin than our overall student body.  So as a way to rebel against the system, I decided to rent some classic Blaxploitation films since that world was so very far removed from the one I inhabited.  The movies were Superfly and of course, Shaft.

            I knew nothing about Shaft beyond the classic theme song.  My compatriots and I huddled around the TV in our Minnesotan dorm room and popped Shaft into the VCR.  And it was a revelation!  That film changed our narrow-minded lives, especially mine.  It opened a door to peek at a whole other culture.  Richard Roundtree was amazing, the movie was entertaining, and we cheered Shaft along the whole time.  My eyes were opened and that day the first bricks in a cultural bridge of appreciation was built.

            So critics be damned.  When it comes down to it, most of those voices probably know they could never be John Shaft and hate him for it.  I know that I can’t be him either, but the difference is that I love John Shaft for it. 

            Oh, by the way, did I mention that Samuel L. Jackson kicks serious ass in this?  I did?  Hm.  Well, I’m glad I did and I’m even gladder he does.  The bigger question is: can you dig it?  Because you should.

"I said, can you dig it?!"

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Lincoln & Spielberg: Close Encounters on a House Divided

My father was a huge Civil War history enthusiast.  And by using the term “Civil War”, of course I mean the American Civil War.  Who cares about the inner conflicts that occurred in other nations anyway?  I mean when Ken Burns gets around to making documentaries on all those other conflicts, maybe I’ll check them out, but the odds on that are extraordinary.

            One year we got my dad the three volume set of Shelby Foote’s narrative of the War.  Foote was a talking head in the Ken Burns documentary so his set was a natural.  After Dad passed away, I was fortunate enough to get that set.  The other day I decided to read it because I never had.  When I cracked open the first volume, I discovered something shocking: I don’t think my dad ever read it.  The binding didn’t even appear broken.  No dents or scuff marks, dog-eared pages or highlighted sections.  Nothing.  It was pristine.

            How could this be?  I thought Dad was a history buff.  Now I wonder...  Did he read any of the other books we got him?  The ones on Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain or James Longstreet or William T. Sherman or Jefferson Davis?  There were the copious books of photographs and battles and ironclad ships and a hundred thousand other topics.  But did he ever actually read them?  Personally I know that if I didn’t read about items that interested me, it would be terribly unfulfilling.  In an odd coincidence, this brings to mind a relevant movie that I’m segwaying into in a most blunt and ham-fisted manner.   

             As I read the Foote narrative, I remembered that Steven Spielberg had made Lincoln back in 2012.  I never saw it at the time, but I thought that as it pertains to the Civil War, I’d give it a try.  Daniel Day-Lewis had been praised upwards and downwards and every direction in-between for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln.  And Spielberg is no slouch in that whole movie direction department, so it should be great, right?

Granted, the movie did take some liberties with the history.
            Hm.  Well…  Hm.  Seven years after the film’s release, why don’t I go in more semi-manageable observational chunks about the film.  Oh and do I even have to mention that there will be spoilers going forward?  I mean the events of the film took place 154 years ago.  If you don’t know them by now, go read more.  Please.

·         Daniel Day-Lewis is a revelation.  He so embodies the Lincoln character that it becomes impossible to distinguish the two apart.  Now never having heard Lincoln or seen Twitter videos of him, I cannot say that Day-Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln.  But as far as a role goes, DD-L is always fantastic to watch.  He captivates the attention so much that when he’s not on-screen, the film loses the electricity of his presence to be sure.  Thankfully there aren’t huge slabs of the movie without him.  I normally have no regard for the Academy Award, but in this instance, Daniel Day-Lewis richly deserved the Best Actor acknowledgement.  A performance for the ages.

·         The rest of the cast is…okay.  Tommy Lee Jones is good as Thaddeus Stevens, I just wish he was given more to do.  There are too many scenes of him just contemplatively looking at things.  Now this is fine in something like No Country for Old Men.  In Lincoln, where he plays abolitionist firebrand Stevens, it just makes you wonder how much more he could have been used.  He does have a nice coda that gives him a vested interest for the amendment’s passage, but I wish it were alluded to earlier so that the stakes were even dramatically higher for him.

"You will pass that Amendment!  Put your hands up!"

