Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger urges you to pick up 52 Pick-Up. (And yes, that pun would have been equally stupid in the '80s.)
His Wife…His Mistress…His Career…A Deadly Trap
John Frankenheimer helmed notable works such as the Sixties trio of The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and The Train. His gritty realism and intense sense of mood put him firmly on the map of great American directors. But if you cosider another trio of Frankenheimer flicks that led up to 1986's 52 Pick-Up—Prophecy: The Monster Movie, Sword of the Ninja, and The Holcroft Covenant—you'll understand the incredulity some might have shown towards Frankenheimer's porn noir. Yet 52 Pick-Up is a mini-revival of the Frankenheimer magic.
Facts of the Case
Harry (Roy Scheider, seaQuest DSV: Season One) and Barbara (Ann-Margret, Grumpy Old Men) Mitchell seem to have it all. He owns a booming aerospace metallurgical plant that makes parts for the space shuttle while she is running for Los Angeles city council. They have nice cars, nice clothes, and a nice home. They even still love each other after decades of marriage.
But when Harry falls prey to a seduction/blackmail setup, their lives are turned upside down. A nasty trio of slimeballs—Alan Raimy (John Glover, Payback), Leo Franks (Robert Trebor, Xena: Warrior Princess, Season Two), and Bobby Shy (Clarence Williams III, Reindeer Games) insinuates themselves into the Mitchell's lives. Harry stands up to the blackmailers, which escalates the stakes. Who will die first?
The Eighties are not considered a pinnacle of cinematic taste. Between the coke-addled actors, self-centered focus, crass exploitation of anything from clothes to cars to women, and tacky neon aesthetic, The Eighties were something of a creative abyss. Many great movies were made in that decade, of course, but the times are so distinctive and the attitude so pervasive that good movies were made in spite of—not because of—The Eighties.
Yet the very qualities that impeded the decade's classic cinema ushered in a Golden Age of action. Nudity, drugs, and Material Things collided with an unchecked sense of entitlement. Eighties action flicks could do anything without fear of reprisal. John Rambo could gun down hordes of nameless Asians on their own soil; Paul Kersey could booby trap an apartment building and hack street rats to pieces right here in America. In this permissive sweet spot of action mayhem, Frankenheimer was free to combine porn, rape, drugs, and even snuff film footage with a standard "man takes down bad guys" action plot. Given the times, 52 Pick-Up is almost ascetic in its avoidance of excess while still showing lots of sleaze.
As a byproduct of its day, 52 Pick-Up is a better thriller than most. 52 Pick-Up is good for reasons other than lingering looks at Vanity (in full seduction mode…growwwl) and Kelly Preston (snuff film victim—ewww—but stunning nonetheless). It succeeds because Harry Mitchell is a decent guy who doesn't stoop to cruelty. He never caves, hides his fear well, and pits the crooks against themselves. Roy Scheider has the looks and the directness (in other words, the Every Man appeal) to keep us rooting for him. There aren't many flicks where the victim walks into the blackmailer's place and invites him to look through accounting and tax records. This scene works solely because of Scheider and his chemistry with John Glover, whose amusing patter masks a lack of intelligence and a crafty, ruthless personality.
In fact, the bad guys are given three dimensions through three excellent performances (and possibly Elmore Leonard's story, though I haven't read the novel). Akin to Alan Rickman's dramatic sliminess in Die Hard, these larger-than-life scuzzbags have believable personalities and ooze menace because the actors sell the roles. Alan Raimy will kidnap, drug, and rape your wife just for fun, and Bobby Shy will suffocate you with your own teddy bear. These are bad dudes. Bad. So when Harry deals their comeuppance without stepping outside the lines of his personal ethics, we feel rewarded. That's all you can ask for in an action flick: bad guys played by actors having fun, and a manly moral center dishing out just rewards.
Oh, wait, I forgot explosions and mayhem. 52 Pick-Up features at least four explosions, several gruesome deaths, and a car chase. Well, not really a chase—more like shooting fish in a large barrel that resembles a demolition derby. Gary Chang produces another of his patented scores that seem formless but that set everything on edge. The 2.0 mono is flat and listless, but clear and distortion free.
Frankenheimer uses diagonals and extreme lighting to paste a film noir
aesthetic onto an '80s collage of drugs, mindless nudity, and bright lights. The
most obvious film noir reference comes when the Mitchells are creeping down a
stairway in the dead of night to find an intruder. Lances of shadow and light
mask their descent and create tension. When the intruder pops out of a pool of
shadow, it is an effective visual as well as a decent scare. MGM's transfer is
dark, with average detail and adequate contrast. Though edge enhancement pops
up, it is not overused. There are no extras.
I suppose one could wax poetic about themes of moral decay, self-preservation, and the psychological ramifications of criminal life; 52 Pick-Up is a white-collar action flick with pretensions. But the movie is a simple morality play with lots of bimbos, villains, executions, and a clever twist or two. It would be forgettable if not for Scheider, Glover, and Frankenheimer, who elevate the material. This makes it an '80s actioner that is relevant to modern audiences.
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