Mediocre: Jailbreakers

Jailbreakers (1994)
Directed by William Friedkin
Written by Debra Hill, Gigi Vorgan
Produced by Lou Arkoff, Debra Hill, Willie Kutner, Llewellyn Wells, Amy Grauman Danziger
Starring Shannen Doherty, Antonio Sabato Jr., Adrien Brody, Adrienne Barbeau, Vince Edwards, George Gerdes, Sean Whalen, Talbert Morton, Charles Napier
Just as every moon orbits a planet, so too may every bored alpha female gravitate to a charming rogue. A pretty cheerleader (Doherty) in one such instance falls far and fast for a thuggish hunk (Sabato) governing a gang of greasers in tidy postwar Fresno. Captivated by his rout of rival bikers and the prowess with which he gloms hamburgers, cars and jewelry just for her, she inflames until their brief crime spree’s curtailed by his incarceration. His escape from prison enables them to reunite at and vamoose from her sweet sixteenth birthday party, but a reaffirmed adoration for her brainish beau is dampened by the murderous escalation of his criminality. His career here years into its doldrums, Friedkin shot this installment of the trite, tawdry, televised series Rebel Highway by rote; only a few wildly transgressive moments and tense handheld shots faintly echo his past ingenuity. Doherty and Sabato share considerable charisma and chemistry, but haven’t much to do when they aren’t smooching. Brody fares better (not too many years predating his stardom) as Sabato’s leathered, lovably lanky lieutenant, as do Barbeau and Edwards, Doherty’s typically concerned parents. Fair ’50s detail was imparted to this production’s set and costume design, and further fortified by a fleet of vintage automobiles. Regrettably, Hill’s and Vorgan’s skimpy script barely fulfills a brief 71 minutes, prompting the question of whether the former might’ve crafted an absorbing story with her ex-boyfriend. Only seven years prior, Friedkin was still dissecting criminal pathology; for this, he’s as much an observer as his audience.
Instead, watch Bonnie and Clyde.

Palatable: Rampage

Rampage (1987)
Directed by William Friedkin
Written by William P. Wood, William Friedkin
Produced by David Salven, William Friedkin
Starring Michael Biehn, Alex McArthur, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Nicholas Campbell, John Harkins, Art LaFleur, Billy Greenbush, Grace Zabriskie, Royce D. Applegate, Roy London, Andy Romano, Donald Hotton
Four adults and a child fall to the mad appetites of a hematophagous murderer (McArthur), whose grisly atrocities prove judicially thorny when his prosecution’s assigned to an assistant district attorney (Biehn) doubly averse to capital punishment since his daughter’s demise. From a confirmation of legal insanity and permutations of temperament and opinion, this sober, unsettling thriller creepily ramifies to provoke moral and juridical questions submitted to both its fictional jury and audience’s informal panel. Largely restrained by Friedkin’s standards, his last quality feature showcases his typical tautly scrupulous style and proper ensemble at their very best: Biehn forcibly emanates as much tense indecision in silent close-ups as upright ire when grilling dubious expert witnesses (Harkins, London) on the stand; in gentle contrast, his grieving wife’s tenderly rendered by Van Valkenburgh; goggling Zabriskie’s surprisingly understated, typecast effectually as the defendant’s oblivious mother; vacillating from insouciant iniquity to vulnerable hypochondriasis to maniacal violence, McArthur’s feels more real than any of the dramatized representations of serial killers that glutted theaters in the ’90s and aughts, be they misadapted from Thomas Harris’s novels or contrived in their slipstream. Fortunately, this histrionic caliber compensates for both an unexplainable overuse of the main theme from Morricone’s memorably moving, minatory score that diverts the viewer from and suffocates the still dramatic tension of several scenes, and some daft dialogue verifying that Friedkin’s unfit as a sole screenwriter, such as an awkward equation between the NSDAP and McArthur’s bloodletter propounded by Biehn’s D.A. in court to comparatively exemplify the alleged sanity of both sanguine parties. Yeesh. Equally baffling is an unresolved, strangely foreshortened subplot involving the separation of Biehn’s and Van Valkenburgh’s couple. His faltering instincts spoiled this less than the veteran filmmaker’s next ten flicks, but it’s still reduced for its defects from a potentially exceptional fictionalization of an actual criminal case (that of outrageous “vampire killer” Richard Chase) to a mere curiosity. The bankruptcy of De Laurentiis’ DEG dashed plans for this picture’s North American distribution, and Friedkin recut its conclusion for a limited engagement courtesy of Miramax in ’92. Mirroring Chase’s fate, its original ending is more challenging for its refusal to interpret its tortured antagonist, and poignant for a suggestion that filial love might heal the most scathing trauma.

