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Retro Review: EYE SEE YOU (2002)

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EYE SEE YOU
(US/Germany - 2002)

Directed by Jim Gillespie. Written by Ron L. Brinkerhoff. Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Tom Berenger, Charles S. Dutton, Kris Kristofferson, Polly Walker, Robert Patrick, Jeffrey Wright, Robert Prosky, Courtney B. Vance, Christopher Fulford, Stephen Lang, Sean Patrick Flanery, Dina Meyer, Angela Alvarado Rosa, Mif, Alan C. Peterson, Hrothgar Mathews, Rance Howard, Tim Henry, Frank Pellegrino. (R, 96 mins)

Sylvester Stallone has had his share of ups and downs over the course of his long and storied career, but he perhaps hit his roughest patch in that post-COP LAND period from 1998 to 2006, after which he went into nostalgia mode with the surprisingly good ROCKY BALBOA. That film's success sent Stallone on an ongoing greatest hits tour that's seen him resurrecting Rambo, creating a new all-star action franchise with THE EXPENDABLES, and continuing Rocky's story in two CREED films so far, the first earning him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. The 1997 "indie"COP LAND came at the height of Miramax's Oscar-baiting power, and was supposed to be then-51-year-old Stallone's bid to reinvent himself as a Serious Actor. He even pulled a De Niro by putting on 40 lbs and sporting a gut to play a powerless and partially-deaf sheriff in a small New Jersey suburb that a bunch of corrupt NYC cops call home. The film was critically-acclaimed, Stallone got some of the best reviews of his career, and it was a modest hit in theaters, but it was more or less viewed as a stunt for Stallone and offers for more serious roles never materialized. So he went back to action movies with 2000's remake of the Michael Caine classic GET CARTER and the 2001 racing drama DRIVEN, and both bombed critically and commercially. Aside from his comedic turn as the villain in 2003's SPY KIDS 3-D: GAME OVER, Stallone's next three films--2002's EYE SEE YOU, 2003's AVENGING ANGELO, and 2004's SHADE, where things had gotten so dire that he took a supporting role as the mark in a ROUNDERS underground poker knockoff starring Stuart Townsend--either made it to just a handful of theaters, or (as in the case of AVENGING ANGELO, notable only as Anthony Quinn's last film and released two years after his death), went straight-to-DVD after extended stays on the shelf.






EYE SEE YOU began life as DETOX, and was supposed to be a major-studio Stallone thriller, produced for Universal under the auspices of Imagine Entertainment and executive producer Ron Howard. Budgeted at nearly $60 million, with 1/3 of that going to the star, DETOX was shot in 1999, when its director, Jim Gillespie, was still enjoying a huge box office success with the 1997 smash I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, one of the most popular entries in the post-SCREAM slasher craze. A strong cast was assembled in support of Stallone, including the likes of Tom Berenger, Charles S. Dutton, Kris Kristofferson, Courtney B. Vance, Robert Prosky, Jeffrey Wright, and Stallone's COP LAND co-star Robert Patrick, among others. DETOX was clearly a riff on the kind of dark and grim serial killer thrillers that came in the wake of David Fincher's SE7EN, and it cast Stallone as a troubled FBI agent who ends up at a secluded psychiatric facility that's dedicated to helping law enforcement PTSD cases. But once he's there, all the cops in the treatment program start getting killed off one by one and they can't call for help because communication's been knocked out thanks to a blizzard, which keeps them trapped inside. Mistrust, paranoia, and anger set in and for a bunch of cops who already don't need another push to go off the deep end, the situation soon turns into something akin to John Carpenter's THE THING if re-imagined as an Agatha Christie mystery.





