The prophetic satire could not be perceived at the time, evidently, and has not been appreciated since, with its reflection of The Martian Chronicles.
The conference-table speech parodies 2001: A Space Odyssey, the engineer’s pool-table disappearance echoes Seven Days in May, Planet of the Apes is evoked in the pursuit of the astronauts, and Col. “Bat” Guano of Dr. Strangelove is cited in the Coke machine and the crop-duster’s “perverts”.
The first reel is a flawless rendering of a Saturn-Apollo launch.
A significant variant of High Noon in which the outlaws are three hit men dispatched by shuttle to a titanium mine on Io where a Federal marshal has uncovered a systematic drug problem designed to increase production.
Several scenes are closely analyzed from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the main production design is rather an industrial application of Things to Come. The Andromeda Strain is indicated by Dr. Lazarus at her analyzer console.
The Star Chamber
This is an impossible object lesson made visible. A judge hearing a particularly heinous case is forced to release the defendants on a technicality. What follows is a surreal or speculative arrangement whereby a group of judges sitting in private pass judgement on such persons. A guilty verdict, rendered by voice vote, results in murder by a hired gunman. This routine continues until the police succeed in tracking down the actual perpetrators of the crime which set the judge on his extra-legal course. He is unable to alter the private verdict reached by the group, because the machinery of execution has already been set in motion. He therefore goes to warn the two accused men, who are psychopaths running a PCP lab.
The strength of this is in its objectivity. Arthur Kennedy in The Glass Menagerie receives an offer from a bargirl to sail away with her, and he takes off in an imaginative speech on the consequences of such an action (modeled on James Stewart’s proposal to Gloria Grahame in It’s a Wonderful Life). The other precedent is Touch of Evil, where the accused is framed, protests his innocence, but is discovered to be guilty after all. And there is Magnum Force.
To put it another way, the discretion of the images, strung together on four or five main structural points, makes for a panoply of abstract conversational topics given real presence, as one might say. It’s these large formal blocks, each ablating away to a formal resolution at the end, which confer simple irreducibility upon a complex meditation.
The Star Chamber seems to have been regarded unfavorably as an escapist fantasy mingled with an action movie, rather than the great examination of justice it is. You can talk about vigilante justice all you want, but until you’ve seen its reductio ad absurdum you haven’t seen it all.
The work is made necessary by a persistent critical undertaking to the effect that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is beyond meaning, boringly or enchantingly so. Therefore, this otherwise singularly unnecessary film is essentially a remake in the form of a sequel, and if the sight of a man “born again” does not offer the spectacle of a transcendent meaning, then Hyams remembering Wellman’s The Next Voice You Hear will have Jupiter implode and serve as a Christmas star.
The tight, telegraphic and allusive language of this film is clear enough if you look at it directly. The opening combines All the President’s Men and Bullitt with a difference, the security officer who discovers the break-in is shot and killed by the escaping burglars, who leave in their wake a smashed and burning police car. The point is, here is something familiar with a new twist.
The art of Peter Hyams is a continuous back-and-forth action between past and present, which translates onscreen as a continually active foreground and background precipitating lambent images of what is really true.
He begins one action sequence with a close-up of oysters on the half-shell and a slice of lemon, monumental as a still life, because action is delectable in a film. Sean Connery in dress uniform and Meg Ryan in a sparkling black evening gown lumber about one scene like fabulous sculptures, then Connery appears drunk and disheveled on the fire escape looking like Sid Caesar’s doorman; a pistol approaches his ear, followed by Jack Warden in a bathrobe emerging from a window, like one of Gotham City’s oppidans greeting the Caped Crusader—all in a few seconds.
There’s a reason for everything in The Presidio. Connery’s presence is crucial for the link to Richard Brooks’ Wrong Is Right, Mark Harmon is there for an athletic chase scene and a complex, temperamental diffidence, Ryan for much the same reason. Warden is the linchpin, receiving a rooftop speech from Connery adapted from Connell’s to John Doe in Capra’s film. We’re all familiar now with the razz that gasoline is (or was) cheaper than bottled water, hence the modus operandi here of diamonds delivered to your door by way of the Philippines.
