Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Collision Course (1989)

(PG, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 100 mins., video release date: May 6, 1992)

I have made passing references to Dino De Laurentiis in several of my reviews, twice in my Diane Franklin retrospective and once at the start of my Under the Cherry Moon review, when I listed off a bunch of his more Razzie-worthy releases of 1986. Dino's career managed to outlast Golan/Globus, who profiteered off the De Laurentiis-produced Death Wish, and he also began honorably in the Italian neorealist genre. He produced Fellini's La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. In the midst of all the James Bond knock-offs and barely-remembered war films he shepherded, Dino De Laurentiis was the mover and shaker behind a vast catalog of familiar flicks, including Barbarella, Serpico, Mandingo, Orca, Flash Gordon, Ragtime, Conan the Barbarian, The Dead Zone, Dune, and many others. He worked with Ingmar Bergman, Luchino Visconti, Mario Bava, Robert Altman, William Friedkin, Don Siegel, and John Huston.

What I'm saying is, Dino De Laurentiis, who passed on in 2010, maintains a healthy respectability which his peers did not. Or at least did until the mid-1980s, at which point financial, critical and commercial fortunes began to dwindle precipitously.

In 1984, Dino launched his own production/distribution label, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, which didn't begin putting out movies for a couple of years. Take that window of the company's inactivity as an omen. Which is a shame, because DEG released Manhunter, Blue Velvet, Near Dark, and Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn by the time DEG folded in 1989. You could even trace your nostalgic enjoyment of Transformers: The Movie to Uncle Dino. But Million Dollar Mystery, Date with an Angel, King Kong Lives and Maximum Overdrive (as well as, sadly, my beloved Near Dark) weren't turning huge enough profits. Dino may have had the better legacy, but his own company went bust faster than Cannon Films.

This meant naturally that several projects got abandoned in the wake of DEG's bankruptcy. One of them I've already talked about is, of course, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, which was scooped up by Orion Pictures (irony alert) by 1989 and went on to everlasting popular appeal. Another of these was completed the same year, but came off the shelf in 1992 only to get buried on home video and forgotten by the world at large...except for the fascination of people like Nathan Rabin, Jack Sommersby, Jerry Saravia, and now me.

I'm talking about Pat Morita and Jay Leno in Collision Course.

You read those names right, as in the same Pat Morita who was once Oscar-nominated for Mr. Miyagi, the sensai of the Karate Kid series, and the same Jay Leno, Boston-bred overbite and all, who went from stand-up comedy fame to carrying on after Johnny Carson's retirement from late-night NBC. How does a movie like this find itself in such a maze of obscurity?

Well, thanks to Google News, IMDb, and other reliable online sources, I can tell you that an interview with Jay Leno dated Jun 17, 1987 reported that filming began in Wilmington, NC (at DEG Studios) six weeks prior, but they had trouble keeping a director on the project. There was protest within the DGA, which would go on strike for 12 minutes in July 1987, but this was still a month later. Yet Collision Course reportedly blew through John Guillermin (who directed both of Dino's King Kong movies as well as The Towering Inferno), Bob Clark (who directed From the Hip for Dino before finally seeing through his own buddy cop caper with Hackman and Aykroyd in Loose Cannons), and Richard Fleischer (a regular for Dino from Mandingo to the career-ending Million Dollar Mystery) in its hastened production schedule. This information comes from one Greg Laughlin, a former DEG employee, who dishes further dirt on the Unknown Movies page.

Their final and credited choice of director was Lewis Teague, whose previous credits include Alligator, Cujo and Stephen King's Cat's Eye. The latter was another Dino De Laurentiis production made at the same time Teague was courted by the majors with The Jewel of the Nile, the sequel to Robert Zemeckis' Romancing the Stone. Unfortunately, Collision Course would go wildly over-budget to the point where they barely had enough money for the final day of shooting let alone the entire post-production process. When rising star Leno began promoting the film on national television throughout 1988, there was no flow for a wide American release from DEG. Since he was under contract to appear in two more vehicles but dismayed at the delay of his first starring role, Leno briefly sued DEG for $3 million before the company filed for Chapter 11.