·         The same is true of Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln.  She’s a good choice, taking on the role with just enough emotional distress that playing Mrs. Lincoln requires.  She’s a picture of unbalance and poise, a tough line to walk but Field does admirably.  Again however, she’s not in the picture enough.  Her scenes with Day-Lewis are excellent but like Jones, she’s under-utilized.

At least she has experience working with bearded men.
·         James Spader portrays an unscrupulous behind-the-scenes vote briber whose character name I’m too lazy to look up.  Frankly, he’s the best James Spader in the business and he simply James Spaders the hell out of the role!  Now if they had Spader bouncing around with his Boston Legal co-star William Shatner as a bribing compatriot, then that would have been great!  But I love Shatner so I’m biased in even listing this as a missed opportunity.

Seeing this, still think Shatner would be a wild choice?

How about now?  Yeah, I didn't think he'd be way off either.
·         The production design is top-notch and another richly deserved Academy Award was given to Lincoln in this field.  The time period jumps off the screen and you are immersed into the world of 1865 America.  Same goes for costuming, props, set design, everything.  The film’s universe is set throughout.  I can even smell the lamps burning, the mud of the street, the horses, the cigars.  Quite an achievement.

Look at that production value!  It looks so authentic, doesn't it?
·         Now here comes a big hiccup in the film: it was mistitled.  Since I did no preparation for this movie other than knowing who directed it, who starred in it, and that Lincoln would hopefully be in it, I was more than surprised that the movie only covers the last four months of Lincoln’s presidency.  And even then it truly only focuses on the January 1865 passage of the 13th Amendment for most of the runtime.  This would be fine…if the movie was called The War for the 13th Amendment or The 13th or Lincoln’s Other Civil War.  But by calling it just Lincoln, a different expectation is set.

·         For instance, the movie is based on a book that examines how Lincoln’s cabinet was made up of political rivals.  It talked about how Lincoln had to navigate through those murky waters during a time of great domestic war and upheaval.  That sounds like a fantastic movie!  Inner conflicts, a great outer conflict, great drama.  Instead we don’t really see this in Lincoln.  Sure, Lincoln butts heads with Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) a little bit, but not enough.  Secretary of War Stanton** doesn’t really fight with Lincoln either so that’s another potential conflict that was blunted.  Of course, I imagine that by January 1865, these former rivals are settled into roles, presumably understanding each other’s working dynamic to a better extent.  While I’m elated they eventually got along, it does practically nothing for the film’s drama.

·         That’s what makes Lincoln’s choice of this timeframe so frustrating.  According the limited special features on the Blu-ray (which also irritates me but is par for course with Spielberg’s releases), it was stated that the original script was over 500 pages long.  Spielberg jokingly suggested that the script would have been a mini-series on HBO with that length…and that’s exactly what should have been done.  You already have Daniel Day-Lewis signed up.  Why not see his interpretation from the moment Lincoln was first elected president through to his demise in April 1865?  How about a 4 part mini-series, with each part covering a year of the Civil War from the perspective of the Lincoln White House?  It would have been extraordinary indeed!  Instead we get two and a half hours of mostly January 1865.  This whole movie is a missed opportunity.

Here is an early prototype of the Lincoln character.  And look at that hat!

·         What do we get in Lincoln?  At the simplest base, it becomes a movie about the machinations of how one gets a bill passed in Congress.  Just like Schoolhouse Rock! without the catchy tunes.  Of course the ante is automatically upped because this vote deals with the 13th Amendment, which would repeal slavery in the United States.  Obviously the historical import cannot be understated.  However, there’s been no dramatic build-up to this moment.  The viewer is just thrust into the current situation and is forced into caring because of the gravitas of what is at stake here.  If there had been time for circumstances to foment and build over the course of a mini-series, then this indeed would be an incredibly dramatic and important lynchpin for the overall story arch.

·         There are many assumptions that the audience knows a lot of Civil War history to fill in some gaps along the way.  Fortunately, I had a good grounding due to lazy teachers in grade school who simply showed the Ken Burns Civil War documentary when it came time to learn about that period in the history book.  So I know who Seward and Stanton and Grant and such are.  I’ll give the film credit in this regard, it doesn’t spoon-feed you with laborious text and/or narration about what came prior to this moment.  It wants to start in January 1865, which it does and you better bone up on your history or you’re going to be left in the dust a bit.

