First Look Pictures // 1990 // 88 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // July 27th, 2004
Climbing the corporate ladder can be murder.
In the high-pressure world of late 1980s office politics, advancement is all there is. But for Graham Marshall, this world is about to be rocked, nay, shocked, when his carefully laid plans take a turn for the unforeseen, and he realizes that murder is the best coping skill.
Graham (Michael Caine, Without a Clue) leads a good life, a systematic life. He commutes from his big suburban home to his high-rise office in New York City, and works diligently in his marketing department. He and his wife (Swoosie Kurtz, One Christmas) have been anticipating a big promotion that will validate Graham's career and give them the financial chutzpah to live the high life. The top rung is in sight.
And then, boom, his world falls apart.
He's passed over for the promotion. Instead, it's given to Robert Benham, one of Graham's younger, aggressive coworkers who begins implementing changes off the bat. Graham seethes over the slight, his umbrage further inflamed by Benham's smarmy attitude and fiery ambition.
Graham's unstable home-life compounds his troubles. His wife is distraught over the lack of promotion and berates her husband. Graham's emotions come to a head, during an encounter with a panhandler in the subway. Despite repeated snarls from Graham, the homeless man won't leave him alone. Suddenly, the two are grappling and a slip on the floor leads to the bum taking a header onto the tracks, in front of an oncoming train.
Graham slips away from the train station, paranoid, yet exhilarated. He's suddenly been sprung from the rigid normality of his day-to-day life. Yes, I do believe this man has just experienced a -- SHA-ZAM! -- shock to the system!
He is a different man now, a crafty bastard on the corporate ladder with no conscience (think Mola Ram climbing up the rope bridge ladder; appropriate visual, huh?). And he's not going let no yuppie scum stand in his way.
I mention "yuppie scum," because, as director Jan Egelson notes, the theatrical poster originally sported Caine standing in front of a big banner that shouted "Die Yuppie Scum!" Egelson characterized this marketing ploy as "pretty cool."
That's how I would sum up my experience with A Shock to the System. Pretty cool. I had never heard of the movie and wasn't sure what to expect. But with Michael Caine headlining, I knew there was going to be at least one class act on display.
The movie is an effective dark comedy, which successfully skewers the dog-eat-dog life of the yuppie corporate scene. Benham (Peter Riegert) is delightfully slimy, as the object of Graham's animosity; he chomps his big-ass cigar, boinks his flawless redhead of a wife within hearing distance of Graham and his wife during a weekend stay at his gorgeous lake house, and tools around his sailboat with wealthy abandon.
But the real deal is Caine. As Graham, he runs the show. His narration is dark and cynical and, when he offs the homeless man, his paranoia is spot-on ("My shirt is torn; I must have killed a man.")
As he continually spirals off of the deep end into madness (and the bodies stack up), his character evolves into a loathsome, yet bitingly funny picture of lunacy.
Paradoxically, this character arc is also one of the problems I had with the movie. Frankly, I felt Graham went cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs too fast. It sure was amusing to watch, but nonetheless, disbelief needed to be suspended mightily.
Plus, as he gets more and more into the whole murder thing, I was surprised at how adept a criminal this Manhattan suit became. One second he was kickin' it at the water cooler and soon after he was Carlos the Jackal. The ending especially was just plain goofy.
Save for some contrived character development and an ending that didn't work, A Shock to the System is a smart, wry little piece of comedy/noir -- if that's a genre.
First Look gave the disc a nifty treatment. It's a solid widescreen transfer, which does, however look aged. A 5.1 digital mix pushes the sound, and it's good enough, except for one glaring piece of weirdness: Caine's narration is near mute and pushed to the two fronts. It's nigh indiscernible, and with the volume up, the ambient sound drowns it out. Dopey.
An interview with director Jan Egelson fronts the bonus material, where he divulges how excited he was to make a dark comedy. He also gushes about Caine, and rightfully so. The other worthwhile extra is an alternate ending that is truly alternate, relaying a completely different fate for Caine's character. I almost like it better than the theatrical ending.
This is Caine's movie. Despite some missteps -- that may deep-six it for some folks -- Caine's performance and the film's dark, funny tone make A Shock to the System worthy of a peek.
If this were a bad movie, I'd use the most excellent play on words Schlock to the System. But it's a good movie, and, thus, I've got nothing. Court adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2004 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Alternate ending
* Director's interview
* Still gallery