Worse for Leno, nobody bought the distribution rights for Collision Course away from the floundering DEG. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure was rescued. Earth Girls Are Easy was adopted by Vestron Pictures (again, irony alert). United Artists scooped up both Stan Winston's Pumpkinhead and Peter Bogdanovich's Illegally Yours. Miramax salvaged Bill Friedkin's Rampage, although Friedkin undertook some controversial alterations before it played theatrically. Collision Course, meanwhile, languished under ownership of Wells Fargo Bank until May 6, 1992, the day HBO Video finally premiered the film on the wave of publicity surrounding Leno's ascension to full-time host of The Tonight Show.

Nowadays, Collision Course is most infamous as the movie with which Steve Martin once pranked Jay Leno. In December 2005, Martin, who was promoting both Shopgirl and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, engaged Leno in a televised game of "Name That Clip," with Leno ponying up $20 if he guessed wrong differentiating each excerpt taken from the two Martin vehicles. The final round was a moment worthy of Paul Rudd's trolling of Conan O'Brien, as Martin snuck in a scene from Collision Course. Leno was embarrassed when he recognized the movie, but Martin insisted that, even though he was right, Leno would still have to pay for making the film.

For anyone who ever rented the tape back in 1992, Steve Martin's stunt resembles a vicarious act of long-awaited revenge.

Collision Course is clearly an attempt to cash in on the 1980s trend of comical cop movies, and I don't mean the Police Academy series. This is more aligned with 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop, Armed & Dangerous, Red Heat, Alien Nation, Downtown, and a handful of other pre-Rush Hour touchstones in the odd couple sweepstakes. The Eddie Murphy movies, in particular, are most pivotal in understanding the career breakthrough Jay Leno likely wished Collision Course had generated back in 1988. Both 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop launched a beloved entertainer into Tinseltown royalty, playing on Murphy's defiantly vulgar, race-baiting, talking-at-120-wpm personality from the stand-up circuit. You remember those moments:

"[I've] never seen so many backwards-ass country f*cks in my life!"
"I'm your worst f*ckin' nightmare, man. I'm a n*gger with a badge, that mean I got permission to kick your f*ckin' ass whenever I feel like it!"
"Michael Jackson can sit on top of the world just as long as he doesn't sit in the Beverly Palm Hotel ‘cause there's no n*ggers allowed in there!"
 "Tell Victor that Ramon...I found out that I have herpes simplex 10, and I think Victor should go check himself out with his physician to make sure everything is fine before things start falling off on the man."

Surely, Leno wasn't as confrontational or blue as Murphy's patter was in the 1980s, and in that same 1987 interview with Leno I found, Leno wanted a movie that was hardly as R-rated as the edgier stuff Eddie made. Maybe he felt he could've done something closer to Chevy Chase in Fletch, instead. Which is bizarre, because Collision Course feels like a watered-down version of 48 Hrs., which was full of white cop vs. sarcastic minority anti-chemistry but in Walter Hill's film, Murphy and Nick Nolte were playing off each other with top-tier precision. But all the racial jibes hurled in Noriyuki "Pat" Morita's direction, despite his deadpan superiority to them, are spouted casually without being even the least bit transgressive or aggressive.

One-liners like "I ought to stir fry your face" and "Would you call a Jap a John Doe?" die on the screen in that patented way familiar to any handful of tone-deaf late-1980s would-be comedies. Maybe it's just a sign of the times the movie wants to capture, a blue-collar Detroit embittered by the rise of Japanese auto industry and the damages done to the economy. But there was an entertaining culture clash comedy about car manufacturers made two years before Collision Course started shooting, which starred Michael Keaton and Gedde Watanabe, and it was called Gung Ho.

 Morita plays Inspector Fujitsuka Natsuo, a Tokyo espionage agent sent by his commander Kitao (Soon-Teck Oh) to track down a rogue engineer, Oshima (Danny Kamekona), who has fled to Detroit with the prototype for a spectacular new turbocharger. Oshima plots to make a quick fortune selling it off to mobster Philip Madras (Chris Sarandon), but his goons Scully (Tom Noonan) and Kosnic (Randall "Tex" Cobb) accidentally kill him during a shakedown. In disposing of the body at the nearby junkyard, night watchman Mac (Jack Poggi) witnesses the deed, so Scully fires off a rocket gun to silence him. Turns out he has murdered the former partner of robbery-assigned Detective Tony Costas (Leno), which drives him into a fit of vengeful sleuthing upon which he encounters Natsuo.

