Transfer: Very Good
Label: Anchor Bay
Released: May 5, 2015
Genre: Action / Comedy
Synopsis: Hollywood’s self-styled rock n’ roll detective searches for a missing girl and three mysterious “data discs.” Explosions, cleavage, and raw sexism drip galore!
Special Features: n/a
Preamble: Joel Silver and Silver Pictures
In 1990, producer Joel Silver was riding high from the success of a string of films that not only became profitable franchises, but brought into vogue a glossy production style that also reflected his philosophy of spending good money to distinguish one’s product from the competition – but much bigger, louder, and prettier.
Silver Pictures had a house style – big screen ‘scope, big 6-track Dolby Surround Sound, casts packed with epic or multiple major stars, and lots of action and wise-cracking dialogue – which ensured Lethal Weapon (1987), Predator (1987), and Die Hard (1988) would be event pictures, the kind of high-concept blockbusters expected during the summer and Xmas seasons to which masses would flock for outright escapism.
Once in a while Silver would produce a dud, but even box office thuds like Road House (1987) and Bruce Willis’ vanity project Hudson Hawk (1991) soon became cult films on home video, possessing various types of fromage (bad dialogue, earnest acting, boneheaded logic, mindless bloated action scenes, and in the case of Hudson, spontaneous singing sequences).
Silver also associated himself with a top talent pool that was more a combination of what-worked-once-should-work-again rather than something ideal for the material, hence lengthy associations with certain directors, cinematographers, composers, and actors. They knew his cheques cleared, and there was a certain prestige attached to a Silver Pictures production, especially when it followed the Fox logo and its triumphant fanfare.
The Adventures of Ford Fairlane was a classic example of the producer as impresario: grab a rising name and build a slick product around him (there never was a ‘her’) and maybe the rewards will yield a new action-comedy star. Worked with Bruce Willis (Die Hard) after a series of godawful Blake Edwards comedies, worked with Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon) after several foundering attempts to succeed in serious dramas, and worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger when the former bodybuilder proved he could smash skulls and spout quips in contemporary action fodder (Commando, and later Predator).
The object of Silver’s quest for the new resided in Andrew Dice Clay, a comedian who managed to build a Hollywood career initially as an actor in TV and movies. He proved he had dramatic chops in Michael Mann’s cult series Crime Story (1986-1988) playing thug Max Goldman, and while the character wasn’t a grand stretch from his ‘Diceman’ comic persona, it was a role that showed he could carry scenes solo and alongside character actors. (More important: between Clay and series co-star Anthony Michael Denison, the former bore the greater acting range).
Ford Fairlane was based on a character by Rex Weiner in 1979, a self-styled ‘rock and roll’ detective in which a Mickey Spillane variant solves assorted murders and corporate crime among the high and low characters within the music industry. (Spillane’s iconoclastic detective Mike Hammer had just ended a 5-year run in a revamped series with Stacey Keach, and in 1994 Rob Estes would tackle the character is a more sexed-up version that failed to go beyond a pilot TV movie, co-starring Pamela Anderson.)
Silver’s project seemed like a winner, given he could lard the film with music stars, spin off a soundtrack album, and use Clay’s existing background as a comedian to carry Ford Fairlane to international audiences.
How much of the Fairlane script was already oversexed in James Cappe and David Arnott’s script is unknown, nor whether their script was developed with Clay in mind or already signed on to star, but Silvers’ production habits, which is neither unusual nor unique to the 1990s, was to bring in known writers that could punch up dialogue and fix structure, and his newfound Mr. Fixer was Daniel Waters, the wry brain behind the still-brilliant Heathers (1988) which similarly launched director Michael Lehmann’s career.
(The sad irony is both Lehmann and Waters would make Hudson Hawk with Willis for Silver, a film that slowed down Lehmann’s theatrical career. Waters would work on a streak of high-profile projects that ultimately led to burnout and exit from Hollywood for 8 years.)