·         Also per the limited Blu-ray special features, a goal of the movie was to show the dynamic of Lincoln’s family as well.  So along with Mary Todd, there as are his sons Robert and Tad as well.  But his sons aren’t that fully-fleshed out.  Tad is there when they need to have a scene showing Lincoln tender and fatherly.  Robert is there when they need someone whiny and all Joseph Gordon-Levitt-y.  Again, and I mean to beat this into the ground: this could have been covered so much better in a mini-series.  You would actually understand Robert’s anger with his father, the impact of the deaths of Lincoln’s other two sons, the focus on Tad.  Instead the boys feel forced into the story to pad the runtime.

Here Gordon-Levitt realizes that he's completely outpaced in this movie.
·         Speaking of the runtime, once the main plot concludes, the movie keeps on going for some reason.  The point of this film centers on the passage of the 13th Amendment.  Once that happens, logically the film should end.  But…it…doesn’t.  The movie goes from the successful vote to Lincoln going to talk with Grant.  Some more with Mary Todd.  Lee surrenders at Appomattox.  The fateful night at Ford’s Theater.  We don’t see the assassination but we do see Tad reacting to the news that his father has been shot.  Then a brief moment of Lincoln expiring, Stanton says, “Now he belongs to the ages,” and we recap with a Lincoln speech as the credits then roll.  Perhaps the movie should have been called Lincoln: Return of the King.  Frustrating.

·         Here’s a thought on how to finish better: even if you wanted to end the movie with Lincoln surveying the carnage as he talks to Grant, go ahead.  Have Grant look empathetically after Lincoln as he leaves, show some texts about what happened to the characters, and end with Lincoln’s speech.  That would be just fine with the movie you decided to make.  And if you didn’t want the blurbs, I’m fine with that idea as there weren’t any at the beginning.  But my overall message is: don’t jam as many events as possible that have nothing to do with your film’s story at large just because you can.  With Lincoln, it just became a case of too much, too late.

·         I will say that I appreciated the virulent nature of how the House members interacted with each other at that time.  That there weren’t more duels or at the very least slap fights is quite shocking.  One thing is certain: a current “battle” of tweets just goes to show how weak-kneed today’s politicians have become.  Back in 1865, a heated exchange on the floor of the House could result in someone getting a limp after spitting some teeth out.  Now THAT’s politics!


Okay fine, I’ll be the one that says it: Steven Spielberg just hasn’t been the same after the one-two punch of Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in 1993.  That 4 year gap between those movies and The Lost World: Jurassic Park marks a clear line of demarcation in Spielberg’s career.  There would be no more Jaws or Close Encounters or even Hook.  There would be A.I. and War of the Worlds and Indiana Jones 4.  Take a look at Spielberg’s filmography.  Now see if you’re more likely to watch his films from before 1994 or the ones that came afterwards. 

That might seem unfair.  But Spielberg himself set that bar so very high.  Look at the films he made from 1975 to 1985.  Now look at the films he made from 2005 to 2015.  How do the groups compare?  Which films do you think will stand the test of time?  Lincoln fits squarely in that latter grouping and while having many individual items to commend it, I don’t think it is a standout effort.

This picture shows Spielberg having it happened prior to 1994.

This is a shame because if anything one should see this film for Daniel Day-Lewis and his remarkable performance.  The production value is quite high.  Also, on a technical level Lincoln is very competently made; it is Spielberg after all.  But in that same respect, I expect more from him.  For me, this film shows what could have been instead of what actually was.

At the end of the day, my father had a lot in common with Spielberg.  If my dad were still with us, he’d be roughly the same age as Spielberg.  Both show a true passion for what they love.  They both enjoyed Raiders of the Lost Ark.  And apparently they both didn’t read Shelby Foote’s Civil War books either!  As I now read those volumes and others, I can sadly see what they both were missing.



**Stanton was played by Bruce McGill who also was D-Day in Animal House.  So yes, D-Day could have fought with D.Day-Lewis.  But of course, another satisfying opportunity was lost!

Then again, it would have been tough to find him for the movie...

