I read Mad Magazine in the 1980s, I know this is the worst movie ever made, but what this post presupposes is… maybe it isn’t? At first I thought it’s a “bad movie” because the lead guys are playing cheesy songwriters, and people weren’t used to hearing “bad” music in a movie? Turns out it’s because behind-the-scenes drama, power struggles, and budget overruns made it a laughingstock before it even opened, a boring reason to pile on a movie.

Our guys are ditched by their girls (Tess Harper of No Country for Old Men, and Carol Kane) and take a deal to do shows in the titular city (country?), where they’re immediately accosted by spy Isabelle Adjani whose murdered boyfriend has hidden a treasure map. Beatty is helping her, while Hoffman is spying for CIA Charles Grodin. There’s an overly helpful local kid named Abdul, because it was 1987. Cute movie.

In Cinema Scope, Christoph Huber calls out the

brilliantly “believably bad” songs composed for the film by Paul Williams (whose work here rivals his inspired compositions for Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, another long-underrated satiric dismantling of the entertainment business — though Ishtar in some ways one-ups it with its critical allegory of Hollywood colonialism via the fusion of entertainment and politics).

RIP Alan Arkin, who even the day after watching this I was back to getting confused with Alan Alda. If I’d checked what else I’ve seen by Hiller I might not have watched this silly movie, but it’s a solid excuse to watch Peter Falk for 100 minutes. Mismatched guys’ kids are about to marry, Falk gets Arkin mixed up in an international incident, the movie staying ambiguous whether Falk is criminal or CIA or insane. They’re finally taken to the General who plans to crash the global finance system, and rescued from firing squad by American forces. Arkin had recently played Freud, Falk was between Muppet movies.

The Guys:

El General: Richard Libertini of the Unfaithfully Yours remake

BONUS: David Paymer’s first feature

We prepped by rewatching part one, where Kittridge was a standout, just the gov’t boss who has to say all the plotty dialogue, but he turns it into a twitchy physical performance, so we were psyched for his big return. I think I got the plot here, but not the allegiances – Cruise and Kittridge are both trying to destroy the world-domination superconnected AI, but Kittridge’s guys (Shea Wigham from a lotta shows and a guy named Tarzan from Top Gun 2) keep shooting at Cruise. Thief Hayley Atwell is a welcome addition, comes fully onboard just as Rebecca Ferguson checks out. Rhames and Pegg are trying to be the tech help when tech can no longer be trusted. Weapons broker Vanessa Kirby (soon to be Joaquin’s Josephine) is excellent as herself and her mask-self. Human baddie Gabriel (Esai Morales of The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit) is both an AI stooge and a boogeyman from Cruise’s pre-agent past, who falls out with his muscle Pom “Mantis” Klementieff at the last minute. After a thousand sleight-of-hand tricks, Cruise has the key and knows it unlocks a beta version of the AI in a sunken submarine… somewhere in the world.

John Woo’s follow-up to Blackjack, a Dolph Lundgren movie I’d never heard of before this moment. But he was obviously chosen based on his Face/Off experience in mask-based deception, and his ability to make dudes look extremely cool riding motorcycles, wearing leather jackets and sunglasses, kicking ass surrounded by explosions, jumping through the air whilst firing two guns.

Thandiwe Newton bounces between hero and villain (Dougray Scott of Ever After). Anthony Hopkins too embarrassed to be credited as the mission leader even though his other credit that year was the Jim Carrey Grinch movie. Aussies: Ving is joined by John Polson in the chopper and the baddie is assisted by finger-trauma Richard Roxburgh. Evil henchman William Mapother had been in Magnolia, but I think not in the Cruise scenes, and the scientist who sets off the whole plot by creating a supervirus runs the costume shop in Eyes Wide Shut. Bad guys just want to spread the virus across Sydney after securing stock options in Brendan Gleeson’s chem company that will manufacture the cure, and stock options are a boring reason to get the whole IMF on your ass, killing you and your friends, but at least they do it in style.

Richard Burton, more intensely sad than I’ve ever seen him, is a spymaster-turned-spy, quitting British intelligence and hanging out with cute librarian Claire Bloom (The Haunting), but actually getting coached by Smiley (“just continue to be embittered, continue to drink”) in the hopes of being picked up by the Germans.

Took me a while to realize that they’d crossed into Germany. It’s established that Burton is fluent in German, but nobody speaks German in the movie, and even accents are rare… they simply keep speaking English, asking the viewer to imagine that it’s German. On the other side, the East Germans all act like they know Burton’s whole deal, but they’re plotting against each other and Burton intends to inflame their rivalry. Oskar “Jules” Werner is the black leather cap-wearing ambitious second in command to 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse star Peter van Eyck. As power and loyalties shift, I’m not sure that even Burton knows if the plot has gone off the rails, but apparently free and victorious at the end, he gets himself killed over the girl, leaving Smiley (Rupert Davies) and Control (Cyril Cusack, pathetic husband in Gone to Earth) needing to find a new sad drunken spy.

