Judge Van McCoy...err, I mean Judge Mitchell Hattaway reviews this failure of a Burt Reynolds flick.
Everybody hustles everybody…especially in Los Angeles.
If anyone out there knows what the point of this movie is, please let me know.
Facts of the Case
Phil Gaines (Burt Reynolds, Driven) is a jaded cop assigned to investigate the death of Gloria Hollinger (adult film star Sharon Kelly), a young woman whose body washed up on a California beach. The coroner rules the death a suicide, but Gloria's wallet contained a picture of Leo Sellers (Eddie Albert, Dreamscape), a crooked attorney who likes to party with strippers, porn starlets, and expensive call girls. To make matters worse, Leo's favorite call girl is Nicole Britton (Catherine Deneuve, The Hunger), who just so happens to be Phil's live-in lover. But that's not all. Gloria's father Marty (Ben Johnson, Junior Bonner) refuses to believe his daughter killed herself, so he sets out to exact justice on those he believes are responsible for her death.
Hustle suffers from overlength, a muddled script populated by unlikable characters, and a couple of really poor performances. I'll break it down, starting with the problem of the film's length.
If you cut out the unnecessary scenes, Hustle would probably run about ninety minutes. There are two scenes in which Reynolds and his partner, played by Paul Winfield (Mars Attacks!), go to see their boss, and neither scene serves any purpose. There's a scene in which Johnson and his wife, played by Eileen Brennan (Jeepers Creepers), get drunk and argue in front of her priest; it serves no purpose. Reynolds and Winfield are called to a hostage situation, and they're later sent to Los Angeles International Airport to tail a suspected terrorist, and both of these scenes are completely extraneous. In fact, the terrorist bit is dropped in and then forgotten about. Reynolds and Winfield sit in the airport bar waiting for the guy's flight to arrive, have a couple of drinks, and that's the extent of this particular plotline (I'm still trying to figure out why two homicide detectives would be called in to follow a terrorist in the first place). The whole scene seems to exist simply so Burt and the bartender can make that old, bad joke about Asian women having sideways sex organs. Later on there's a scene in which Reynolds and Deneuve take in a showing of A Man and a Woman, but I don't know why. The list goes on and on. I'm not used to seeing this much flab in a movie directed by Robert Aldrich.
As for the script by Steve Shagan (Primal Fear, Save the Tiger), it's a mess (somebody should've hired Robert Towne to overhaul this thing). I guess this is supposed to be the story of a couple of fundamentally decent guys caught in an amoral, depraved world, but it doesn't come across that way. Gaines at times gives the impression he's looking out for the common man, but this is constantly undermined by his actions and words. This can be seen in the scene in which he berates Winfield for insulting and assaulting a suspect who just happens to be an albino (Gaines turns around and insults the albino simply for being an albino), as well as by his idiotic actions near the film's climax (which seem to imply that vigilante justice is justifiable as long as it's carried out by veterans whose wives have cheated on them). Then again, what can you say about a guy who leaves his wife after he finds her in bed with another man only to end up shacking up with a prostitute who has phone sex with a client while he's in the room? Is this supposed to make him complex? Yeah, okay. (And if you think Deneuve's profession is slowly going to eat at Reynolds until he explodes, you're right. But don't worry. He beats her up a little, but then they make sweet, tender love.) Remember that scene I mentioned in which Johnson and Brennan get drunk and fight? There's one piece of information about her character Johnson should bring up during the fight, but he doesn't. Why doesn't he? If he did, Reynolds wouldn't be able to figure out this tidbit from her past during a later scene in which he and Brennan go to a bar. This is similar to the fact that the cops don't talk to Albert's character about the death of Johnson's daughter even though she was carrying a photo of him when her body washed up. Hell, they don't even ask the young woman's roommate about the photo. Okay, what's the big deal about the fact that she dies with a stomach full of barbiturates, has semen in all of her major orifices, and is carrying a photo of a rich, shady lawyer who just happens to be a client of the lead detective's hooker girlfriend? Nope, nothing suspicious about that. Oh, but Winfield thinks something's up, but nobody else wants to bother with it. Wait, isn't Reynolds the one who cares about the common man and Winfield the one who gets a kick out of beating up people with pigmentation problems? Or is this supposed to set up what Winfield thinks is Burt's revenge against…ah, screw it. There's no point in trying to make sense of all of this, and that includes what's apparently supposed to be a shocking, ironic ending, but which is actually neither. You can see it coming from miles away, and the fact that we don't have anything invested in the characters negates its impact.
Okay, that brings us to the performances. With the exception of Reynolds and Johnson, things are generally fine. Reynolds, however, seems to be doing a combination of Lewis from Deliverance and any of the number of wisecracking, egotistical idiots he played during his long downward spiral. Even worse, and it pains me to write this, is Johnson, who simply doesn't register. I think he's supposed to be the moral core of the story, the guy we're really supposed to identify with and care about, but that simply doesn't come across. Part of it can be chalked up to the character (he's supposed to be emotionally devastated, as well as shell-shocked from his days in the Korean War, but is actually written as more of an old, embittered jerk), but the performance itself is awfully one-note. I think this is the only time I've ever been let down by one of Johnson's performances, and it's a major disappointment. (I can remember reading about Johnson's objections to some of the material in The Last Picture Show. If that's true, what the hell was he thinking here, acting in a film that only seems to highlight the depravity and corruption it purports to decry?)
As far as the disc goes, it's about what you'd expect from a bare-bones release of a film of this age and stature. The transfer is sometimes more than a little soft, and there's some very obtrusive grain in quite a few shots. Colors are generally good, as are the black levels, which is a plus considering how many dark scenes there are in the film. The mono soundtrack does its job, although it does exhibit some dated fidelity; the main problem with the track is having to really crank it up in order to hear it, which leads to some audible hiss on a few occasions. There are no extras.
Ugh. Quick, somebody release a decent version of Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid. I need to get the taste of this movie out of my mouth.
Dull, pretentious, sleazy, and guilty.
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