Upstream. A Mohawk Valley Blogzine.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Kidnapping of the President (1980) - Film Review

My exposure to foreign cinema has been, sadly, limited. Despite the fact that film is my first love, I still have yet to see anything by Fellini, Kurosawa, Godard, or Bergman. I am especially lacking when it comes to Canadian cinema. I have seen a handful of Canadian films, but since they are, almost without exception, complete garbage, I know I must be missing out on some classics. I’ll admit freely that the television movie "Anne of Green Gables" (1985) and its sequel "Anne of Avonlea" (1988) are two of the greatest films ever made and that "The Grey Fox" (1982) is a mini-masterpiece. But the rest of my experiences north of the border--"The Mask" (1961), "Deadly Harvest" (1977), "Def-Con 4" (1985), the abysmal public television film "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" (1985), and today’s reviewed film--have been less rewarding.

"The Kidnapping of the President" (based on a Charles Templeton novel) opens in South America, where general purpose terrorist and rebel insurgent Roberto Assanti (Miguel Fernandes in a role that has John Saxon written all over it) brutally murders three people, one of whom is a female compatriot. It turns out that these unlucky victims knew too much about Assanti’s upcoming plan to....kidnap the president.

As our film progresses, we find out that our president is not Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter, but none other than Adam Scott (a very good president name), played by the great Hal Holbrook. Holbrook had, four years earlier, played Deep Throat in "All the President’s Men"...so you can insert your own political cinema joke at this point. Pres. Scott is that classic, "morally flawless president put in crisis" character type we saw previously in such films as "Fail Safe" (1964, played by Henry Fonda) and "Virus" (1980, played by Glenn Ford). Scott, we find out, is about to make a visit to....Toronto!! The stated reason for said trip has to do with the then topical energy crisis issue, but we really know that the only reason he’s going there is because it’s a lot cheaper for the filmmakers than having to shoot in D.C. or make Toronto LOOK like D.C.

Well, it turns out that despite Assanti’s blood-spilling, word of his plan has made its way to government officials, specifically Secret Service agent Jerry O’Connor, played by Canada’s greatest son: William Shatner. At this point, I would like to go into my spiel about how Shatner is one of the greatest, most underrated and entertaining actors ever (which I really believe)...but I won’t. O’Connor is that classic character type who knows there will be impending danger, warns everyone of impending danger, but is never listened to until it’s too late and he has to save the day. If this film had had a bigger budget, this role would have been handed off to the self-righteous likes of Henry Fonda or Sidney Poitier. But anyway...O’Connor insists that, despite reports that Assanti is dead, he is actually alive and well and planning imminent harm for the president. He is not taken seriously by the president or that character who is a high ranking official who contemptuously scoffs at every piece of common sense until he is made to look like an utter fool. In this case, that character is a member of the FBI named Deitrich (Gary Reineke). For comparison, I refer you to characters such as those played by Dana Andrews in "Battle of the Bulge" (1965), Martin Landau in "Meteor" (1979), and Andrew Robinson in "Cobra" (1986).

Because creating genuine suspense would apparently be too much of a feat for this film to accomplish, it instead takes the ol’ "paint by numbers/fill in the blanks" approach to storytelling. The rest of the film unfolds with nary a surprise in store. Pres. Scott IS kidnapped. Agent O’Connor DOES take charge. Deitrich is made to look like an UTTER FOOL. And O’Connor SAVES the day.

This is definitely one of those "Why did they bother?" efforts. The idea of the president being kidnapped has possibilities, but this film doesn’t. It lacks the over-the-top approach needed for a good disaster film and the tension and intricacy of a classic suspense piece, not to mention any sense of style. The whole ordeal is sloppily constructed, with more than one plot hole in sight. For example: after being taken hostage, Pres. Scott is handcuffed inside an armored truck which has been rigged to explode if it is physically tampered with from the outside. Logic would dictate that it might be wise to cordon off the area around the truck, to prevent it from being accidentally detonated by a Secret Service agent tripping over himself and falling against the vehicle. O’Connor, though, feels that police lines hundreds of feet away from the vehicle provide sufficient protection, leaving not even a single policeman, agent, or even mountie between the police lines and the truck. As a result, when a tripped-out hippie seeing himself as the president’s savior breaks through the line and runs toward the truck, O’Connor is forced to shoot him dead. The whole purpose of this is to arouse suspense and create some bitter human drama...but all it succeeds in doing is showing how the filmmakers were too lazy to create a believable scenario. I wouldn’t expect much else from director George Mendeluk, whose contributions include such classics as "Meatballs III" (1987). But it IS really disappointing that this whole cobjob was written by none other than Richard Murphy, who had received a Best Screenplay Academy Award nomination for the 1947 classic "Boomerang!", one of my favorite movies.

One of the few positive aspects of the film is its cast. But even this compliment can be made only half-heartedly. Ava Gardner, as the vice president’s wife, is a treat to see...for the two seconds she’s in the film. Shatner’s performance isn’t really bad, but generally devoid of the classic Shatnerisms (the emphasized pauses in speech, the overemoting) that make his work so entertaining. Holbrook and Van Johnson (playing the VP) come off the best, with solid support from such Canadian cinema regulars as Jackie Burroughs and Maury Chaykin.

In the future, I hope to unearth better Canadian treasures than this. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy watching the film...as with many films, it was fun to watch because it was so bad. But from a critical point of view, I can’t help but observe that Roger Corman on a bad day could have made twice as good a film as this with half the budget. Two stars.

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