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Cease Fire
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by Jack Sommersby

"See it for a Dynamic Don Johnson"
3 stars

Barely released in theaters, it's been largely forgotten, but fans of Don Johnson should put it on their must-see list.

In the grand schema of cinema, Cease Fire is really not that big of a deal, but as a character study it’s affecting, and it gives Don Johnson the opportunity to prove he can be a first-rate actor with the right material. Johnson made an indelible, winning impression starring as the naïve, quintessentially-libidinous Vic in the brilliant 1975 post-apocalyptic black comedy A Boy and His Dog, but his career didn’t exactly take off after that. It wasn’t until he snagged the plum part in the smash television crime-drama Miami Vice that he got widespread attention -- clad in designer duds and driving an expensive car and living on a luxurious yacht, his undercover policeman Sonny Crocket became something of a household name even if the role didn’t ask much of Johnson except to provide a magnetic presence. (He more than provided it.) Cease Fire is also set in Miami, only instead of a super cop he’s playing the emotionally troubled Vietnam veteran Tim Murphy, who’s recently lost his job, which seems to have served as the catalyst in that a particularly heinous memory from his military service is causing him sweat-inducing nightmares and contributing to an increased emotional instability. (The movie is sketchy on this, though: the details as to his losing his job isn’t addressed, and we’re left to wonder how he’s been coping all this time since leaving the military.) Tim’s caring wife Paula (Lisa Blount) has noticed a recent change in him, and though he’s so far been an exemplary father to their pre-teen son and daughter his patience has been wearing thin, resulting in unprovoked outbursts that scare all those around him. We’re shown flashbacks of his time “in country” in Vietnam gradually leading up to the horrific happenstance at the root of his inner turmoil; something’s eating away at Tim, and, stubbornly in a misguided sense of pride, he refuses to open up. Then he meets another Vietnam veteran, Luke (Robert F. Lyons), at the unemployment office -- Tim recognizes the patch on Luke’s military jacket, and Luke can tell a despondent veteran when he sees one. They grow to enjoy each other’s company, getting drunk and searching for jobs together, and Luke has no qualms about relating his war experiences, but Tim doesn’t go as far. The nightmares are getting worse, and in a ludicrous scene that would have been best left on the cutting-room floor, at night in his home Tim puts on a black headband, brandishes a knife, and covertly slithers his way through the place as if were still in the jungle and coming upon his son in the kitchen who’s getting a glass of water, but instead of engineering this to some kind of conclusion the movie abruptly cuts away, and for a while we can’t be sure what we’ve seen is to be taken as real or imaginary. Unable to reach her husband, Paula gets herself into counseling with a group of wives of Vietnam veterans, and although Tim consents to attending a meeting with his fellow vets he’s still unable to talk freely like the rest of them. And Luke, who tries to come off as freewheeling but also has been having a tough time of it as of late, isn’t faring any better -- the happier he tries to come off the more obvious a façade it is. The title Cease Fire is appropriate in that, as Tim puts it, “Surviving, coming back, that’s the real Hell” -- just because our vets have survived and come home doesn’t mean the war in their heads has ended.

George Fernandez was responsible for the screenplay, based on his play Vietnam Trilogy, so it’s no surprise the movie is a largely talking-heads affair. The dialogue occasionally veers into the overexplicit (“Even with death all around, you never felt more alive in your life”), and the dramatic arc is perhaps too conveniently schematic (Tim’s emotional breakthrough occurs right on schedule in the second-to-last scene). But there’s a good deal of raw pungency along the way, and you never wish for less from the characters because they’re uncommonly well-defined. Paula isn’t just the typical long-suffering wife; she’s the one who instigates contact with the vet counselor, and after Tim drunkenly strikes her she doesn’t completely go to pieces -- she allows him the chance to apologize, and in one of the movie’s strongest scenes Tim shows up at her work yet can’t quite find the words to express his shame, and then walks away as if mere consoling words could make everything right. And in their tearful reconciliation it’s clear these are soul mates, and a good deal of this is because Johnson and Blount really click in their exchanges -- they listen to each other as actors and aren’t afraid of taking their time in delivering their lines. (Nothing comes off as rehearsed.) In the pivotal role of Luke, Lyons, an unknown to me, is spectacularly assured and has a bravura unpredictability that gives his character both verity and variety. You can never quite get a clear reading on Luke, and when he’s pulling Tim into uncomfortable conversations on a subject Tim prefers to leave alone you’re never quite sure if he’s helping Tim or contributing to his tumultuous condition -- Luke candy-coats his war experiences, as if he’s managed to rise above them, but when he’s ecstatic over finally scoring a date with his estranged wife in the hopes of reconciliation, Lyons cannily gives off a slight warning signal that this is perhaps too good to be true. But it’s Johnson who’s front and center, and he succeeds in holding Cease Fire together even over its rough patches. Deglamourized with a bushy mustache and drab, regular-guy clothing, Johnson etches a convincingly blue-collar characterization that you don’t see much of anymore in a leading role. Tim doesn’t portend to be more intelligent than he is, and Johnson, sublimating his charisma just enough so he’s vivid yet “lived-in,” charts Tim’s emotional progression with tact. He doesn’t act in italics. So when Johnson’s big scene comes near the end we’re not seeing an actor “going for the Oscar” but arriving at the logical conclusion of an all-encompassing characterization. I only wish the movie surrounding him were more impressive. The director, David Nutter, is making his feature-film debut, and with his mediocre compositions and static camerawork (particularly unconvincing are the Vietnam flashbacks, which just about look as if they were shot on a soundstage) we’re all too aware that we’re watching an adaptation of a stage play. Granted, Nutter’s unobtrusiveness gives the actors the necessary room to strut their stuff, but the cruddy visual schema and imprecise shaping prevent Cease Fire from truly taking off.

Still not available on DVD. What a pity.

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originally posted: 04/19/15 10:59:05
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User Comments

4/27/15 Paula Bettencourt I saw this film on HBO and VHS.I think it's very good 5 stars
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  18-Oct-1985 (R)



Directed by
  David Nutter

Written by
  George Fernandez

  Don Johnson
  Lisa Blount
  Robert F. Lyons
  Richard Chaves
  Chris Noel

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