If they can survive to the last chapter, they may have a best seller.
An interesting premise quickly falls flat in this late '80s potboiler drama, Best Seller is a cop drama that forgot to add the drama into the mix. Not even the high caliber of actors can save this movie; for, in the end, you discover that you have watched a story that is empty of any excitement and edge. Because of this, you realize that instead of focusing on the story, you are daydreaming about the minute inconsistencies and silly '80s dialogue in the movie.
Facts of the Case
What happens when a rogue assassin decides to come clean and tell his story to a cop, who just happens to be a best selling author?
Cleve (James Woods, John Q, Riding In Cars With Boys, Contact) says that he was a hired gun, literally, who helped make Kappa Industries a profitable corporate behemoth. After 15 years of being an assassin, he decides that it is time for him to take down the man and the firm that he helped create. To do this, Cleve turns to part-time writer / full-time cop Dennis Meechum (Brian Dennehy, Tommy Boy, Cocoon).
Back in 1972, Dennis' life was dramatically and forever changed during a robbery at a police evidence room. That fateful day, four men, dressed up like Richard Nixon, bust into Dennis' precinct to steal locker #84 from the evidence room. All seems to be going to plan until the bad guys decide that the cops must die. In the blink of an eye, three cops are dead but Dennis is able to stab one of the robbers; but not before he is shot two times—yet he survives. It is this incident that causes Dennis to become an author, and his first book becomes a best selling account of that infamous day.
Skip ahead 15 years to 1987, where we find Dennis on an undercover assignment down on the docks. As things tend to go in the movies, the bust goes awry and the suspects make a break for it; and Dennis is off in hot foot pursuit! During the waterfront chase, Cleve shows up and begins to follow Dennis. Cleve says little but drops a hint that he knows Dennis, but Dennis is not exactly sure who this man is. Is he an innocent citizen? Is one of the bad guys? As the chase continues, Cleve ends up saving Dennis' life by killing the suspect before he can shoot Dennis.
In due course, Cleve introduces himself to Dennis and begins to tell his story—of being a hired gun for Kappa Industries. He says that he has killed dozens of men over the years, and now he has had enough and wants to take down David Madlock, the head of Kappa. Cleve has come to Dennis because he likes the way his first book on the evidence room heist was written.
As the movie progresses, Cleve works to convince the highly skeptical Dennis that his assassination stories are true. They travel from city to city, uncovering old clues to Cleve's past. Some things tend to corroborate his story, while others do not. Who is Cleve? Is he really telling the truth about his past? Will Dennis write the book? What is Cleve's true motivation? What connection does Cleve have to that terrible day in 1972? What does he want to accomplish by bringing Dennis in on his secret?
Quite simply, the acting talent of James Woods and Brian Dennehy is greatly misplaced in this "thriller." While the story has the potential to be interesting, nothing in the story is overly intriguing. Laden with all of your favorite clichés from the '80s, you never experience any sense of danger or feel compelled by Cleve's manipulations. One thing after another happens, often for reasons that are not apparent—except, of course, for introducing another action scene to the movie. You are led to believe that Cleve is brilliant and cunning, but it all seems so trivial and plodding.
In doing some research on this movie, I have discovered that many people believe this to be James Woods' best role ever. As I have never been a big fan of James' work, I cannot make a definitive statement on how this role fits into his repertoire. What I can say is that I am uncertain if he accurately presented the character as intended. At the end of the movie Cleve says, in effect, "Make me the hero of your book." If that was Cleve's purpose, then James failed in portraying the character in that fashion, for I found Cleve to be more psychotic than heroic. But, maybe that is the final twist of the movie. A character who does not understand himself and thus cannot convey his desires to others. In the end, I prefer James Woods' portrayal in Contact far more than what he did here.
On the other hand, I have always liked Brian Dennehy. There is just something warm and cuddly about the guy, and I like his acting method. Unfortunately, Brian's performance is mediocre at best. What truly brings his performance down a notch are small details that go on around him in an effort to make his character seem more heroic; for example: running. Everyone knows that Brian is a big guy—not exactly the picture of health and fitness. But in this film, they put him in two foot chases. Imagine Brian trying to run after a leaner, younger, healthier man. It just does not work. What is even funnier (or is it worse?) is in the second chase, James Woods has to simply jog to match Brian's run. I think even the bad guy their chasing felt bad for Brian as he is only jogging as well.
Everyone looks to have made the best attempt with the material given to them. My only quibble is, as mentioned above, with James' approach to the character. Everything else from direction to cinematography is nicely done. Well, let me take that back. The background actors are pretty bad too. Keep an eye out on the tall, blonde guy in the police station as he argues with a cop. Terrible!
MGM has done a decent job with the transfer of this 1987 film. We are given the option of either an anamorphic widescreen or full frame presentation—on flip sides of the disc—for our viewing pleasure. The transfer is a bit on the soft side; colors are accurate but muted; there is some light grain throughout; the night scenes are too dark; but there is no artifacting or edge enhancement. It isn't a great transfer, though not bad for a low budget movie from 15 years ago. As for the audio mix, we get a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. There's not much to say for mono except that the dialogue is easily understood. Not much to get excited over here.
The only bonus feature is the theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What is Cleve's motivation in this movie? What does he really want? I do not believe that we ever receive any answers to these questions. Even worse, what is Dennis' motivation to help Cleve? As you will learn if you see this movie, Cleve does have a connection to the 1972 robbery/murder. Dennis learns this very early on, from Cleve himself. As soon as Dennis learns this, you would expect him to arrest Cleve. That does not happen. Why doesn't Dennis put Cleve in jail? So many fundamental questions left unanswered…
I very much wanted to like this movie. The premise sounded interesting and the main actors can be very good when given the right material. Sadly, that is not the case here. While the movie is not gripping, the 95 minutes do seem to go by quickly enough and it will not bore you to death. Not the best nor the worst movie you will ever see. You would expect to see this quality of movie at 11:30 pm on a Sunday night.
MGM is found not guilty on all charges. A heartfelt attempt at an engrossing drama was made, but it failed on almost all fronts. All I ask is the James Woods' "highly stylish" '80s wardrobe be burned and put out of its misery.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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