Not a bad idea for a thriller, but things went horribly awry. Both Universal execs and test audiences hated Gillespie's initial cut. Reshoots were ordered and Gillespie was told to overhaul the entire thing. It's not clear how much he was involved, but Stallone said years later that Ron Howard himself supervised the post-production for a brief period of time. The ending was reshot and the title kept changing--from DETOX to D-TOX to THE OUTPOST and back and forth again as Universal tried testing the revamped version in 2001 and still got a chilly response. Now with the title settled on D-TOX, the  film was released in Europe in early 2002 with little success, while back in the States, Universal decided they'd seen enough and washed their hands of it. They sold it to the lowly DEJ Productions, who retitled it EYE SEE YOU, and released it--minus the Imagine Entertainment logo and Ron Howard's executive producer credit--on 78 screens with no publicity in September 2002 on its way to Blockbuster shelves two months later as one of the chain's "Blockbuster Exclusives." After three years, multiple reshoots, numerous test screenings, and at least $60 million spent on it, EYE SEE YOU opened in 57th place with a weekend gross of $32,000.


So is it that bad? No, it's not. Looking at it now, it's nowhere near the vicinity of being Stallone's worst movie, especially in a filmography that contains STOP! OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT, REACH ME, and ESCAPE PLAN 2: HADES. It doesn't even belong in his bottom five and might not even qualify for his bottom ten unless you're looking at OVER THE TOP through rose-colored glasses. EYE SEE YOU's biggest offense is that it's kinda dumb (but not as dumb as Paulie's robot in ROCKY IV) and it's quite shameless in its SE7EN worship, starting with the same kind of shaky and jittery opening credits, which was already a little past its sell-by date in 2002 but still hasn't stopped movies from ripping off even today. Stallone is Jake Malloy, an FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer who kills cops--nine so far in the last six months--by taking their eyes out with a power drill and calling Malloy with garbled, electronically distorted phone taunts of "I see you...but you don't see me." As is wont to happen in cop thrillers of this sort, things get personal when EYE SEE YOU's "head in the box" moment comes pretty early on as Malloy's girlfriend Mary (Dina Meyer, in a test run for the SAW franchise she'd be a big part of a few years later) becomes the killer's latest victim on the night he was going to propose to her, her eyes drilled out and her corpse strung up and left hanging in the dining room. After a pursuit into an abandoned building, complete with a requisite dungeon-like room filled with just chains dangling from the ceiling, Malloy is about to confront the killer only to find that he's committed suicide and left a full confession. Case closed, but a depressed Malloy spends three months drinking himself into numbness, and after attempting suicide, his boss Hendricks (Dutton) intervenes, taking him to the remote clinic for cops, located in middle-of-nowhere Wyoming at a decommissioned former military asylum.


It's an effectively ominous setting, and it enhances the situation when other cops in the program--among them bullying hothead Noah (Patrick), emotionally shattered Conner (Sean Patrick Flanery), aging Canadian Mountie McKenzie (Prosky), drug-addled undercover narc Jaworski (Wright), and bad cop-turned-man of God Reverend Jones (Vance)--start getting offed one by one, with other targets and potential killers that include affable janitor Hank (Berenger), ex-cop and head doc Doc (Kristofferson), shrink Jenny (Polly Walker), and weirdo orderly Jack (Stephen Lang), whose obvious red herring behavior is so bizarre from the start that there's no possible way he could be the killer. Stallone turns in a strong performance, and while there are some head-scratchers throughout (why would off-duty, on-disability cops come from all over the continent and still bring their guns for Doc to keep in the safe and their shields for him keep in a file cabinet? Obviously, so Malloy can bust into the safe and give everyone their weapon once a killer is on the loose and so the killer can break into the file cabinet and collect the shields of his victims as "trophies." Duh!), it's really not any more or less idiotic than a lot of studio thrillers from that time. And after driving Malloy all the way out to the retreat, Hendricks decides to rent a cabin so he can do some ice fishing and of course, finds a dead body frozen in the ice, which turns out to be a cop who was on his way to the facility, which means someone isn't who they claim to be, as evidenced when Malloy just happens to look under the eyelids of one of the dead cops to find "I" written under one and "C.U." under the other.


