Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A vintage classic film is “re-imagined” for a modern era, with mixed results.
It’s a pretty common joke nowadays, but back in 1984 it was still fairly novel. Taylor Hackford’s AGAINST ALL ODDS is a loose remake of Jacques Tourneur’s impeccable noir OUT OF THE PAST (1947), with Jeff Bridges stepping in for Robert Mitchum, Rachel Ward stepping in for Jane Greer, and James Woods stepping in for Kirk Douglas. I’m a huge fan of the original film, written by Daniel Mainwairing (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS), who adapted OUT OF THE PAST from his own novel “Build My Gallows High“, which he wrote under the name Geoffrey Homes and which I’ve read and can highly, highly recommend.
So it’s fair to be skeptical of any 1980s movie that is meant to walk in those shoes, but it’s apparent that AGAINST ALL ODDS, however artistically successful it may or may not be, was at least very evidently a passion project, having generously made room in the cast for a pair of vintage noir icons. It’s like the way Stan Lee keeps being dutifully included in all the Marvel movies, only the point of comparison would be if he got to play Doctor Doom. Interestingly enough, original femme fatale Jane Greer has a role in the newer movie, playing the mother of the character she would have been playing in 1947, and in a bizarre but very welcome nod to noir history, veteran actor Richard Widmark gets to play the nefarious string-puller — it’s only bizarre because while Widmark played the heavy and the hero in so many classic films, absolutely none of them happened to be OUT OF THE PAST. (Kirk Douglas and Paul Valentine were the bad guys in that movie.)
That eagerness to pay tribute to the soon-extinct lions of noir is what endears this movie to me, even as its conflicting filmmaking approach probably disqualifies it as the real thing. Journeyman director Taylor Hackford (THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, RAY, last year’s ill-advised PARKER) made the huge hit AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN right before he made AGAINST ALL ODDS, and that brand of sweeping romanticism somewhat clashes when grafted onto a genre of lovecrimes, coldblooded violence, and heartless betrayals.
Unlike authentic film noir, AGAINST ALL ODDS is a film drenched in daylight. It begins with its hero, Terry Brogan (Jeff Bridges) roaming a tropical paradise, in search of an heiress, Jessie Wyler (Rachel Ward) who has gone missing and who Brogan has been hired to find by her boyfriend, skeezy bookie Jake Wise (James Woods, who else?), against a competing offer from Jessie’s mother (Jane Greer) and her consigliere (Richard Widmark).
The fact that all these people can find no headhunter any more experienced than Terry Brogan, who is an aging football star eager to reignite his fading career, is a bit of a head-scratcher which the movie doesn’t seem bothered to pry into too deeply. Terry has betting history with Jake, which means Jake has him over a barrel, but still, if you have a mystery to be solved, do you hire a Tom Brady or do you find a Lt. Columbo? And again, doubling back after the initial tropical opening, to go into football-field flashbacks isn’t exactly fertile noir territory.
After a brief cameo from the great Bill McKinney as the head coach of Terry’s team, the trainer Terry turns to in his hour of need, Hank Sully, is portrayed by one-time NFL star Alex Karras, best known to most of us for his henchman role in BLAZING SADDLES and for playing Webster’s dad. It’s no great surprise that Sully turns out to have a role in the network of double-crosses that ensues, but with bad guys like this one, it is hard to buy into the menace that the movie kind of needs to be a true noir.
James Woods does supply some snakish creepiness, especially in a legitimately-terrific practical-stunts sportscar scene where he and Bridges race each other in actual traffic on Sunset Boulevard in West L.A., but the plot sidelines and neuters him in ways Kirk Douglas never had to worry about in the original.
The main point of interest in this film is that it is a lesser-remembered part of the filmography of Jeff Bridges, who is now finally receiving his just due on a widespread basis. As an older character actor, he’s endlessly fascinating, but as a leading man, he had an all-American quality that led some to undervalue his acting talent. There was never anything bland about Jeff Bridges, and taking another look at even his earliest movies confirms it. There’s an edge and a viciousness that creeps into Bridges’ portrayal of Terry Brogan that gives the movie more weight than it would have had with any other lead actor. I don’t believe that this is a very greatnoir, but he’s good at playing a noir hero. The other thing you’re going to notice about him in this movie is, “Holy crap that guy is good-looking.”
I don’t care how straight you are, it’s pretty impossible not to notice that this is one attractive dude. Rachel Ward is a pretty excellent-looking woman, but she’s away from the screen for large stretches of this film, whereas Jeff Bridges is on screen pretty much the entire time. This movie ogles Jeff Bridges the way most movies ogle beautiful women. Maybe that was the intent. Maybe this was meant to be a new hybrid: chick-flick film-noir. If that’s the case, more power to ‘em. It’s a great idea for a genre. But please, watch the original first.
Now, there’s only one thing left to address about AGAINST ALL ODDS, and that’s the elephant in the room: Phil Collins.
Phil Collins wrote and performed the title track of AGAINST ALL ODDS, which became one of his signature songs, and in retrospect the song is probably more famous than the movie from whence it came. You really can’t watch the movie now and not be nervously anticipating the arrival of Phil Collins. I’m not slagging Phil Collins — I think it’s a good song and I happily admit that I like it, even though I think the dramatic kicking in of the drums is a bit of a bite off of Phil’s own song “In The Air Tonight” — but again, this is not the kind of tune that ever would have accompanied a classic studio noir and all you have to do is turn on TCM to see what I mean. A real film noir could never provide you with your wedding song, ladies and gents. A real film noir might make you consider swearing off the notion of romance for at least as long as you forgot you swore it off.
Not to mention the fact that there’s not a great reason for this movie to be named “Against All Odds” except for the fact that it has a song called “Against All Odds” at the end of it. I can’t say I was completely unaffected by that ending — I’m only human, damn it! — but again, it’s not of a tone that truly fits the genre of films the movie seems to have planned to homage. True noir achieves a poetic bleakness, not a romantic yearning. I suppose what I’m saying is, AGAINST ALL ODDS succeeded in getting its title track stuck in my head, but the rest isn’t quite as inescapable.
P.S. If you were wondering why AGAINST ALL ODDS reminds you so much of THE GOLDEN CHILD, it’s because both movies share a cinematographer (Don Thorin) and a composer (Michel Colombier.) Also, if you look closely, you can see Victor Wong fly through one of the island scenes in the form of a tropical bird.
(Yes, this was a very strange place to make a very specific reference to THE GOLDEN CHILD.)
AGAINST ALL ODDS is being shown this evening at BAMcinématek at 4:30pm, 7pm, and 9:30pm alongside INHERENT VICE, as two of the final entries in the stellar “Sunshine Noir” series of the past week. It’s gonna get crowded over there, but if you can get in, it’ll be a good night.
Fall in love with me all over again on Twitter: @jonnyabomb
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Tags: Alex Karras, Eric Hughes, Film Noir, Jacques Tourneur, James Woods, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Noir, Phil Collins, Rachel Ward, Richard Widmark, Robert Mitchum, Screenings, Taylor Hackford, The 1980s