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Pretty Bad87.5%
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1 review, 2 user ratings

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by Jack Sommersby

"Sorry-Ass 'Sunchaser'"
2 stars

While it's nice to have seen this on a letterboxed DVD that boasts a very clean transfer, I can't say that it's enough to warrant a rental from your local video store.

Woody Harrelson's superb performance as an uptight physician and some first-rate camerawork by the infamous director Michael Cimino aren't enough to save the mediocre Sunchaser from drowning in a sea of solipsistic excess. It's got in its considerable disfavor a hopeless screenplay that's more about sensationalism than coherence, and what there is of it that can be comprehended is so shopworn and trite you wish you weren't able to comprehend it. Basically what we have here is Harrelson's uptight, close-minded Los Angeles physician kidnapped by a cancer-stricken, multiple-murderer juvenile offender so he can be taken to an Arizona Navajo land where he believes a sacred mountain lake will cure him of his terminal affliction. As if the basic storyline weren't execrable enough, the development of it is just as negligible with an asinine array of cliches and contrivances that box the movie into a can't-win situation that not even the greatest writers and directors in the cinematic world could salvage. It's a first-time screenplay by one Charles Leavitt, and how in the world it got green-lighted in the first place is something that can only be comprehended by a studio exec doing some serious time in the Betty Ford Clinic. As the viewer can easily foretell a mere fifteen minutes into the running time, the anal-retentive Dr. Michael Reynolds (who'd be more in his element specializing in proctology than oncology) will eventually loosen up and grow to care about the criminal Brandon "Blue" Monroe and become a better person, and the ever-mistrusting Blue will inevitably let down his guard and allow someone to reach him emotionally for the first time. We've seen dozens of variations of this before, and the movie does absolutely nothing to install anything even remotely fresh into the proceedings -- for some unfathomable reason, Leavitt thought this tired tedium was substantial in and of itself to sustain itself for an entire two-hour running time, as if the audience hadn't ever darkened the doors of a theatre before. (He comes off as hopelessly naive as the good doctor.) Everything's stunningly obvious and hammered down our throats with the obtuseness of an all-thumbs juggler, and it takes very little time for us to feel more than a bit insulted for being treated with this much uncouthness and intellectual contempt. Reynolds is prissy-mannered and adores his beloved red Porsche; his materialistic wife not only is obsessed with talking him into buying a two-million-dollar home but has a martinet of a mother with such pursed lips and tight skin you wonder if she were on loan from a wax museum; he's always endlessly lecturing Blue on his ultra-cholesterol-fueled diet (a scene where Blue sloppily shovels bacon and eggs down his gullet in a sleazy diner is one of the movie's many low points); Blue constantly threatens him with his gun and spews out profanities like they were going out of style; and, good gracious, they even catch a ride from a crusty old lady who lectures the literal-minded doctor on life and destiny in astrological terms.

The bathetic basic theme is getting to the metaphysical through the physical, which was actually better worked out in Kathryn Bigelow's ludicrous but entertaining Point Break. And it doesn't help that Cimino has bought into Leavitt's absurdness with an unrelenting seriousness that just about kills any pleasure we can hope to get out of the picture. As is usually the case with Cimino, who helmed the overrated The Deer Hunter and the notorious box-office flop Heaven's Gate, he lacks common sense and judgment -- you feel he's got nil in the way of life experience, of the way actual human beings genuinely relate to one another. He never wants to touch ground and root his movies in gravitas, which isn't necessarily the worst thing in a director if what they're dishing out is dreamily expressive enough to nourish us on an enjoyably apprehensive level (as was the case with his mammothly-entertaining crime tale Year of the Dragon); but Cimino seems incapable here of filtering out the built-in groaners inherent in the material and instead gives them a grandiose treatment in the hope that his virtuoso visual splendor will dress them up into something acceptable. There's a difference between having an instinct for how a movie should look and one for how a movie should play: Cimino thinks only in picturesque terms rather than dramatic terms, and so while you can revel in his images you can't really respect what he's trying to pull on you. Working with his regular cinematographer Doug Milsome, he once again proves a master at the 2.35:1 aspect ratio: the compositions are meticulous but never overly studied; they're lucid and expressive with an undiluted beauty that are the very definition of "eye candy," which is nice considering he seemed uncomfortable and straight-jacketed in this department in his last two dour efforts, The Sicilian and Desperate Hours. (He even manages to give some agility to simple tracking shots down hospital corridors because he knows something about movement within the widescreen frame.) But whenever the movie settles down with its dire dialogue scenes all the visual goodwill immediately evaporates, and you're left thirsting for another shot of the beautiful Arizona mountains so you can get your fix. Luckily, there's the always-welcome Harrelson who succeeds in making something entertaining out of his fuddy-duddy character. I can't think of a single original aspect to Reynolds, but Harrelson, who gave remarkable performances the same year in The People vs. Larry Flynt and Kingpin, injects some humorous irony into his line readings and displays amazing degrees of variety. It's if he knew the role was horse manure and saw it as an acting challenge to make it play way better than it should. His comic timing is aces, and when he's stuck delivering a soapy monologue about a sick brother whose life-support machine he mercifully unplugged at his request, Harrelson steers clear of emotive pathos. (He might have been even more effective if Jon Seda, who plays Blue, were just as imaginative an actor, but he's erroneously one-note.) Harrelson comes through with a winning star turn, which, considering the many obstacles he had to overcome, is more than worthy of a great deal of applause. The same, though, certainly can't be said for the dead-on-arrival Sunchaser.

Fifteen years later, this is still the last thing Michael Cimino has directed.

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originally posted: 05/23/11 03:33:56
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User Comments

6/04/04 John great performances by Seda and Harrelson - interessting story line but clumsy style 2 stars
6/04/04 Jack Sommersby Harrelson's excellent performance and Cimino's eye slightly redeem dumb scripting. 3 stars
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  27-Sep-1996 (R)

  22-Nov-1996 (15)


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