Waters’ wit is untouchable – the reason Silvers’ Demolition Man (1993) still works as satire is the dialogue, pop culture assaults, and hysterical grasp of the absurd – but Fairlane feels like a polish job that was repeatedly diluted to suit Clay’s Diceman persona rather than Weiner’s original character; or a script over which many fights and rewrites ultimately led to a mess that needed a new ingredient to enliven obvious weak spots. (There are definitive Watersians moments, though, which I’ll touch upon shortly.)
The extra oomph came in the form of director Renny Harlin, who’d shown he could bring some gloss to low budget franchise material in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988). Whether Harlin added to the film’s sexism or built upon an existing design to drench the film in vulgarities, Harlin gave Fairlane its gloss, its momentum, augmented chase scenes with scale and kinetics, and had fun with the collage of gags and casting choices.
Prior to Gamer (2009), Fairlane may have the most gratuitous butt and voyeuristic cleavage shots in a $20+ million studio production, but the entire tone of the film is so steeped in the ridiculous, it can’t be taken as outright misogynistic crap. Fairlane’s an asshole, and he doesn’t really evolve more than a millimeter by the film’s end, but he’s frequently chastised for his flaws, and he’s a boorish bully to everyone he meets.
In Waters’ hands, it’s also a satire on the vanity of the music business, albeit told like a qualitatively variable monologue by sexist, middling comedian with the loudest megaphone on the market.
Harlin had directed Richard Edlund in Nightmare, hence the quirky casting of the actor as a Brit thug sporting S&M gear who just never dies. (Coincidentally, original scriptwriters Cappe and Arnott had written scripts for Edlund’s Freddie’s Nightmares TV series.)
Silver larded the film with assorted cast & crew members from prior productions, including John Vallone (Streets of Fire, Commando, Predator) who designed the elaborate sets, character actor David Patrick Kelly (Commando) as a lisping stalker who returns in the film’s second half as an appreciative flower-bearing lad, and stuntmen Al Leong, who’s appeared in many Silver films (he’s the Die Hard henchman who ‘steals’ a candy bar while waiting on the ground level of the Nakatomi Plaza) playing the pizza delivery man as the police sift through the smoldering carnage surrounding a murdered DJ (Gilbert Gottfried).
The Screen Story (as it is) and the Elements
The story is very facile because it’s not the mystery that’s important, but the idiocies that allowed Fairlane to be wacky and rude, and be propelled into assorted near-death moments by eccentric, cartoonish characters.
The film is told in a ‘This is how I got into this mess’ flashback format, where Fairlane is hired first by DJ Johnny Crunch, an old buddy (Gottfried) from his own music days, to find his daughter Zuzu Petals (Maddie Corman), a name clearly patterned after silent screen actress Zasu Pitts.
Soon after accepting the job, Crunch is fried to death by two over-styled henchmen in triangular 1990s leather garb and serious poodle hairdos, and at the murder scene Fairlane butts heads with Lt. Amos (Ed O’Neill) – rhymes with Anus – an old adversary and former whiteboy front-runner for a one-hit wonder disco band.
At his pad, Fairlane’s also hired by a wealthy woman named Colleen Sutton (Priscilla Presley, herself fresh from a long and very successful run on Dallas and the first Naked Gun film) to find the elusive Ms. Petals. Worked into the mystery is Sutton’s relationship with mega-record producer Julien Grendel (Wayne Newton, also hot from playing the secondary villain in the James Bond opus License to Kill), and an ersatz mystery as to why Ms. Petals is so damned important.
When Fairlane inevitably finds the girl – courtesy of an aired music video – he needs to make amends with his long-suffering secretary / assistant / former flame Jazz (pre-Picket Fences Lauren Holly) because she’s the obvious brains in the operation and managed to decipher three things called “data discs” which contain secret plans, a secret music piracy plot, and condoms. The whole shenanigans come to a head at the launch of Grendel’s latest protégé, an even bigger poodle-haired Kyle Troy (Cody Jarrett) whose utter lack of talent is supported by a slick production team of backup singers and session musicians.