In the final scene, a military graveyard, an American flag, and a burial detail in dress uniform are all they are and should be, as are the young couple and her father. Another shorthand converts Vietnam + black market + CIA into black ops, and the “beautiful face” of the Statue of Liberty into that of the murdered security officer and the wayward daughter, but that’s enough analysis of this film, which critics then were at a loss to understand.
The highlight of this all-encompassing spoof from a stylistic view is a fine imitation of a Charles M. Jones cartoon (his portrait appears on a postage stamp used by a character), which demonstrates that the Spielberg animation style is a local aberration, and not a national malaise by any means.
Timecop is a curious satire of the New World Order that depends for its circumstance on the strange and even bizarre encounter of two feuding families on the political stage in leapfrogging increments, so that a Senator (Ron Silver) in 2004 goes back ten years to make himself a rich man who can afford to buy the Presidency. This is not expressed in financial terms directly, but in the politicization of government offices, the personal fortune of computer management and suchlike things.
A policeman (Jean-Claude Van Damme) pursues him across the gap of time and witnesses these things first hand. The great citation from Hitchcock recognizes Mt. Rushmore (North by Northwest) in the castle of a man’s home, elaborately.
I think it will be conceded that Hyams plays fair with his material, that he adopts all the strictures of this genre, and takes no unfair advantage toward his colleagues in the field, even allowing as he does for hindsight with an extra proscription of brilliance as a luxury to be eschewed in the interest of clarity. These are IROC rules, where all the vehicles are identical. The great gain, if I may say so, is in the vindication of the director per se against the Sunday driver.
Hyams’ film breathes, where the others do not. It takes nothing away from them, any more than Ritchie’s The Golden Child diminishes Spielberg, but rather shows the relative merits of devotion to the art above every other consideration, in any circumstance whatsoever, even with the Vice-President held hostage by terrorists at a hockey game, and one lone security man (Jean-Claude Van Damme) to save the day.
End of Days
For ten million dollars, I’ll tell you why this is a very, very bad film. “Avoid at all costs!”, I’ll shriek at you for all my little voice is worth. Come on now, it’s only fair, look what they’re paying nowadays.
Here you go: “Peter Hyams is a mediocre director, Schwarzenegger can’t act, it makes no sense,” etc. But why would you pay me such a luscious sum, when hacks are superabundant? It’s a buyer’s market and no mistake.
“Think of it,” i.e., the end of days, “as a change of management,” says Satan. As a matter of fact, dear reader, he has possessed the body of an investment banker (Gabriel Byrne) to accomplish this utterance. What’s more, and to the point of this film, he desires to father upon a twenty-year-old virgin the Antichrist. If you’re watching television, you know.
For free, I will join the fraternity of film critics (“Don’t fuck with the cult,” says Satan) and tell you plainly that Hyams is a great cinematographer, whatever his other failings, one of the best. His editing takes apart action and puts it back together again with surprising results. His direction is impeccable (gratis).
Schwarzenegger has always been a serious, dedicated actor, since he played a petulant weightlifting murderer on The Streets of San Francisco. This is his finest work, and if you are so blind you are sadly unable to see it, you probably write for The Austin Chronicle, and what does that pay, bless you? Half what I know I learned from Godawful critics, they teach you the backward ropes, as you might say.
He plays a private security agent for a firm called Striker (make of it what you please, you Methodists). He’s assigned to protect the Wall Street weasel, and takes two bullets in his Kevlar from a priest named Thomas Aquinas, whom he dispatches in a subway tunnel à la The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, more or less.
Satan himself emanates fierily from a New York sewer like the phantom in Predator, and possesses the banker in a restaurant men’s room. There’s nothing further to say, really. Ponder, if you care to, the state of criticism, and remember my bargain-basement proposition. The Bride of Satan offers Schwarzenegger an innocuous Zanex tablet, amidst one hellish onslaught. “No thanks,” he tells her, “I drink.”