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Overall Rating

Awesome: 16.67%
Worth A Look75%
Average: 8.33%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 0%

1 review, 6 user ratings

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by Jack Sommersby

"A Glorious Game Worth Playing"
4 stars

This is probably the only spy movie where the veteran agent up to his neck in trouble doesn't bother to carry a gun, opting to use his intelligence to take care of everything. How refreshing.

In the mammothly entertaining spy-comedy Hopscotch, Walter Matthau gives his finest performance as Miles Kendig, a veteran CIA field operative who retaliates against his employer when he's demoted to running the Filing section until pension. At the beginning, he's successful in capturing some double agents in Munich behind some leaked Company information, and though he could've arrested the mastermind behind it, Yaskov (Herbert Lom), the head of the entire KGB of western Europe who he's known for over twenty years, he decides not to for a sensible reason: take him out and it'll take six months to find who the replacement is and eighteen months to learn his style. But Kendig's new superior, Myerson (Ned Beatty), who came from the "dirty tricks" division, is outraged and refuses to listen to reason and uses this as well as Kendig's penchant for making up his own rules to get rid of him. Not taking it laying down, Kendig shreds his personnel file and goes to Austria to see former-agent/ex-lover Isobel (Glenda Jackson) to figure out what he's going to do; he's offered a lucrative job of switching sides by Yaskov but declines ("Money's too expensive to be earned that way"), and when Yaskov off-handedly quips that Kendig should write his memoirs, it triggers an idea -- write a book exposing all the intricate details of past CIA operations (like sending a box of explosive cigars to Castro) and future plans for clandestine ones (he can blow every operation that's been set up for the next two years). And to really dig the knife in, he starts sending chapters to Myerson and also to the intelligence agencies in Moscow, Peking, Paris, Rome, and London, which triggers off a frenzied mission to eliminate Kendig so more sensitive secrets can't be released and so the Russians can't capture him and squeeze all the information out of him that they can. Heading the operation is the good-natured Joe Cutter (Sam Waterston), a protege of Kendig who likes his mentor and is continuously being one-upped; after all, the teacher knows the student better than the other way around. Kendig's globe-trotting escapades take him from Switzerland to Paris to Bermuda to London using fraudulent passports and paperwork obtained from his previous contacts, with the ever-pursuant CIA always one step behind and he and Isobel exchanging humorously droll exchanges along the way. What adds spice to the proceedings is Kendig's daringness in leaving obvious clues for the CIA -- it simply wouldn't be as fun without some elements of playfulness and challenge along the way.

While the story structure is definitely that of a thriller, the movie is anything but -- rather, it's a sly, understated send-up of the spy subgenre where not just intelligence but humor prevails in the end. If anything, it's about the necessity of humor to keep one's sanity while working in a madhouse like the CIA, so when Cutter makes light of the situation and a fellow agent retorts that it isn't funny, he replies that of course it's funny -- Kendig's tutelage has sunk in; and so has Cutter's when that very same anal-retentive agent later on down the line lets loose a comic zinger of his own. Matthau manages to suggest a man who's learned to keep himself amused to remain immune from the frustrations of unimaginative bureaucracy protocol; Kendig is better at reading between the lines and coming up with more efficient strategies than his by-the-book cohorts, and Matthau is completely winning in the role. It's a bit of a challenge to portray a super-smart super-agent without smugness seeping into the equation, a character who has all the answers and is almost always right, but when the character is having so much undiluted fun while doing so he's a lot easier to take; and Matthau seems to be having as much fun as Kendig, especially when robustly singing along to the opera "The Barber of Seville" while driving through a checkpoint -- he knows he'll be easily remembered by the guard and thus gets across to the CIA that he's not particularly worried about being tracked because he can think just like they do. And his resourcefulness is stellar. Trying to find some consistency to his movements from his travel vouchers is for moot due to his penchant for irregularity; as Cutter brags, Kendig's checks always kept bouncing because his signature varies. He manages to get out of a tight spot in a small police station using a simple but ingenious ploy of a paper clip with an electrical socket. There's some business with an old airplane and a remote control device that's beautifully worked out. And in his best maneuver, he hides out in Myerson's South Carolina vacation house and manages to manipulate the cops into shooting the place to smithereens. (It's actually here, while working on the book, that he becomes disgusted at all the seedy operations he partook in or was privy to; luckily, this isn't done in a melodramatic tone -- like the movie's title which is also the book's title, it's hopped over, leaving just a trace of an impression. If the movie took all this seriously to make a "statement" it'd fall apart inside of thirty seconds.) It's also nice that Isobel is portrayed as headstrong and feisty -- when the agents try to intimidate her, she's bemused by their utterly hopeless obviousness. And Jackson is first-rate in the role.

Hopscotch is oodles of fun and full of plenty of energy -- like it's protagonist, it smoothly and superbly moves right along. But it's not faultless, alas, though the flaws aren't really that serious but still stand out because so much of everything else is so highly commendable. Veteran director Ronald Neame, responsible for passable genre fare like 1974's The Odessa File and 1979's Meteor, is an able technician who knows his way around widescreen composition and getting in and out of scenes with competence. But he's far from an auteur, to put it mildly, and has never displayed much of a visual sense; he doesn't get much flavor out of the various locales that most of the Bond movies do -- there's a cruddy muddiness to the lighting that's partly the fault of the cinematographer and partly of Neame who clearly hasn't imparted much of a visual interpretation onto the material. Whether it's Salzburg or Marseilles or Savannah, everything's of virtually the same drab color schema; a postcard business would go under if it offered up unappetizing stuff like this. It also wouldn't have hurt if there were some smidgens of elegance to Kendig's travel movements from country to country -- they're not exactly arbitrary but mostly lacking in snap. Furthermore, there's something that sticks out like it were a victim of the editing room: for no discernible reason, Kendig shells out three-thousand dollars to charter a sea plane to go to Bermuda for one night where he doesn't really do anything there. And there are some dreadful Southern-accent jokes that are the very definition of puerile. Still, for every misstep there are at least five to seven pluses that are more than alleviating of the former. The dialogue is consistently smart: "We know you married some old Nazi." "He was Austrian." "So was Hitler." "Yes, but he had no sense of humor." The supporting cast is A-plus: Lom makes for an appropriately dapper Yaskov; Waterston is appealing as the conflicted Cutter; Beatty is amusingly nasty as the obtuse Myerson; and even in bit parts Mike Gwilym stands out as an electronics expert as well as Douglas Dirkson as a junior agent. (To say Neame has quite the love for actors would be quite the understatement.) But the crux of the movie is the winning, romantic rapport between Matthau and Jackson, who shared just as much unforced chemistry in the well-regarded House Calls just two years prior. They always seem on the same mental wavelength, so when Kendig tells Isobel that he's going to tell the truth in his book, she replies, "Ah, it's a work of fiction." It's a wonderful movie.

Though the Criterion DVD is overpriced in light of its mostly bare-bones special features, it's still a must-have for presenting this 1980 classic in its proper widescreen dimensions for the first time on home video.

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originally posted: 10/31/10 05:14:06
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User Comments

8/13/18 Suzanne This movie continues to delight. 5 stars
12/26/15 Steve Murray I enjoy this movie, too, but would say that Matthau's best was as Charlie Varrick. 4 stars
1/30/11 brian Not exactly a classic, but likeable and entertaining. 4 stars
5/05/07 mr. mike ok comic thriller 4 stars
9/07/06 Jack Sommersby Matthua's best performance and film. Mammothly entertaining stuff. 5 stars
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  26-Sep-1980 (R)
  DVD: 20-Aug-2002

  N/A (15)


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