Just out on Blu-ray from MVD Visual (because physical media is dead), EYE SEE YOU isn't going to be re-evaluated as anything more than a derivative but watchable time-killer aside from the novelty of being the closest Stallone's come to starring in a horror movie. But the Blu-ray does have one intriguing extra that's a point of interest for the morbidly curious or if you're the type that slows down on the interstate to rubberneck a car crash: the first official release of Gillespie's original 1999 cut, presented here as a widescreen workprint of acceptable VHS quality and under the DETOX title, with incomplete opening credits and no closing credits. There's ultimately just a one-minute difference between the two versions (EYE SEE YOU runs 96 minutes, DETOX runs 95), but the changes are apparent from the very first scene, even though there doesn't appear to be much in the way of reshot material. Most of the footage in EYE SEE YOU is right there in DETOX, but DETOX has a radically different structure that, to put it mildly, is a total clusterfuck.


Gillespie's DETOX cut utilizes a fractured timeline, but all this does is slow the film down and inadvertently compromise Stallone's performance. Arranging the film this way forces the audience to not only follow the unfolding mystery, but at the same time try to figure out what the hell happened to get Malloy there in the first place. There's absolutely no sense of pacing and no smoothness to the storytelling. It opens with a pre-credits sequence showing the murder of a cop, goes to the opening credits, and the first shot after that is Hendricks driving Malloy to the facility. Who are these guys? Why is Stallone being taken here? Why are his wrists bandaged? Less than ten minutes in, and DETOX dives right into Malloy's therapy with Doc and the other cops, while using periodic random flashbacks and cutaways to fill in the backstory--exposition that was ultimately presented in a linear and much more coherent fashion as the opening 20 or so minutes in EYE SEE YOU. In Gillespie's DETOX cut, it takes so long to dole out these important details that it's a full 45 minutes--almost half the film's running time--before we're even aware that Mary was killed and we can finally conclude why Malloy has been brought here. EYE SEE YOU fixes all of this start/stop, momentum-killing nonsense by arranging these sequences in a conventional narrative that quickly and concisely establishes who the characters are and what they have to do with the story.


Poster art for the European release
before Universal sold it to DEJ Productions.
Imagine SE7EN opening with Kevin Spacey walking into the police station and then Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman thinking back to all the murders they've been investigating as they drive out to the desert. There would be no reason for the story to unfold that way, just as there's no reason for the clunky, jumbled narrative in DETOX, other than Gillespie getting a little too big for his britches after one hit and thinking he's pulling some USUAL SUSPECTS head games. Sometimes, the basic way is the way that works. The impenetrable structure of DETOX isn't in the service of a surprise, game-changing reveal. It's Stallone vs. a serial killer. There's no need to complicate it and overthink it with laboriously-executed trickery in a hapless attempt to be clever. Sometimes--not often, but sometimes--when a director is ordered to make changes or even has the movie taken away from them, and you finally get to see the director's intended version, you realize on occasion that the studio was right. And while that final version may be a flawed compromise, the term "director's cut" doesn't automatically mean it's the better version (PAYBACK, NIGHTBREED, and THE EXORCIST III come to mind). There are a couple of other major differences between EYE SEE YOU and DETOX. In EYE SEE YOU, when Malloy finds what he thinks is the killer's body post-suicide, he drops to his knees in exhausted anguish--a natural response. In the DETOX cut, he does an enraged Rambo yell and shoots the corpse six times. Lang gets a couple of additional lines of dialogue and sinister glances that make his twitchy character more aggressively asshole-ish in EYE SEE YOU. And in EYE SEE YOU, the climactic confrontation has been significantly reworked, with some new shots that give the killer a more violent, over-the-top death. EYE SEE YOU is not going to be mistaken for a neglected classic, but it looks like top-shelf Hitchcock when viewed in conjunction with the unreleasable DETOX. It's no mystery why test audiences hated it. And if the DETOX cut is what Stallone saw before washing his hands of the project, it's no wonder he and Patrick openly dissed it on the commentary track for the 2004-issued director's cut DVD of COP LAND (as Michael Rapaport's character vomits in a trash can, Stallone quips to Patrick "He looks like he just saw DETOX"). Or why Howard took his and Imagine's names off of it before its belated release, as all involved parties distanced themselves from it like a loud fart in a crowded room.



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