There’s also a chase down the iconic Capitol Records building, a koala bear, flaming Sabuca shakes, and an elaborate cemetery chase involving the corpse of a heavy metal singer, limos, and a busty cadaver who consistently distracts Fairlane from driving.
The Waters Touch
Waters’ most obvious contributions are the barbed jabs at the music industry using absurd situations, which director Harlin clearly got, even in small details, such as Fairlane’s club entrance resembling a gunslinger surveying a saloon, un-holstering a cigarette pack and lighter from their leather fittings. There’s also the finale where the debasement of Troy is punctuated with one giant close-up of his tearing visage amid the back-and-forth stage chase – a brilliant moment of bathos
Producer Silver enhanced the production with some unique stunt casting of assorted musicians in small parts and cameos, including Morris Day (Purple Rain) as Grendel’s music producer, Tone Loc as Slam the Rapper, and drummer / Prince protégé Sheila E.
Much of the script does bear Waters’ imprimatur, especially in short slights between characters. A club bouncer’s ‘Hey Ford: no one smokes anymore’ admonishment is a poke at political correctness not unlike the fines levied for swearing in the futuristic tight-wadded world of Demolition Man.
Fairlane’s also stuck with a koala (an elaborate puppet similar to the goofy gopher in Caddyshack) as payment from ‘cheap’ Australian band INXS: both man and fuzzball eat junk food in front of the TV, and the koala does return from the dead alongside a snappy remark directed straight at audiences as the End Credits roll.
There’s one sequences, however, that’s classic Waters. In the denouement, Fairlane hides out in a sorority girls’ hacienda. Harlin and Silver larded the scene with production value, making Ford the only male surrounded by twentysomething babes prancing around in nighties, doing aerobics, having pillow fights, and awarding him an honorary membership in the sisterhood via a ceremony and customized ‘Ford Fairlane’ incantation, all apparently initialized by the sisterhood’s maven, Melodi (8 Legged Freaks‘ Kari Wuhrer, in her second film role).
The ridiculousness of the scene is reminiscent of the oversexed hotel room inhabited by twins in Waters’ writing / directing comeback Sex and Death 101 (2007), where the hero revisits former lovers / busty flames Bambi and Thumper. Their hotel is another pubescent dreamworld of babes, this time distilled to two hotties that enjoy using a full-scale swing set in their playroom.
The film’s big reveal, in terms of true villain and motive, is part of a build-up that seems quaint today: it was all about music piracy, the secret that’s buried in three “data discs” (aka CD-ROMs). The most tell-tale sign of the film’s technological quaintness happens when Fairlane picks up a phone, hears a shrill series of beeps, and a knowing Jazz grabs the chunky phone receiver from her boss and nestles the ear and mouthpiece in respective suction cups to extract a data stream – you know, that thing called a modem.
As loud, sexist, and kind of messy as the film may be, it’s not a disaster but the end product of excess, and heavy customization to benefit a star. Every dime spent is on the screen – Ford Fairlane looks gorgeous – and Silver managed another coup in snagging Yello to score the film.
Yello – whose “Oh Yeah” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) shot the duo to international stardom – likely loaned the production instrumental cues from their in-development album Baby, and while the cues work swell, that’s due to good editing and mixing that actual film composition. Alongside score, source music and plenty of explosions, the film certainly pushed the limits of Dolby Surround Sound, something director Harlin over-achieved in reportedly blowing cinema speakers for the high dynamics in the tanker truck explosion at the end of his 1996 goofy amnesia / La femme Nikita riff Long Kiss Goodnight.
