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Case Number 15515: Small Claims Court

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Higher Ground (1988)

Sony // 1988 // 96 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 22nd, 2009

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All Rise...

Judge Clark Douglas was bummed to discover this isn't a John Denver stoner comedy.

Editor's Note

Our review of Higher Ground (2011) (Blu-ray), published December 30th, 2011, is also available.

The Charge

Justice takes flight.

The Case

Jim Clayton (John Denver, Oh, God!) is an FBI Agent with a sensitive side. He doesn't like shoot-outs or violence. No, Jim Clayton is the sort of man who prefers to simply talk his opponent down with soothing words of kindness. Unfortunately, his superiors and co-workers don't feel the same way and often thwart Jim's gentle strategies by bursting into the room with both guns blazing. Jim eventually gets sick and tired of the behavior exhibited by his fellow agents, and in a fit of something almost resembling irritation, he declares in a semi-loud manner, "I quit!" "Good," his boss says. "I was going to transfer you anyway."

Where does a man who has spent his whole life in Los Angeles go when he needs to get away from it all? Why, the answer is obvious: Alaska! Jim just so happens to have a great deal of experience as an airplane pilot, and accepts a job offer from his Alaskan friend Rick Loden (Martin Kove, Wyatt Earp). Jim is pleased to get to spend some time with his old buddy again, and also enjoys getting to know Rick's wife (Meg Wittner, 7th Heaven) and young son (Brandon Marsh). Yeah, things seem pretty quiet and peaceful, which is just the way Jim likes it.

Unfortunately, trouble is a-boilin'. In a desperate attempt to try and pay off one of his planes, Rick has secretly accepted work from a local bootlegger named McClain (Richard Masur, My Girl). Eventually his conscience gets the better of him, and he tells McClain that he's not going to smuggle any more liquor into dry counties anymore. Sadly, that brief moment of nobility costs Rick his life. Absolutely none of the evidence seems to be pointing to McClain, but Jim is determined to avenge his friend's murder. And by "avenge," I mean that Jim plans to try and do everything he can within the strict confines of the law, preferably without bringing physical harm to anyone.

Higher Ground is a rather cheesy made-for-television film that originally aired in 1988. It's not particularly good, but its gee-whiz innocence makes it an amusing and occasionally endearing watch. To see the perpetually gentle John Denver attempt to take on the leading role in an action-thriller provides a lot of unintentional giggles. Denver is not convincing as an FBI man for one moment, not even considering that he is supposed to be the kindest man the bureau has. His supposedly legendary ability to talk down a bad guy consists solely of cooing the phrase, "Come on, man. Give me the gun. Come on, pal. You don't need that thing. Come on, man. Just give it here." The criminals ultimately break into a fit of tears and hand him the gun, if the other FBI agents don't shoot first.

I must admit, scenes like this made Higher Ground a surprisingly entertaining viewing experience. I was smiling most of the time, and laughing the rest of the time. During the delayed opening title sequence as Denver is flying to Alaska, the singer/songwriter provides us with narration via song:

Keep me through the night,
Lead me to the light,
Teach me the magic of wonder,
Give me the spirit to fly.
Maybe it's just the dream in me,
Maybe it's just my style,
Maybe it's just the freedom I've found,
Given the possibility,
Of living up to the dream in me,
You know I'll be reaching for higher ground!

Come on, you have to admit that "teach me the magic of wonder," is one of the cutest lyrics of all time. Higher Ground is surely the cuddliest movie ever made in which a man avenges the murder of his best friend. During the 1980s, it seems like the villain in every other movie was some sort of drug dealer. This film makes a blushing reference to cocaine at one point, but here the villain is smuggling…um…alcohol. Even the villains are innocent throwbacks! The whole thing has a very "Dirty Harry meets Leave it to Beaver" vibe, in which hardened criminals respond to bad news by exclaiming, "Oh, brother!"

Every plot point is telegraphed well in advance, and the technical aspects of the film never transcend the film's made-for-TV credentials. The performances are mostly flat and one-note, but in ways that pleased me. No matter how bad the film gets, Denver's strained attempts at seeming hard-boiled and tough kept me entertained. Even when he dishes out some painful kung-fu moves, he has a look of noble piety on his face as if to say, "You know friend, this is hurting me more than it hurts you. I know that you're only a sweet yet troubled soul on the inside." Complimenting Denver's amusing lead performance are a pair of hammy turns from Richard Masur and John Rhys-Davies. The former has fun playing the liquor-distributing bad guy, while the latter grants a stage-play level of boisterous glee to his performance as a Police Lieutenant.

The full-frame transfer is frankly pretty bad, with lots of grain and a few scratches and flecks. It looks absolutely no better than it would if you were to catch is on television. The audio is weak too, as the music sounds slightly damaged and tinny throughout. Sound design is poorly distributed, though the dialogue is most clean and clear. No extras are included on the disc.

Higher Ground is guilty, but it's also a guilty pleasure.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 77

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Genres:
• Action
• Drama
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None

Accomplices

• IMDb








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