Logan’s Moving Pictures starts the new year with a throwback to the early ’90s, late-night TV viewing, teen heartthrobs, and action films of the era; If Looks Could Kill!
In our pre-teen/early teenage years, my brother and I were adamant about staying up late to watch TV, something our mother was never too keen on. I imagine it was a little bit of FOMO, and maybe just a smidge of rebellion, but I don’t think it’s uncommon for kids to want to stay up late. At least, it certainly isn’t in my family. In the ‘90s though, if you were staying up late there wasn’t much to do besides play Nintendo and watch TV, unless you were sneaking out of the house. So, we did a lot of that. TV watching, not sneaking out. Well, except for one instance. But that’s a story for another day.
At school, most of the kids who also managed to skirt their curfew would usually talk about the musical guests on the myriad of late-night talk shows, particularly Arsenio Hall, or maybe a comedian or two on The Tonight Show or Letterman. And while my brother was a big fan of Letterman and Arsenio, most of the time his (and my) late-night TV watching would have baffled our peer group. We were all about those late evening dramas and syndicated shows. We’d even record the ones that aired opposite of whatever we deemed most important, then watch them into the night, losing sleep but loving every second. Quantum Leap, ER, LA Law, Northern Exposure, Babylon 5, Silk Stalkings, TekWar, whatever Star Trek show was airing at the time…all shows at least one of us watched fairly regularly, but there were so many more. Somewhere along the way, Ryan started watching 21 Jump Street, and the year after it ended he picked right up with its spin-off series. That was the year where every conversation about television began and ended with something akin to “I really wish you’d watch Booker.”
Booker was the lone spin-off of the aforementioned 21 Jump Street. It lasted all of one season and starred Richard Grieco, one of the mainstays of the original show. Being the teen heartthrob that he was, with the end of Jump Street and the launch of his own series, coupled with a few high-profile film roles, he was poised to be almost as big a star as that Depp kid that came up through the precinct with him.
Sadly the show was not a success (It probably should have been, I finally watched some of it 30 years later) and neither were the two films he had lined up. He starred opposite Christian Slater and Patrick Dempsey as Bugsy Segal in the gangster drama Mobsters, but before that, he made the jump to the big screen in the James-Bond-riffing If Looks Could Kill, about a student, Michael Corben, mistaken for a superspy while on a trip to Paris (I think it’s Paris…) with his French class.
When I went to look it up on IMDb I saw it was directed by William Dear, the same man who directed Harry and the Hendersons, the very first VHS tape my dad bought for us. As mentioned in my first column, we didn’t even have a VCR at the time! It was written by Darren Starr and Fred Dekker. Starr went on to create Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, among a few other things like, oh, Sex and the City. And I know saying 90210 was a big part of my teen years isn’t an anomaly, the show was huge, but it did give me a laugh. Dekker on the other hand was one of those guys I didn’t really know was responsible for so much of my pop culture as a kid. He wrote House and House II, Ricochet, several episodes of Tales from the Crypt and Robocop 3, with uncredited rewrites on scripts for Demolition Man, Titan A.E., Lethal Weapon 4, and most recently co-wrote The Predator with Shane Black. He’s a geek legend.
Despite being a flop, I had hoped that all of the above elements would somehow combine into a fun mess of a film and have me walking away from this one loving it, even for its badness. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and luckily for me, I had only the vaguest remembrance of the movie from growing up, so there was no nostalgia to ruin. I didn’t even remember that Gabrielle Anwar was in it! And by “in it” I mean she shows up to flirt with the star and give him base motivations, which is where my problems with the movie really set in.
Watching it unfold I started to think that we really romanticize the action films of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s more than we should. The female characters are so nonexistent here it’s not even forgivable in an “it was the times” kind of dismissal. At one point Grieco tells a fellow student to “take her” when he says he thinks a female is cute. And if they aren’t young or perceived as sexually viable? Well, they get to be shrew-sh.
Robin Bartlett, who plays the French teacher, has seen her fair share of comedic and dramatic roles and has been successful at both, but here she’s nothing more than an annoyance, even when she’s in the right. Then there’s Linda Hunt, possibly the most recognizable character actress in history (So much so they caricatured her look in The Incredibles with costume designer Edna Mode) who starts as a badass lead henchwoman and is eventually relegated to nothing more than a verbal stomping post for the baddie, played by Roger Rees.
Rees may be best remembered as Robin Colcord from the latter days of Cheers, chews up any bit of dialogue he can, overplaying every moment. I’d like to think he was having a lot of fun, but really he just looks bored. It’s a shame, he was always fun to root against when he showed up as a foil to any would-be hero over the years, especially in Robin Hood Men in Tights.
And speaking of Rogers…Roger Daltry of The Who shows up at the beginning in the most bizarre cameo. It’s up there with Luke Perry in The Fifth Element, though he’s definitely given more to do than Perry. But, it makes zero sense, even for the time of the film. Daltry was never perceived as an action star, definitely wasn’t on the “everyone will recognize him” list of people in 1991, and really has no business being in the movie other than he’s British. And then there’s the plot, which gets far cornier than the original premise belies. But…maybe the less set about it the better.
I’ve given this movie a lot of grief, but there were a few things I was pleasantly surprised by. First, Michael’s relationship with his parents. It would have been easy to show him as this pure rebellious teenager, dismissing his parents and their opinions altogether. Instead what we see is that rebellious teen, complete with an angry father and an easy-going mother, being respectful. Adversely, we also see that angry father be loving and calm and his mother gives him some words of wisdom. It’s not the family dynamic you expect in a movie like this, or really most movies aimed at teens/preteens from that era. Fresh Prince was preaching pop culture gospel when he said “Parents just don’t understand,” and the movies of the era showed us the proof. Second, as tired as the “confused for someone else” plotline is, I think they did a decent job of playing it for laughs. There’s some awkward bits where people are just disregarding Corben’s confessions to being a teen, but I got a few chuckles out of it.
If Looks Could Kill was a hard movie to revisit, and an even harder one to find any real enjoyment in. I’m sure Ryan may have had a lot of fondness for it in his movie-loving heart, but I think it probably had more to do with his younger self’s appreciation for Grieco. And that’s okay. Certainly, there were bound to be absolute duds, and I think that, yes, maybe my brother would have argued the merits of this one with me. If only out of nostalgia.
I think there probably isn’t a kid that ever lived that didn’t grow up daydreaming about being some version of Michael Corben. We all hope that even through our missteps and failures that we’re not just going to come out on top, but somehow we’ll actually save the world. Well, maybe not THE world, just OUR world. And there’s pieces of that here; certainly, there was something that could have had more heft than what was put to film. But, just like life, it probably doesn’t really benefit anyone to dwell too long on missed opportunities.