Skip to main content

Abra Kadabra. Shalakazam. Bye-bye, baby. Boom.

A Shock to the System
(1990)

(SPOILERS) A Shock to the System might have arrived a few years too late, even though it’s as sharp as ever. Based on Simon Brett’s 1984 novel and relocated across the Pond – one can’t help thinking it would have been more effective, not least on Michael Caine’s never-entirely-effective transatlantic vowels, to stay put – it reputedly got the greenlight off the back of Wall Street’s success. By the time it, and The Bonfire of the Vanities for that matter, appeared, the zeitgeist appeal had dispersed. If it had waited another few years, it might have garnered the era-retrospective credit awarded American Psycho. Nevertheless, this ranks as one of Caine’s best from that period, a chance for him to flourish the full lizard-eyelids psycho that had made his Mona Lisa cameo so memorable.

Christopher Bray, in A Class Act, compared A Shock to the System to Kind Hearts and Coronets. Except that Dennis Price is not required to undergo humiliation to get us on his side. You might as well call the movie a sociopath’s How to Succeed at Business at Business Without Really Trying (albeit, Caine’s Graham Marshall is already an executive at his ad company). Certainly, the final shot, suggesting his boss’s plane is about to experience a mishap, echoes that picture’s “only way is up” corporate methodology.

A Shock to the System was variably received when it came out. I remember the pleasant surprise struck by the tone of some reviews, but Harlan Kennedy in the Film Yearbook Volume 9 demolished it, finishing with “Is there another film playing in the next cinema?” Still, Time Out’s Brian Case commented “Seldom have Caine’s cobra eyes been used to better effect; it’s a chilling tale, cleanly directed”.

Director Jan Egleson would spend most of the next decade supervising TV movies, and he’s certainly more the safe pair of hands than a showman; he throws in the occasional Dutch angle, but it’s left to Caine’s confidential, engagingly third-person voiceover to strike the movie’s tone, Caine and voiceovers go well together (Alfie, Hannah and Her Sisters), offering an intimacy of motivation. Gary Chang’s playful score also helps set the tone (Chang struck a similarly wry note with the same year’s Miami Blues). Ideally, I could have seen someone like Danny De Vito (in director mode) making the most of the screenplay’s heightened milieu.

Andrew Klavan penned the adaptation (several of his novels, including White of the Eye, True Crime and Don’t Say a Word have become movies). If there’s a fault to the picture (running to a very lean ninety minutes), it’s that it doesn’t spend enough time allowing Graham to enjoy the fruits of his crimes, focussing instead on the Hitchcockian device of his potentially being found out due to an incriminating lighter.

Graham, passed over for promotion and pilloried by insensitive wife Swoozie Kurtz, experiences a moment of existential clarity when, during an argument, he pushes a beggar in front of an ongoing subway train. He’s delighted to discover he feels no remorse – to the extent that he has to check himself that he actually did it – and his narration elevates this sense of a sociopath discovering the rarefied area of action without fear of a pricking conscience. He refers to himself as a sorcerer, invested in the perceived magic he is able to weave on the physical world in order to get his own way. Caine delivers this with conviction and an infectious sense of humour, particularly in his Cinderella-quoting “spells” (“Bibety bobety boom”).

The key to A Shock to the System’s black comedy is that those who are on the receiving end of Graham’s murderous acts are “deserving” of their fate, mostly through being insensitive or manipulative or just plain rude. Leslie (Kurtz) has the effrontery to tell him, “Graham, I forgive you for failing” (to get his promotion), so it’s only a short step from there to her planned electrocution. Bob Benham (an oily Peter Riegert) is promoted over Graham and actively begins to undermine him, since Graham is too senior to be fired for anything other gross insubordination (“So, you’ve decided to have me removed piece by piece. A privilege here, a responsibility there. Never enough to fight over. Just a subtle drain of power, right?”) So Bob expects Graham to light his cigars, invites him over for the weekend so he can hear him have sex with wife Haviland Morris (Gremlins 2: The New Batch), and forces him to share an office (with Philip Moon’s lackey). It’s thus no surprise when Bob’s boat blows up in a terrible mishap (and takes Moon with it).

Graham’s career prospects are overtly equated with emasculation and libido, such that he invies Elizabeth McGovern out for dinner no sooner than he has dispersed Leslie’s ashes (over himself): “He felt like one of those gods who appeared to maidens in human form”.

As noted, the picture perhaps gets a little preoccupied with standard suspenser tropes during the third act, when McGovern deduces she has been manipulated (Graham drugged her to create an alibi). This is thanks, in no small part, to Will Patton’s persistent – but persistently outclassed – cop. Graham efforts, meanwhile, are focussed on securing his mislaid lighter from Jenny Wright’s receptionist. But even under stress, the coolness with which he responds to threats (“Whoa, let’s not all panic. You, you and you panic. The rest of you stay calm”), enervated rather than stressed, shows him up as the model of the well-observed sociopath.

Caine called A Shock to the Systema lovely little film… But at the time, it just got lost in the system”. I’d agree with that take. Egleson and Klavan don’t spend their time expanding on the white-collar rat race. It’s all there in Caine’s (middle-)aging male attempting to rejuvenate his prospects. And often the best way to do that is to have some fun with it.




Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

You’d be surprised how many intersectional planes of untethered consciousness exist.

Moon Knight (2022) (SPOILERS) Now, this is an interesting one. Not because it’s very good – Phase IV MCU? Hah! – but because it presents its angle on the “superhero” ethos in an almost entirely unexpurgated, unsoftened way. Here is a character explicitly formed through the procedures utilised by trauma-based mind control, who has developed alters – of which he has been, and some of which he remains, unaware – and undergone training/employment in the military and private mercenary sectors (common for MKUltra candidates, per Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill ). And then, he’s possessed by what he believes to be a god in order to carry out acts of extreme violence. So just the sort of thing that’s good, family, DisneyPlus+ viewing.