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Cult Classics Revisited: MALONE (1987)


(US - 1987)

Directed by Harley Cokliss. Written by Christopher Frank. Cast: Burt Reynolds, Cliff Robertson, Lauren Hutton, Kenneth McMillan, Cynthia Gibb, Scott Wilson, Philip Anglim, Tracey Walter, Dennis Burkley, Alex Diakun, Brooks Gardner, Mike Kirton, Blu Mankuma, Don Davis. (R, 92 mins)

"Got a name?"
"Got a first name?"

From the late '70s and into the early '80s, Burt Reynolds was the top box-office draw in America. The busy actor appeared in two to three movies a year, and there was rarely a time when a Burt movie wasn't in theaters. But after a while, his base grew fatigued with increasingly lazy efforts like 1983's STROKER ACE and 1984's CANNONBALL RUN II. 1984's CITY HEAT, a much-anticipated teaming with Clint Eastwood, the other biggest movie star in America, proved to be a disappointment for both actors, but it would be far more devastating to Reynolds than your average box-office underperformer. While filming a fight scene, Reynolds was supposed to be hit across the face with a lightweight, breakaway prop chair. Somehow, the prop chair was replaced with a real one and Reynolds was hit in the face with it at full force. His jaw broke on impact, requiring extensive surgery that kept his mouth wired shut for months, forcing him on a liquid diet and later resulting in an addiction to painkillers. It took over two years for him to recover, during which time Hollywood and many of his friends abandoned him and tabloids had a field day with the rumors about his health and his weight loss. Reports stated that he was dying of either cancer or AIDS. Reynolds had his long-delayed Elmore Leonard adaptation STICK in theaters in 1985, but it was actually shot in late 1983, prior to CITY HEAT and the jaw incident. Other than a cameo in his buddy Mel Tillis' 1986 comedy UPHILL ALL THE WAY, Reynolds was offscreen until the release of HEAT in March 1987. Savaged by critics and ignored by audiences, HEAT was a troubled production that cycled through three directors--Robert Altman quit after one day, his replacement Dick Richards made most of the film before quitting after an on-set physical altercation with Reynolds, and then TV vet Jerry Jameson finished it; director credit went to "R.M. Richards"--and opened in 11th place. In three years, Reynolds went from box office king to Hollywood pariah. Burt was back and he was in good shape, healthy, and fully recovered, but HEAT's paltry gross left little doubt: nobody cared.

HEAT was the first of three comeback vehicles Reynolds had lined up for 1987. The second was MALONE, opening less than two months after HEAT. The results were almost identical: MALONE opened in 11th place and grossed $3 million before quickly disappearing from theaters. HEAT grossed just under $3 million but both were stunning freefalls from the blockbuster revenue generated by Reynolds films over the preceding decade or so (even CANNONBALL RUN II grossed $28 million in theaters and that was considered weak by Reynolds standards in 1984). HEAT and MALONE bombed so badly that the third Burt comeback movie, RENT-A-COP, which paired him with Liza Minnelli, saw its wide release nixed and was unceremoniously bumped to January 1988, grossing $300,000 on just 200 screens. The idea of a megastar like Reynolds being downgraded to a limited release was almost unheard-of in 1988, but the message came through loud and clear: moviegoers no longer gave a shit about Burt Reynolds.

Of course, Reynolds has proven himself to be nothing if not resilient. There was an undeniable "pile-on" mindset in the way critics approached Reynolds films during his 1987-and-onward return to the big screen, and these films during his darkest period (at least to that time) aren't nearly as bad as their reputations would suggest. HEAT has aged well as a character piece, and 1988's THE FRONT PAGE/HIS GIRL FRIDAY remake SWITCHING CHANNELS is a perfectly enjoyable screwball comedy that shows Burt in fine form engaging in witty, rapid-fire repartee with Kathleen Turner and Christopher Reeve. Even a dull misfire like 1989's PHYSICAL EVIDENCE has a decent Reynolds performance for completists. Reynolds got some of his best reviews in years in the low-key 1989 indie BREAKING IN, which led to the short-lived ABC series B.L. STRYKER before Reynolds' career saw a major resurgence in 1990 with the CBS sitcom EVENING SHADE, and this was all prior to his Oscar-nominated career-best performance in 1997's BOOGIE NIGHTS.

