View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD.
Swackhammer, Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny in Space Jam (Photo: Warner)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K, and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
THE BLACK MARBLE (1980). Director Harold Becker and writer Joseph Wambaugh, having successfully brought Wambaugh’s novel The Onion Field to the screen the previous year, reunited for a film that never found its audience — if such an audience existed in the first place. Virtually everything, from the tone to the character relationships, seems slightly off in this seriocomedy in which a boozy, broken cop named Valnikov (Robert Foxworth) is paired with Natalie Zimmerman (Paula Prentiss), a policewoman who’s initially wary of her partner but of course eventually falls in love with him. That the pair never click is perhaps less the fault of the actors and more the responsibility of Wambaugh, who never turns them into interesting characters. The fact that Valnikov has more chemistry with a woman (Barbara Babcock) whose dog has been kidnapped than with Zimmerman is but one example of the film’s inability to gather all its ingredients on the same page. The dognapping proves to be the most unexpected — and thus the best — element of the movie, with Harry Dean Stanton as Philo Skinner, a dog groomer who snatches the pooch in order to pay off a mountain of gambling debts. Stanton is excellent as one of life’s perpetual losers, forever fretting about his woes, and the climactic chase between Valnikov and Skinner is the piece’s sole rousing sequence. Look for many familiar faces in small roles, including James Woods (who had starred in The Onion Field), Christopher Lloyd, and Throw Momma from the Train’s Anne Ramsey.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Becker; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other titles available on the Kino label.
48 HRS. (1982) / ANOTHER 48 HRS. (1990). Here’s a perfect example of a first-rate film that didn’t need a sequel, got one anyway, and nobody was the happier for it.
After breaking out on Saturday Night Live, Eddie Murphy made a film debut for the ages in 48 Hrs., kicking off a terrific run that distinguished him as one of the top box office stars of the 1980s. Murphy plays Reggie Hammond, a convict who’s released into the custody of gruff cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) for the titular amount of time in order to help track down his former cohorts in crime. Both Albert Ganz (James Remar) and Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) are armed and dangerous — in the case of Ganz, he’s armed with Cates’ gun, making it even more imperative that he’s found ASAP. The dynamic established between Cates and Hammond is terrific, with their initial antagonism believably morphing into begrudging respect. Murphy holds the screen in his first cinematic at-bat, and the scene in which Hammond enters a bar full of rednecks (leading to the Oscar-worthy line, “I’ve never seen so many backwards ass country fucks in my life”) is a keeper. Perhaps because it’s in the service of an action flick, Nolte’s performance is often overlooked on his resume, but he’s superb in the film; also commendable are Remar as the vicious killer and Jonathan Banks in a rare sympathetic role as an ill-fated detective.
The established Nolte received top billing for 48 Hrs. while newcomer Murphy landed in second place; needless to say, that order was reversed once Another 48 Hrs. hit theaters following the blockbuster likes of 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop and 1988’s Coming to America. Truthfully, neither star should want to be credited for this sorry sequel, a lame follow-up that offers little in the way of laughs or thrills. Cates again needs Hammond’s help, this time to overturn a false manslaughter charge, but he also realizes that he needs to protect Hammond from being killed by Albert Ganz’s brother Cherry (Andrew Divoff). Unlike the amusing arguments between Cates and Hammond in the first film, the ones here grow tiresome since they register as nothing more than scripters forcing the story — the unintended result is that the characters aren’t as engaging or likable this time around. Then there’s the case of a character who came across as a buffoon in 48 Hrs. but now is suddenly a criminal mastermind. This is sloppy filmmaking on almost every level, and obvious pre-release cutting (about a half-hour’s worth of material) certainly doesn’t help.
Extras on both Blu-rays (sold separately) in the Paramount Presents line consist of a discussion with director Walter Hill and the theatrical trailer. Amusingly, 48 Hrs. also includes the 1966 animated short Space Kid, which Ganz is seen watching on television at one point in the film.