It was instructive to watch a perfect 35mm print of a 1970’s movie at the Plaza the night after watching a 4k DCP restoration of a 1980’s movie from the same seat. The 35mm cost more to attend, since screenings are increasingly rare – this is probably my first time seeing a movie on film since The Grand Bizarre 3.5 years ago. I forget who it was who said digital projection is just watching television in public but… I couldn’t really tell the difference?

I remembered the very end of this – Hackman playing sax in his ruined apartment after failing to discover how he’s being surveilled – but not most of the rest, and especially not that his secretive rich client Robert Duvall is the one who gets murdered in the hotel – presumably by the client’s wife and bf whom Hackman’s group was recording in the park at the beginning.

Hackman’s character is especially memorable here – he’s catholic, lives by a strict code, appears to be a master of his craft, but keeps taking jobs that end in murders, getting tricked and betrayed and spied on. Nice spy-movie construction too – we never learn everything, like what the Director’s assistant Harrison Ford was up to. If this was influenced by Blowup, then Blow Out is kinda a remake of both movies.

Story of a man who simply wants to eat breakfast.

On second viewing I’m still confused as to the repair workers’ murderous motivations, or how Timlin heard the conversation about tattooing anchors and “mother” and snuck inside that kid. If the cop is lying about everything that could explain it. On third viewing I’ve decided the movie’s double-agent loyalties and its inconsistency about scar tissue are nothing to fret about.

Scott Speedman costarred with Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld series, which have Resident Evil-ish posters, which makes me tempted to watch them. Ah no, I guess not.

Best movie I’ve seen in a while. Some hits from the sites:

David Cairns in Shadowplay [comparing to eXistenZ]:

There are factions in ideological conflict over questions of authenticity, but instead of Phildickian Big Question #1 (What is reality?) this is more about Phildickian Big Question #2 (What is a human being?). Evolution seems to be getting out of hand… is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Kristen Stewart in Vulture:

It’s really fun to have three scenes. If you don’t nail it, you’re wallpaper. Timlin is so locked up, self-oppressed, wants to be good at her job, and totally represents the rigidity of the government that they live under. And she experiences an awakening in a split second … I’m very rarely asked to play weird little characters like that.

Vadim Rizov in Filmmaker:

No lines are overtly comic in the sense of being meant as funny by those delivering them, but the audience always knows when to laugh at a particularly weird exchange even as Shore’s score keeps a straight face … A lot of the dialogue is unapologetically Big Picture thematics, repeatedly drawing links between suffering and its ability to generate art while wondering if the two are really inextricable. But this thematic flexing, which is simultaneously direct and vague (and hence seemingly infinitely suggestive without actually committing to anything), is less absorbing than Cronenberg’s style, a finely honed, mysterious ability to make medium-shot coverage of characters talking on chiaroscuro-shaded stage builds weirdly entrancing.

Amy Taubin and David Cronenberg:

AT: I laughed throughout.
DC: You are the right audience.
AT: And I cried a lot.
DC: And that’s even better.

Danish Ulrich watches The Red Chapel, agrees with Mads that the movie didn’t find a smoking gun against N Korea, so Ulrich joins the Danish Korean Friendship Society (“a fairly depressing group of people”), befriends the Korean Friends global leader Alejandro (who was a guide for Mads group in Red Chapel and still holds a grudge), visits N Korea regularly as a mole for ten years, bringing in Mads, who hires spies to help. They invent Mr. James, a rich international man of mystery, who would be open to making drug and weapons deals, and soon they’re being asked to transport bombs to Syria, and being sold a Ugandan island for an underground weapons factory (kicking all residents off the island is included in the cost).

I watched Red Chapel in an airport, so it only seemed right that I watch this one in the same place. It nicely unites the other Mads movies: Africa, Korea, int’l crimes, Danish men on a mission. Mole records every damn conversation and gets away with it. Closing text says the UN is investigating, but whatcha gonna do.

Newly unemployed, middle-aged Nebraskans (!) take a rejuvenating vacation at the same time a would-be supervillain plans to destroy Vista Del Mar as revenge for a childhood humiliation. Barb and Star take turns seducing the villain’s henchman Jamie Dornan and end up saving the town. Probably more than half the jokes hit (Damon Wayans Jr.’s self-defeating spy was in the other half), so we had fun. I would tentatively agree to watch Barb and Star go on further adventures, or maybe just Bridesmaids, also created by Mumolo and Wiig.