MALONE's incredible
VHS cover art 
Of the films from this period of Reynolds' career, it's MALONE that seems to have resonated the most, though certainly some of its appeal is ironic. It's not a particularly good movie, but it's an entertaining one. Its cult seems to be a sentimental one: as pointed out by Johnny Larue's Crane Shot's Marty McKee, it's got one of the most ridiculous cover boxes of the VHS era (much improved over the bland theatrical poster art), and Reynolds sporting a softball-sized shotgun blast in his gut and the most ludicrous wig of his career. It's McKee who posited the groundbreaking theory that the poofier Burt's wig, the dumber the movie, unlike, say, SHARKY'S MACHINE, where he's wearing his smaller, "serious toupee" (© Marty McKee). Also, the title MALONE just sounds like a cliched cop movie that might be on a double bill with Rainier Wolfcastle's latest MCBAIN joint. From a nostalgia standpoint, though it was made by Orion, MALONE is the closest Reynolds came to making a Cannon-type actioner. Everything about it, from the action and the style to the pace and the score, looks and feels like it should be a Golan-Globus production being directed by a pre-comeback John Frankenheimer. If you're unsure if you'll enjoy MALONE, just play the Cannon intro before watching it and it instantly improves. It's hardly Reynolds' best film, but like HEAT and SWITCHING CHANNELS, it didn't deserve the miserable response it got from critics and fickle audiences who were moving on to things like LETHAL WEAPON and other bigger and louder Joel Silver extravaganzas like DIE HARD. The action movie was in transition, and Reynolds, like Charles Bronson and even Clint Eastwood, would fall victim to the shift, forcing them to adapt or move on to other things.

Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, MALONE opens with burned-out covert ops CIA agent Malone (Reynolds) unable to pull the trigger on his latest target. He informs his handler/lover Jamie (Lauren Hutton, Reynolds' GATOR co-star) that he's leaving the agency. "You know too much! You can't just walk away!" she implores. "Watch me," Malone glumly replies. Driving with no particular place to go, Malone finds himself stranded in a small town in rural Oregon when his car breaks down. Malone befriends Vietnam vet mechanic Paul (Scott Wilson) and his spunky late teens daughter Jo (Cynthia Gibb). Paul is one of the last remaining holdouts, refusing to sell his business and his property to Charles Delaney (Cliff Robertson), a paranoid, far-right zealot who's taking over the town and turning it into his base of operations for his plot to "take America back." Delaney has assembled a cabal of one-percenters with the intent of getting himself a Senate seat and bringing down the US government. As Paul, Jo, and Malone are repeatedly hassled by Delaney's goons, Malone finds himself in a classic SHANE situation, helping them protect their property (and trying hard to not succumb to Jo's obvious crush on him) while being the only one tough enough to stand up to Delaney--who keeps a tight leash on useless Sheriff Hawkins (Kenneth McMillan) and thinks Malone was sent there to kill him--and amassing a blood-splattered body count in the process. Malone's troubles don't end there: once news that Malone has surfaced reaches the CIA, the powers that be dispatch Jamie to eliminate him.

An on-set photo from MALONE posted on actress
Cynthia Gibb's web site. Gibb on Burt:
"He made me feel like an equal on set
when I was still such a novice."
MALONE adheres to the SHANE template pretty closely, with some additional FIRST BLOOD in the way that the asshole sheriff keeps trying to run Malone out of town. It's also interesting to note how, even in the context of the jingoistic, "Born in the U.S.A." Reagan era of 1987, Delaney is clearly presented as a psychotic, delusional, and dangerous madman, and an ideological relative of John P. Ryan's similarly politically insane villain in the 1986 Cannon classic AVENGING FORCE. Forget the Senate--today, Charles Delaney's beliefs and statements would likely catapult him straight to 2016 GOP Presidential front-runner. Based on the novel Shotgun by William Wingate, MALONE's credited screenwriter is Christopher Frank, a British novelist who spent most of his career working in French cinema (he wrote the post-BREATHLESS Valerie Kaprisky film L'ANNEE DES MEDUSES). Reynolds said in an interview around the time of MALONE's release that the project originated in Europe and was intended for Gerard Depardieu and then Christopher Lambert before it exchanged hands and ended up in Hollywood with him. Frank's script was reworked for Reynolds by an uncredited Rudy Wurlitzer, best known for writing Monte Hellman's TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971) and Sam Peckinpah's PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973). MALONE was directed by American journeyman Harley Cokliss, whose past credits included the post-nuke WARLORDS OF THE 21ST CENTURY (1982) and the John Carpenter-scripted BLACK MOON RISING (1986), in addition to serving as a second-unit director on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). Cokliss never really distinguished himself enough to rise above the level of C-lister, though his 1988 British horror film DREAM DEMON, which took several years to get a straight-to-video release in the US, was written by the venerable Christopher Wicking and was one of the more ambitious NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET ripoffs. He's worked very sporadically in TV and mostly unseen movies from 2000 on, but in the early '90s, Cokliss pulled a "Fronk-en-steen" and started calling himself "Harley Cokeliss," presumably to ensure the correct pronunciation and to prevent people from snickering at "Cokliss."

Reynolds at the Philadelphia Comic Con in May 2015

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