48 Hrs.: ★★★½
Another 48 Hrs.: ★½
HOWARD THE DUCK (1986). Adapted from the cult comic book — certainly one of the wackiest that Marvel has ever produced — and with George Lucas on board as executive producer and chief financier, expectations were high for this $30 million production when it was released in a summer season already flush from the success of Top Gun, Aliens, and The Karate Kid Part II. Instead, Howard the Duck was a massive critical and commercial failure, and it allowed critics to go crazy with groan-inducing bird puns (such as the wag who called it Xanaduck). Howard (voiced by Chip Zien and played by eight different little people), living on an alternate Earth where ducks are the dominant species (leading to lots of visual gags on the order of Rolling Egg magazine and the Indiana Drake movie Breeders of the Lost Stork), finds himself transported to our planet by a mysterious beam. Here, he makes friends with a punk rocker (Lea Thompson, about as “punk” as Pat Boone), deals with interference from a nerdy lab assistant (Tim Robbins), and fights off a monstrous alien intruder who has taken over the body of a helpful scientist (Jeffrey Jones). The jokes are atrocious, the slapstick is wearying, and Howard himself is an ungainly eyesore. Still, there are tiny merits here and there — Jones is amusing once he shifts into the Dark Overlord persona, and the climactic special effects are reasonably engaging — and the overall movie is often fascinating in its blissful perversity.
Extras in the 4K UHD release include a retrospective making-of piece; archival shorts centering on the stunts, special effects, and music; and a featurette examining the picture’s disastrous release (in which the filmmakers try to convince us — and perhaps themselves — that the picture was merely “ahead of its time”).
SPACE JAM (1996). Forget comparisons to the 1988 masterpiece Who Framed Roger Rabbit; Space Jam isn’t even half as good as 2003’s overlooked Looney Tunes: Back in Action, another effort that mixes live action with the animated antics of the Looney toons. Basically a shrine built to honor NBA legend Michael Jordan, this disappointment amounts to the most expensive piece of fan mail ever produced. The plot is elementary but could have served the purpose had it exhibited any true wit: The evil alien Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito) plots to kidnap the Looney Tunes gang and make them slaves at his intergalactic theme park Moron Mountain; their only hope of avoiding such a fate is to play a game of basketball against Swackhammer’s minions, a task that requires Jordan to come to the rescue. Despite their constant presence, the toon stars are largely reduced to bit players in their own co-starring feature, rarely allowed to step out of Jordan’s shadow — shouldn’t it have been the other way around, with MJ fawning over Bugs (who, after all, has been a pop culture phenomenon decades longer than the hoops star)? Ultimately, the movie serves as a reminder of just how far this nation goes in elevating its celebrities to mythic levels. On the plus side, Bill Murray appears as himself and gets off a hilarious crack at the expense of former Celtics star Larry Bird.
Extras in the 4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital Code edition consist of audio commentary by director Joe Pytka, Bugs Bunny (voiced by Billy West), and Daffy Duck (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker); a behind-the-scenes featurette; the music videos for Seal’s “Fly Like an Eagle” and “Hit ‘Em High (The Monstars’ Anthem),” the latter performed by an all-star roster that includes LL Cool J and Coolio; and the theatrical trailer.
TOY SOLDIERS (1991). In Toy Soldiers, five troublemaking teens attempt to foil a band of Colombian terrorists who have taken over their prep school in an effort to force the release of a prominent political figure. Given my general disdain for movies in which inexperienced punks outsmart professional killers (such as the awful Run, starring Patrick Dempsey and released three months prior to this one), I appreciated the harsh tone and unexpected turns in what’s otherwise a standard potboiler. Writer-director Daniel Petrie Jr. and co-scripter David Koepp don’t manufacture this as a slick, PG ode to the rah-rah antics of the Rambo sequels; instead, the teenagers and teachers are as likely to die as the terrorists in this violent, R-rated endeavor. As the leader of the kids, Sean Astin maintains a strong presence and radiates a confidence that’s understandably missing from his most famous role as the whiny, mushy Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Andrew Divoff (also in Another 48 Hrs., above) and Michael Champion provide the requisite menace as the primary villains, while Louis Gossett Jr. and Denholm Elliott provide the requisite authority as, respectively, the school’s dean and headmaster.
Toy Soldiers has been released by Mill Creek Entertainment on a double-feature Blu-ray along with the 1991 drama December. Starring Wil Wheaton (who’s also in Toy Soldiers), Balthazar Getty, and Brian Krause, it focuses on five prep-school friends who, upon hearing of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, must decide whether to join the war effort. There are no extras on either film.