Mediocre: The Hunted

The Hunted (2003)
Directed by William Friedkin
Written by David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths, Art Monterastelli
Produced by Richard Hawley, James Jacks, Ricardo Mestres, Art Monterastelli, Sean Daniel, David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths, Marcus Viscidi
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Connie Nielsen, Leslie Stefanson, John Finn, José Zúñiga, Mark Pellegrino, Ron Canada
To this thriller concerning the pursuit of an accomplished Army assassin (Del Toro) turned sylvan serial killer by the tracker and survivalist (Jones) who trained him, Friedkin brought only his name and mere competence. Although the supporting players are fine and Jones reliably credible, wolfish Del Toro’s decidedly erratic despite congruous casting; his thousand-yard stare is impeccable, physicality intimidating and presence as prodigious as any onscreen, but he overacts oddly with excessive cephalic gestures — an unaccountable failing for a performer and director known for nuance. Stunts supervised by Buddy Joe Hooker are consistently crack, and under the oversight of choreographers Rafael Kayanan and Thomas Kier, Jones, Del Toro and their stunt doubles cut knife fights as select for their credibility as their excitement. Regrettably, contemporarily common flaws nullify impact and realism: wretched CG of blood spatter, volant blades and Jones carried downstream through rapids are embarrassingly bogus; Del Toro’s C.O. woodenly recites for his men and the audience worthless exposition of their historic circumstances and mission on a battlefield late in the Kosovo War; Del Toro farcically flouts his hunters whilst hunting them; during an abeyance in a prolonged, conclusive chase, the leads find time to forge knives from stone and steel; like that of every other major motion picture produced during the aughts, Caleb Deschanel’s photography is immoderately blued by filters. Ugh! Uncertainties constitute this story’s only fascinating facets…how much of the wayward killer’s paranoia regarding a conspiracy to neutralize him is sound? Can his bygone, irrespondent instructor subdue him for a want of bloody experience? In his heyday, these equivocalities and the consequences of mentorship and martial purpose in an age bereft of institutional loyalties would’ve been explored by Hurricane Billy…here, he’s only expected to set his shots.
Instead, watch First Blood or Deliverance.

Palatable: To Live and Die in L.A.

