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Body Slam
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by Jack Sommersby

"More Benedict, Please!"
2 stars

Aside from a superb star performance, this box-office underperformer is too unfocused and carelessly made to make much of an impression.

Dirk Benedict gives a winning, ingratiating performance as M. Harry Smilac, an unscrupulous entertainment manager who's hit rock-bottom, and he's the best reason to see Body Slam. Benedict that's rarity: an impossibly handsome former television actor refreshingly devoid of smarminess and possessive of just enough talent to make an indelible impression on the big screen; he played heroic roles in Battlestar Galactica and The A-Team, and though he didn't quite have the ability to convince as the shell-shocked Vietnam veteran in the B-movie Ruckus, he gave it an admirable try. In a harmless entertainment like Body Slam he's more in his element, dexterously getting through the proceedings with both confidence and inventiveness: he's obviously having a great time, and the good-natured aura he exudes is infectious; we like having him as a protagonist, even though the character dresses like a Vegas lounge lizard and is continually manipulating his fed-up friends into granting him used-up favors. Harry used to be at the top of his game in the music industry, with a couple of Grammy-winning clients to his credit, but success has made him lazy -- he's been content resting on his laurels, luxuriating in his Malibu beach house and red Ferrari even though the latter is continually getting repossessed and the former on brink of foreclosure; his only remaining client is a garage rock band, Kicks, whose last gig was playing at the opening of a Dairy Queen. Through a stroke of luck he talks an up-and-coming wrestler, Quick Rick Roberts (real-life wrestler Roddy Piper), into signing on with him despite knowing absolutely nothing about the sport, which gets him into the crosshairs of Rick's temperamental former manager, Captain Lou Murano (another wrestler, Lou Albano), whose champion Neanderthal tag-team duo The Cannibals try strong-arming Rick into re-signing with him. Harry isn't able to get Rick and his tag-team partner Tonga Tom any better venues than the Kicks, until he comes up with an original concept: Rock N' Wrestling, with the Kicks performing before and after the wrestling matches, which slowly but steadily winds up catching on with the public. Soon they're on the road, starting off in a beat-up school bus and later a new Winnebago, with a full tour schedule, oodles of money, a Rolling Stone cover story, and a championship match with The Cannibals for winner-take-all stakes. In between all this Harry strikes up a romance with Candace Vandervagen (Tanya Roberts), the daughter of a wealthy family who's none too pleased with him for lousing up a supposed star-studded event for a Republican senator friend of theirs.

Unfortunately, the movie isn't nearly as entertaining as it should be due to scattershot scripting and inadequate directing. Structurally, Body Slam is a shambles -- episodic, ill-focused and meandering, with nothing indicative of a through-line interconnecting the various story components. It can't keep its mind on anything too long, and it's only after nearly an hour that the Rock N' Wrestling aspect comes into play. Before this we get tired stuff involving a Korean gangster harassing Harry over a sixty-thousand-dollar debt, Harry's exasperated attorney taking the heat for his client's swindles, and the Captain fuming and borderline-imploding over all the bodily harm he means to do to our hero. It's all on one big juvenile sitcom level. And the director, Hal Needham, who made a fine debut with 1977's Smokey and the Bandit but whose technique has steadily grown worse with bottom-feeder swill Cannonball Run II and Rad, serves up one poorly-shaped scene after another and some of the most ragged scene transitions I've had the displeasure of witnessing. Bandit was occasionally clunky yet at least had some smooth assurance to it, and all of the secondary characters were allowed a chance to shine; here, the scenes abruptly end right when they're on the verge of paying off, and the supporting actors have been practically undirected (though Roberts, more acceptable than usual, somewhat makes up for her amateurish, boo-hiss performance in A View to a Kill) -- we're not allowed to get much of a reading on anyone but Harry, which is detrimental in that the movie had all the opportunity to function as something of an ensemble piece. (Was Needham rushed in the post-production editing process or simply anxious to get on with his next assignment?) The fine Robert Aldrich-directed women's-wrestling comedy All the Marbles had real drive and inventive action sequences in the ring, and the Rob Reiner/Christopher Guest satire This is Spinal Tap amusingly mocked the rock-music scene. Body Slam plays out as if were filmed via conference calls, with clueless studio executives merely throwing out ideas rather than coordinating a cogent plot line. Luckily, the game Benedict almost succeeds in redeeming this half-thought-out mishmash. With a better written role he could've had a truly substantial star turn akin to Kurt Russell's multi-faceted one as the compunctionless salesman in the extraordinary Used Cars, and it's to his immense credit that his Harry, who's forever wheeling and dealing, never becomes monotonously grating. Benedict gives his absolute all, filling the character with as much pizzazz as it can hold; you can't help but root for this black-leather-pants-clad, always-has-an-angle schemer whose disreputableness is oddly incorrigible. Now that's acting.

Finally available on DVD after all these years, though its only special feature is an old set of interviews that total a whole eight minutes.

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originally posted: 07/21/13 22:25:01
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  21-Nov-1986 (PG)


  12-Nov-1987 (M)

Directed by
  Hal Needham

Written by
  Steve Burkow
  Shel Lytton

  Dirk Benedict
  Tanya Roberts
  Roddy Piper
  Lou Albano
  Barry Gordon

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