Monday, April 1, 2019

Almost Equal Sequels Part 2: Fletch Lives

Given the rollicking (and by rollicking I flipping mean rollicking!) success of the first entry in this half-hearted series, I have decided to go with another entry!  Yes, a sequel!  About sequels!  You see I too have fallen prey to the demands of the public and am going for the cash grab whilst the gettin’s good! 
Actually, this whole thing has been a clever ruse on my part.  The reason I started this series is because of the sequel that I’m going to talk about today.  Now, was I terribly passionate about Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment?  Well, kinda.  Not really.  Sure, okay.  In any case, that was just a balloon I sent up to see which way the wind would blow.  And despite knowing what I know, I’m going to press on anyway.  But first a final rules recap for these sequel articles:

First off, some key ground rules that I set for myself:

1.    I will only be looking at the immediate sequels to the originals.  So at this point going forward there will be no jumping on Friday the 13th Part 3, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4, Halloween 5, Leonard Part 6, The Magnificent Seven, etc.  Maybe one day, but not right now.  Only Part 2s and Part 2s only.

2.    Prequels are also out, unless there’s an immediate Part 2 to the prequel, then game on.  And yes, I consider Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to be a prequel to Raiders.  Because it is.  Yes, it is.  No, you’re wrong because it is.  So I’m not looking at that one.  Besides, Crystal Skull did more to bring awareness to the greatness of Temple of Doom than I ever could.

3.    I am not going to look at Part 2s that have a more-or-less universal acclaim.  We all know that The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back don’t suck, right?  It’s a given that Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are great.  I waste your time in so many other ways, so I think I can relieve you of this one at present.

4.    I am not in any way saying these Part 2s are better than the originals, unless I do say such a thing.  I don’t admit they are flawless films however.  They have deficiencies like any movie.  But these will come on their own demerits, not just because of a general “they aren’t the first movie”-type attitude.

5.    Other rules will be made up haphazardly along the way.  Be prepared. 

I think that’s just enough adieu for one day.  Here we go!

The Sequel:  Fletch Lives (1989)
Original Movie: Fletch (1985)

Key Cast/Production Staff Returning from 1st Installment:

Chevy Chase              as Irwin M. Fletcher
Richard Libertini          as Frank Walker
George Wyner            as Marvin Gillet

Michael Ritchie            Director
Peter Douglas             Producer
Alan Greisman            Producer
Harold Faltermeyer     Composer

You see since Fletch died in the last movie...oh, wait.  He didn't.  Hm. 
I don't get the title.

To Start With:

 All I needed now was a computer. And a ten year old kid to teach me how to use it.”

            1989 truly was magical, wasn’t it?  I think every movie released that year was either a blockbuster or really wanted to be one.  And the sequels ruled!  Look at this list: Lethal Weapon II, Back to the Future Part II, Ghostbusters II, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, License to Kill...Off the Series Until 1995, Star Trek V: The Final Time We Let Shatner Direct, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes A Daytrip to New York While Vacationing on A Canadian Cruise Ship, etc. 

            And Chevy Chase cemented 1989 by being in one of the best sequels ever: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  This third turn as Clark Griswold was a nice hit and became a perennial holiday classic for the past 30 years!  And yet…this was Chevy’s second sequel in 1989 where he portrayed one of his great characters.  Because back in March of that same year, he graced the screen with the wonderful and woefully underrated Fletch Lives.

            Yeah, it is underrated, dammit!  I know, I know: Comedy is very subjective. The first movie is a classic with very quotable lines.  Chevy Chase was firing on every single cylinder he had to make his last iconic character of the 1980s: Irwin M. Fletcher.  Universal even submitted a For Your Consideration ad for the Academy Award for Chase that year.  No, really! 

See?!  It is real!  My photoshop skills aren't good enough to fake this!

            With all of that said, I love Fletch Lives just as much as the first entry.  I do.  It isn’t even a guilty pleasure as I am not ashamed of spreading this gospel to all ears that can hear and even some that cannot!  And yes, I wrote that without even remembering the televangelism angle in the movie.  See?  Even though I can’t prove it, that statement only underlines my passion!   


Anything Done Better than the Original?

I parked in a handicap spot on my way up here. Actually, on a handicapped person. I told him I'd be back in five minutes, so that's not such a big deal.”

             Chevy Chase owns the role of investigative reporter Irwin M. Fletcher.  Yes, the great Gregory McDonald created Fletch, using him in a terrific series of novels, but I can’t read any of those novels without thinking of Chevy.  The character simply makes the best use of Chase’s improv and character skills overall.  When we see other films that just don’t work with Chase, and there are plenty that could be brought up, it is invariable that we look back on Fletch as a part that simply meshed with him.