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
Directed by William Friedkin
Written by Gerald Petievich, William Friedkin
Produced by Irving H. Levin, Bud S. Smith, Samuel Schulman
Starring William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow, Debra Feuer, Darlanne Fluegel, John Turturro, Dean Stockwell, Michael Greene
Multitudinous minor mistakes mar this energetic thriller of a gutsy Secret Service agent’s (Petersen) endeavor to apprehend a truculent counterfeiter (Dafoe) by means licit and otherwise. Friedkin proved himself as technically adept as ever during his unwarranted losing streak, sustaining his reputation as a rival to Peckinpah by his virtuoso implementation of chase scenes afoot — as Petersen and his relatively trepid partner (Pankow) pursue a wily bagman (Turturro) in LAX and other abettors in alleys and bridges — and automotive in collaboration with stunt coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker, as they evade unidentified assailants through one of L.A.’s sprawling industrial districts in a breathless sequence shot with dash to match his famed train chase in The French Connection. So too does the New Hollywood veteran put his players through their paces: Petersen’s mesmerizing machismo’s countered impressively by Dafoe’s discomfiting introspection as unscrupulous opponents whose disregard for integrity and unflinching persistence steel them to contend with manifold threats and incumbrances. As the forger’s attorney, Stockwell’s gravitas serves as ballast for the more dynamic personalities at play, and Feuer and Fluegel shine sultrily as Dafoe’s terpsichorean girlfriend and Petersen’s informant and periodic slam piece. As vibrantly as those of his collaborations with Wenders, Robby Mueller’s photography of grimy Angelean streets and Lilly Kilvert’s chic interiors provides an eyeful in every shot; keenly paired with Jerry Trent’s and Sam Crutcher’s crisp foley, snappy editing by Scott Smith and Wang Chung’s percussive cuts, Friedkin sustains momentum splendidly, as during a titular montage introducing key characters and locales and a brilliantly rendered sequence demonstrating the exacting fabrication of sham cash antedating digital methods. Alas, so many great scenes are bookended by a gawky duad: otherwise sharply executed, a prologue during which Petersen and his senior partner (Greene) frustrate the designs of a Palestinian terrorist lapses at its culmination into a clumsy clinker akin to something shot by one of Golan Globus’ star directors and butchered in post-production; ulterior to a fiery climax, Pankow’s agent assumes his partner’s role and temperament to enliven a disappointing denouement wherein Friedkin fails to effect a profound transposition of identity, a flub doubly dreadful in contrast to the equivocal masterstroke with which Cruising was concluded. Furthermore, Petievich and Friedkin’s dialogue too often veers from snappy style to footling fustian — a fault one might rightly impute to scripts by Michael Mann, whose idiom influenced this pic, and who directed Petersen just so well as a heterogeneous investigator in Manhunter a year later.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Thief.

Favorites: Sorcerer

Sorcerer (1977)
Directed by William Friedkin
Written by Georges Arnaud, Walon Green
Produced by William Friedkin, Bud S. Smith
Starring Roy Scheider, Francisco Rabal, Amidou, Bruno Cremer
From the flagrant wreckage of a sabotaged oil well in an unspecified South American jungle spans two hundred miles of muddy, rocky, rugged, flexuous road fraught with slaughterous rebels, ramshackle platforms and bridges, and seemingly insurmountable obturations to a sordid slum where an unstable cache of nitroglycerine selected to extinguish that site’s unrelenting blaze is loaded onto two battered, refurbished cargo trucks driven by a quartet of lammed malefactors: a Latino hitman (Rabal), French banker (Cremer), Palestinian terrorist (Amidou) and American mob driver (Scheider). Friedkin’s sweaty, savage adaptation of Arnaud’s The Wages of Fear is at least as enthralling as Clouzot’s chef-d’oeuvre, embracing profuse excitation and substance in equal measure by grippingly graphic depictions of desperate men galvanized by the challenges, frustrations and fatal rigors of their supremely exigent enterprise and all its attending cruel vagaries to perseverance, greatness, furor and madness. Exploiting his chief assets — an eximiously expressive lead cast and locations of Elizabeth, Veracruz, Jerusalem, Paris, La Altagracia, New Mexico’s Bisti Badlands and the wilds of the Dominican Republic — to amplify the realism of this fantastic conveyance, Hurricane Billy judiciously curbed most of his cinematic flourishes and resorted to an unobtrusively observational style, his every shot maximizing harrowing tension and suspense of a potency that persists in repeat viewings. Withal, those thrills of parlous remotion and transport constituting the picture’s second half are anteceded by expository turpitudes: a contumeliously unorthodox heist, the fulmination of an Israeli bank inciting the IDF’s blistering reprisal, and a fiery provincial riot provoked by the unceremonious delivery of rig laborers’ weltered and charred corses to their village. A soaring synthesized score of pulsing arpeggiation by Tangerine Dream underscores apprehension and anticipation in sparing application, never diverting viewers from the pitfalls its protagonists hazard. Regrettably, this beau ideal of action cinema was eclipsed by the grand umbra of George Lucas’ coterminous and pivotal phenomenon to evanesce, but contemporary acclaim by cineastes and Friedkin’s faithful swell its revival annually…