Guess what? Costas thinks Natsuo is a criminal, and Natsuo thinks Costas is a thug! Can you imagine what would happen when they realize that they're really both lawmen and have to begrudgingly partner up to take down Madras? Well, it takes a while for the skeptical Costas to accept this, because he tails Natsuo to the one-hour-photo stand and the headquarters of unscrupulous automotive chairman Derek Jarryd (Dennis Holahan). When they finally do work together, the Eastman and the Westerner bungle their way through the investigation until they end up getting one over on Scully both without a warrant and with excessive force. Costas' superior, Lieutenant Ryerson (John Hancock) breaks the act up, orders them off the case and plots to send Natsuo back to his own hardheaded boss. Again, think about the possibilities if these two unlikely friends were to disobey direct orders and retrieve the prototype despite Madras' muscle. Aren't they exciting?

Well, save for a finale which is unexpectedly brutal for a PG movie (to wit: Natsuo doesn't know karate, but he knows ka-razy!), Collision Course is standard procedure for its genre. Even getting past the leaden xenophobia, there are so many clichés on parade (barroom brawling, inebriated bonding, chase-giving cars slamming into fruit carts and flower stands) that Siskel & Ebert could've fueled an entire "They'll Do It Everytime!" episode on just this movie. Costas is a slovenly bachelor for whom Natsuo is like a mail-order Felix Unger. He cuffs the foreigner to the steering wheel to pursue a purse-snatcher, but it's the bound outsmarting the blind. Scully is a God-fearing survivalist wacko who doesn't even graze the heroes despite his arsenal of rocket launchers, automatic rifles and hand grenades. Lewis Teague turns pedestrian on the action scenes, and it's not as if Leno and Morita's banter, written by Robert (The First Power) Resnikoff and Frank D. Namei, tries to compensate with fresh humor.

Morita, who was actually a comedian back when, is at his best when he's most bemused by his inner city surroundings, from the doorbells on front porches to the inequities of the justice system. Leno, meanwhile, may be just a little too low-key to command the screen. Meant to be a fast-talking rogue and ladies' man, his moony (and moon-shaped) face hits the sweet spot between George Clooney and Robert Z'Dar, and there's an unfortunate squeak in his voice that he mistakes for "dramatic." His métier is purely comedic, like when he calms a hysterical woman on a hotel elevator down by screaming, "Shut up, lady! You're not on a game show!" There isn't a solidly-written female in the cast, to be sure, as Leno is counted on to generate chemistry with either Pat Morita or Ernie Hudson (playing Costas' doormat sidekick, Shortcut).

And comic moments are to be found, if fleetingly and frustratingly undone by conventional punch lines. The aforementioned brawl involves Natsuo initially being accosted by a group of affluent bowling alley goons (including Mike Starr in a brief role) before Kosnic's disdain for diplomacy causes all hell to break loose. Indeed, given more dialogue here than in Raising Arizona, Cobb is an amusing lunkhead, while Tom (Manhunter) Noonan, who forever looks like a new age healer brainwashed by the Manson Family, puts a wisecracking touch on his perennially psychotic demeanor early on. But Chris Sarandon, saddled with a John Oates ‘stache, is powered entirely on whatever traces of snark he didn't burn as the delightfully cocky bloodsucker from Fright Night, coming across as a mediocre heavy. And the dismally broad material routinely lets down reliable talents like Morita and Hudson.

Collision Course seems like it should be an all-time stinker on the level of Leonard Part 6 or Mac & Me, but it seems as though this film has thoroughly evaporated since 1992. And rightfully so, as it didn't damage Leno's reputation and was shrugged off by Pat Morita for the next couple of Karate Kid sequels. Lewis Teague, however, had only one more mainstream project in him with Navy Seals before sticking to TV for the remainder of his career, kind of like Jay Leno. Despite the efforts on the internet to condense the film to adequate rubbernecking length, Collision Course is hardly Showdown in Little Tokyo let alone Another 48 Hrs.

It is so, how do the Japanese put it, "wasure rare-gachina."

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