            As good as he was in Fletch, Chase is in even better form in Fletch Lives.  His reactions, replies, retorts, and characterizations are solid and hilarious.  Since Fletch’s nature is to go undercover to investigate, Chase is given a lot of leeway and doesn’t disappoint.  From Elmer Fudd Gantry to Ed Harley to Billy Gene King, Chase isn’t half-assing the personas or disguises.  And he could’ve so easily fallen back into a not-giving-a-fully-formed-shit territory, but I think his enjoyment of the character and Michael Ritchie’s direction ensured that didn’t happen.

            Also I must also give some love to the late great R. Lee Ermey as TV preacher Jimmy Lee Farnsworth.  As typecast as he became after Full Metal Jacket, here Ermey clearly shows some glee in playing a different role as this insincere charlatan.  Yes, he’s not an evil villain per se, but compared to Joe Don Baker or Tim Matheson in the first movie, Ermey is certainly more colorful.

Still the most sincere TV ministry I've ever seen.  I'm writing a check right now.

            Oh the by way, Harold Faltermeyer’s score is fantastic yet again.  I know he gets the love for Beverly Hills Cop, but Fletch and especially Fletch Lives are his best scores.  Yes, there’s some great assists from Buckwheat Zydeco, but the score here supersedes music from the first movie.  (Why doesn’t some enterprising specialty place release the full score on CD?  Hmmm…La-La Land?  Intrada?  Pleeeeeeease?)           


Anything as Good as the Original?

“Over the years, I found Mr. Underhill's credit card to be a useful tool, much like Underhill himself.”

            The sequel’s storyline usually gets bashed because it wasn’t based on a Fletch novel.  Now of course, I would have loved it if the sequel had mined one of McDonald’s other books in the series for the plot.  “Confess, Fletch” or “Fletch’s Fortune” would have been terrific to adapt, but the film took a different path, going with with an original mystery story instead.  Some view this as a detriment.  “After all, isn’t Fletch Lives a bit cornpone at times in dealing with its Louisiana setting?”  Yes.  “Aren’t many of the auxiliary characters a bit too drawn out and goofy?”  Yep. 

But with that being said by my army of straw men, I think that any fan of the book series knows that McDonald could get pretty broad at times too.  I don’t think that the plot of Fletch Lives is that farfetched when compared to certain Fletch books.  Read “Fletch and the Widow Bradley” and tell me if that was a bit too off-center compared to the first novel.  And that’s the point with Fletch Lives.  New story, similar tone.  So I think the storyline is just as good as the original with one major caveat I’ll mention later.

George Wyner returning as Fletch’s ex-wife’s attorney Marvin Gillet is still great and it was good to see him back.  Richard Libertini is good as Fletch’s editor Frank Walker.  Always a pleasure to see Cleavon Little in anything as he was a remarkable actor with a knack for comedy.  And Randall “Tex” Cobb!  And Chef Brockett is a sheriff?! 

George Wyner literally wanted to be in the script.

Anything Not-So-Good as the Original?

“The Reverend Farnsworth was Becky's father, but I wasn't going to hold that against her. If I was going to hold anything against her, it wouldn't be her father.”

            Julianne Phillips is certainly no Dana Wheeler-Nicholson in the female lead department.  This is a shame as the movie starts off with Fletch meeting up with Amanda Ray Ross played by Patricia Kalember, who is quite charming and rather lovely.  Of course Amanda is the one that gets killed, setting the wheels in motion for Fletch’s investigation.  Phillips as Becky Culpepper is certainly cute, but she’s not as compelling as Kalember was.  She isn’t really effective in the investigation and is ultimately only tangentially connected in the end by being R. Lee Ermey’s daughter.

            Some of the southern connections imply that most gents down in the Pelican State are rednecks to the nth degree.  Either with doorknob cops that make Roscoe P. Coltrane look brilliant in comparison to the botched KKK cross burning to Cleavon Little’s “Yassah, massa!” interpretation, there are some cringey moments.  On the whole the film holds it above board with the only real exception being Fletch’s “jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton” comment.  Thankfully, the film doesn’t dwell there for too long and the characters are obviously there for Fletch to react to above all else.