Ford Fairlane didn’t have much chance at the box office when Clay was banned in 1989 by MTV for language and sexist humour, and in 1990 some of the Saturday Night Live performers plus guest singer Sinead O’Connor boycotted appearing on the show when he was slated as host.
Silver’s image of a risqué comedian had veered towards a commercially toxic sexist pig, which didn’t help sell the reportedly $40 million production from introducing a new talent to the masses; fans and connoisseurs of cinema bombast and sexism may have been fine with the film, but not a wide enough spectrum of audiences, hence Ford Fairlane going straight to video in Britain instead of cinema screens.
One could argue Clay never could’ve become a major comedian, but he did have the skill to handle dramatic roles. Whether by desire or as a direct result of the bans and ongoing controversies, Clay’s movie career kind of imploded, and within 5 years he was bloated and banal in the awful CanCon Die Hard rip-off No Contest, in which terrorists take over a beauty contest, leaving Shannon Tweed to save the day from Clay and co-star Robert Davi, the latter stunt-cast by the filmmakers after the actor had appeared in Silver’s Die Hard, and as the chief villain in Licence to Kill with Wayne Newton.
Director Harlin was fast-tracked by Silver to direct Die Hard 2 (1990), while Waters returned to Silver for Demolition Man after toiling on Batman Returns (1992). The experience of writing to please a collection of intense producers, stars and studios undoubtedly led to the writer walking away from Hollywood, whereas other Silver scribes such as Shane Black enjoyed more steady employ. Certainly in the case of Black, one of the era’s top million dollar screenwriters, a certain skill set made him a genuine survivor, moving from Silver’s Lethal Weapon (1987) to The Last Boy Scout (1991), and later The Long Kiss Goodnight for director Harlin.
The Adventures of Ford Fairlane did enjoy widescreen laserdisc and DVD releases, but the film failed to emerge on Blu-ray when most of the aforementioned Silver Pictures had been upgraded to HD, so Anchor Bay’s disc is a welcome addition to fans of the producer’s oevre, Harlin’s kaboom-heavy directorial canon, writer Waters, and fans of Andrew Dice Clay, whose acting career did enjoy a bit of boost in the TV series Entourage (2011) and Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013).
The good news is the transfer is sharp with clean colours, and the audio is fairly robust… but there’s something lacking in the aural boom realm that was very much part of the laserdisc’s appeal. Specific music cues aren’t as enveloping and bass-heavy in the HD transfer, and there are certain explosive moment when the levels are too hot, creating slight distortion – maybe not obvious through speakers, but present via headphones. (A case in point is the Corvette that explodes outside of the sorority house.) The hot peaks may well have been present on the old Fox laserdisc, but the Dolby SR remix for HD lacks the bass and spatial dimension that made the laser a great test disc for a Dolby Pro Logic setup. Anchor Bay’s budget-priced disc is a welcome release, but Fox may have given the film’s audio transfer less careful attention.
AB’s disc is bare bones – there’s no menu and the disc just restarts the film – so it’s a pity no ephemeral extras were packed in to contextualize Silver’s very pricey attempt to launch a new big screen action-comedy star.
The experience may well have made Silver a bit more cautious, but being an industry brand name, there was no reason not to transfer the Silver touch to the small screen, hence the existence of Parker Kane, made the same year by Ford Fairlane’s co-producer / Silver Pictures second unit director Steve Perry. The teleplay was headlined as a Joel Silver extravaganza (with cinematography by Die Hard’s Jan de Bont!), but the detective tale set in Beverly Hills failed to make a star of Jeff Fahey, whose co-starring role opposite Clint Eastwood in White Hunter Black Heart should’ve made 1990 a sweet year for the actor.
For fans of Ford Fairlane, this is probably as good as it gets (I’m still hoping for an isolated score track, dammit), unless a label like Shout! Factory decides to give the film the special edition treatment some day. Those interested in reading Weiner’s original serialized stories can find them assembled in an ebook via Amazon.com.
© 2015 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review