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All-American Murder
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by Jack Sommersby

"Potsie Weber Directs!"
3 stars

A decent amount of suspense and adroit-enough pacing keep this low-budget affair perfectly watchable.

The direct-to-video All-American Murder is actually better than it has any right to be in light of the unremarkable story and sometimes-distracting camerawork. In fact, the first twenty minutes have a low-key appeal that, if not knowing the movie's title beforehand, would lead us to believe it's going to function as a low-key college-set romantic comedy. After all, it stars the appealing Charlie Schlatter who impressed four years prior opposite George Burns in the fine body-switch tale 18 Again!, and here, playing twenty-three-year-old academic misfit Marty Logan, he makes for a slight but ingratiating hero. Marty, who has been kicked out of six schools for his inventive hijacks (setting fire to a chemistry lab; dousing a professor with urine), is given a last chance by his disapproving federal-judge father to make something of himself at the highbrow Fairfield College. Naturally, he doesn't take things too seriously, wasting no time allowing himself to be bedded by the dean's adulterous wife Erica (a wasted Joanna Cassidy) and popping off wisecracks to the uptight student body; but he finds himself helplessly infatuated with the most popular girl on campus, the blonde and beautiful Beta Kappa cheerleader Talley Fuller (a lustrous Josie Bisset), and is surprised when he finds her receptive to his repeated flirtations. Schlatter and Bisset match up well, and they get something of a genuine rapport going -- we like seeing these two together and can believe there's something going on between their characters. And the functional dialogue, which Schlatter delivers with a crackerjack, Woody Allen-like comic delivery ("As a judge he's objective -- he objects to everything I do") has a degree or two of wit. Violence is eventually introduced into the equation, however, with Talley blowtorched and burned to a crisp by a masked assailant, and Marty, who arrives at the scene immediately thereafter and runs away to get campus police, and with his history of arson, is arrested and grilled as the main and only suspect. Talley's father is an influential Indiana state senator who wants a quick resolution to the case before an upcoming election, and many in the police department are all too willing to provide a quick resolution to the case. Enter detective P.J. Decker (an okay Christopher Walken), an instinctive, rather eccentric sleuth who doubts Marty's guilt. He gets him released and gives him twenty-four hours to prove his innocence, and the rest of the movie details those efforts while more gruesomely-slain bodies are added to an ever-growing pile.

Veering between black comedy and thriller, All-American Murder lacks the consistency of the superior Cutting Class, and its laying out of red herrings isn't canny enough to convincingly throw the audience in the desired direction intended (the emphasis on a sloppy-looking handyman so early on is a dead giveaway it can't be him). But for the most part debuting director Anson Williams (the actor who played the dimwitted Potsie in the long-running television series Happy Days, no less!) keeps the pacing swift enough so we don't have too much downtime to ponder the screenplay's more ludicrous aspects. I can't say Williams displays anything indicative of a distinctive style (the compositions are rather crude and awkward), and his handling of the actors playing a couple of temperamental junior policemen is boo-hiss negligent (then again, neither of these actors have proven even remotely capable in their previous efforts). Luckily, the screenwriter, Barry Sandler, of the Agatha Christie adaptation The Mirror Crack'd and the luridly campy Crimes of Passion, has a narrow but succinct goal in mind in keeping us off-balance and susceptible to manipulation -- we don't want to think particularly hard during a movie like this, and the inventive killings are spaced accordingly enough to keep the narrative reasonably compact. Even more luckily, Schlatter and Walken are adept enough at providing us with two protagonists we don't mind spending time with. In a lesser actor's hands Marty could've been an abrasive bore (the 'ol "rebel without a cause" whose self-righteousness could clog a couple hundred sewers), but Schlatter is uncommonly contemplative in sniffing out a role's potential trapdoors and sidestepping them. He's far from a captivating, charismatic screen presence, and the unfortunate nasality of his voice is sometimes distracting, but whether Marty is in low-key or frantic mode, Schlatter admirably stays in character. As for someone as talented as Walken, he's clearly slumming for an easy paycheck here yet manages to just enough effort to convince in his role, and probably would've come off better had his dialogue been as snappy as Schlatter's. In the main female roles, Bisset manages to pull off some tricky emotional transitions, and Amy Moore Davis, as a nondescript student yearning for popularity, acts with unforced naturalness. Finally, the movie wraps itself up nicely enough with a not-bad unveiling of the murderer without insulting our intelligence in the process. All-American Murder isn't a classic or anything, but it'll more than suffice for undemanding viewing. It'll do.

Worth grabbing in one of those 50-cent VHS bins in a second-hand store.

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originally posted: 07/02/13 00:46:20
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  01-Dec-1991 (R)

  18-Dec-1992 (18)

  28-Jan-1993 (M)

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