            But again, these are tempered rednecks, with a level of charm I suppose.  Fletch isn’t dealing with the denizens of Deliverance or Two Thousand Maniacs here to be sure, because that would certainly be a tonal shift indeed.  Also it turns out that Cleavon is playing a role in the end, making him not the actual stereotype he was conveying for most of the movie.  That erases some of the wincing.  Not all, but some.     

Now there's the Fletch 3 team if I ever saw one...
Anything Far Worse than the Original?

“Figuring out that the guy who dropped my watch in the swamp was the same guy who stole it at the morgue didn't take Sherlock Holmes... Larry Holmes could've figured that one out.”

If I have to pick a major negative it is telegraphing that Hal Holbrook as Hamilton Johnson is the bad guy.  In Fletch, part of the fun and the mystery is wondering why exactly Alan Stanwyk would hire Fletch to kill him.  Is he a villain?  Is he going to substitute someone else to frame Fletch?  Is Stanwyk sincere and wants to die?  We’re left wondering until pieces start coming together.

Fletch Lives is not as subtle in comparison.  Here Holbrook had a few instances where he appears to be more than what he says he is.  He says variations on “anything I can do to help you” more than a few times and once Jimmy Lee Farnsworth is eliminated from the running, the pickings get mighty slim.  Of course it is funny to see Fletch giving Hamilton his comeuppance, but again there weren’t enough sidetracks given to enhance the mystery.

Oops, spoiler!  Eh, nevermind.   

Also no Geena Davis back as Larry.  Just that.  Instead we are expected to believe that Frank will just leap to help Fletch after Fletch quits the newspaper to go to Louisiana?  I guess, but Geena Davis would have been a more likely helper while Fletch was persona non grata at the paper.           


Follow-up installments?

“Well, I've sinned. I didn't take any Polaroids or anything. But, yeah, I've sinned.”

            Despite being #1 at the box office on its opening weekend, Fletch Lives was the last of Fletch on any screen really as of April 2019.  Granted there were rumors back around 1998 that Fletch fan/director Kevin Smith was going to be bringing Fletch back with an older Chevy Chase reprising the role.  The idea was that Chase was either going to be reflecting back on a past case or possibly having someone play his son and take the series from there.  Jason Lee or Zach Braff were in the running at certain points to portray Fletch or his spawn, but it never happened.  Yet it was close enough to production to make official filmography lists on early Universal DVDs, meaning that used disc owners have been fooled to this day.

            There has been talk about a new series based on the books and if they are done in a Shane Black-Nice Guys-Kiss Kiss Bang Bang-kind of way then I think they’d be successful.  I think doing them as period pieces would work for at least the first 5 or 6 books if you’re doing them chronologically.  Jason Sudeikis is lined up to possibly play Fletch and that doesn’t really light a fire of excitement with me. 

            Also since Gregory McDonald passed away in 2008, that sadly meant the end of the possibility of any further Fletch novels from the original author as well.   

Here the Underhills appear in Song of the South 2: Fletch Lives

And Finally:

It takes a big man to admit when he's wrong. I am NOT a big man.”

            The whole of Fletch Lives definitely makes up for the parts.  I think Chase was never better than he was in 1989.  Yes, Ty Webb is funny in Caddyshack and is the only redeemable part of the bomb crater that is Caddyshack II.  Clark Griswold is great in the first and third Vacation movies but certainly disappointing in the other Vacation movies.  But as Fletch, Chase was untouchable.  His ability to react to moments as well as cause situations by portraying a myriad of different characters is great in both Fletch features.

            Hell, given the unmemorable crap that the Academy has awarded in the past, give Chevy a retroactive statue for Fletch and Fletch Lives already!  I think that Claude Henry Smoot is a better realized character than most not-actually-an-investigative-report-in-disguise-as-a-faith-healer roles!  I would pay to see an entire movie based on Smoot.  I’ll even spring for a gazebo to make it happen!

C.H. Smoot for sainthood?  Oh, I can see it now!

"I was on my gazebo, on the roof, making some repairs, and I was struck by lightning...and I've had migraine headaches and blurred vision ever since then but praise the Lord that was my lucky day because ever since then, I've had the healing power. Amen, God bless you. Thank you very much. Good night.”