In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1994 and six from 1984. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
On March 17, a phalanx of astronomers and theoretical physicists unveiled a revelation that shocked the world. Part of their allegedly definitive proof that the Big Bang happened included data that supported “space-time bubbles.” In drool-worthy English, it means multiple universes potentially formed at the same time.
Nine days earlier, The Hollywood Reporter unveiled a revelation that shocked absolutely no one. Their story said Charlie Sheen had missed numerous shooting days on the set of his FX sitcom Anger Management, with one source telling the tabloid the cast was prepared to walk if the bad-boy behavior persisted.
What could the tireless work of our nation’s top scientists possibly have in common with one of our nation’s most well-compensated TV actors who’s just a tiresome weasel? Everything. In one of those universes, Charlie Sheen is still Kurt Russell. (From a career standpoint, of course. Kurt Russell obviously exists in all planes as he does in ours — ad infinitum iterations of Captain Ron throughout time and space.)
The Sheen in our universe now, whom we’ll call Darkest Sheen, is a skeletal, self-destructive, shambling punchline. The Sheen we once knew, whom we’ll call Sheen Prime, now resides in another unexplored universe — one perhaps brighter than ours, unblemished by CBS — where he’s still enlivening ridiculously enjoyable grade-B action films with his comic man-of-inaction shtick, much like Russell.
Nielsen evidence suggests our universe swapped Sheen Prime for Darkest Sheen around 9:30 p.m. Eastern on September 22, 2003, as the first deafening peal of a Two and a Half Men laugh track rang out in America’s homes. Sheen Prime’s vulnerability to a merciless galaxy began earlier in his career, after director Oliver Stone — in whose Platoon and Wall Street Sheen Prime shot to fame — cast Tom Cruise over him in Born on the Fourth of July, and Sheen Prime never worked with Stone again.
Sheen Prime resisted the void’s pull through the criminally underrated Men at Work, a pair of fun Hot Shots! films, the Heidi Fleiss trial in which he was a key figure, a masterfully weird cameo in Being John Malkovich and a run on Spin City that earned him a Golden Globe. But that night in 2003, the affably misbehaving Sheen Prime we knew and mostly enjoyed disappeared, lost to the whims of a cruel cosmos. In his place, Darkest Sheen is just a downward spiral of substance abuse, porn-star engagements, lucrative TV deals and a live stage show that was successful only because paying audiences thought he could literally die onstage at any moment.
We are only left, then, with artifacts of Sheen Prime, and few are worthier of study than The Chase and Terminal Velocity — a pair of muscular movies from 1994. At the box office, these films collectively earned about as much as Darkest Sheen did half-assing his way through eight episodes of Two and a Half Men. But in both films, Sheen Prime finds a sweet spot of smarm and charm that consistently eludes Darkest Sheen’s most nefarious efforts. We’re glad to watch Sheen Prime but relieved that he’s not assuming the lion’s share of do-gooder credit.
The Chase arrived first, and its demented go-go-go momentum resembles a bizarro, humorous version of Speed (which fellow studio 20th Century Fox released a few months later). Puttering up to a gas station in a VW Rabbit, Jack Hammond (Sheen Prime) seems like an average schmuck. But after cops hear an APB that the car is stolen, they corner Jack — forcing him to pretend a Butterfinger is a gun, take a hostage (Kristy Swanson) and seriously upgrade his ride in her cherry-red BMW.
Jack has escaped on the eve of starting a 25-year stint for an armed robbery he swears he didn’t commit, dubbed “The Red-Nosed Robber” for an alleged clown getup in the crime. And his hostage is no ordinarily over-privileged princess but Natalie Voss, daughter of billionaire industrialist Dalton Voss (Ray Wise). When Dalton offers a pathetically lowball ransom for her, Jack leaps to Natalie’s emotional defense. And as what seems like every cop car and news van in California gives chase to the pair, they might just fall in love before they hit the Mexico border.
Narratively, that’s it for The Chase, which seems crudely jerry-rigged solely to crash up cars. Props, though, to stunt legend Buddy Joe Hooker, whose driving team’s spinouts, flips, jackknifes and explosions could only be the work of true pros in the days before CGI, and to the visual effects crew, whose rear-projection work makes it seem like a chaotic cavalcade of cops are really on Sheen Prime’s tail.
But writer-director Adam Rifkin’s subversive streak goes beyond sideswiping shenanigans to tackle the sideshow spectacle of TV media. The ways in which he carves up their insane idiocy — and the validation their subjects so hopelessly crave — keeps things intellectually interesting in interludes between vehicular insanity. Plus, it feels even more prescient now than it did then, especially after entire days of devotion to dangerously ill-informed speculation about a Malaysian plane’s location.
For starters, take the officers involved in the high-speed chase played by Henry Rollins (former Black Flag frontman and current master of marathon spoken-word shows) and Josh Mostel (son of Zero and best known as the Revolting Blob from Billy Madison). When they first intercept Jack, a producer and cameraman from The Fuzz, billed as “America’s First Real Cop Show,” are riding along and filming for TV.
These officers claim they fight a “proportionately high” crime rate on patrol in posh Newport Beach. At first blush, nearly everything Rollins and Mostel say seems like boilerplate exposition meant to run out the meter on a barely feature-length film. But consider the roles that, deep down, these officers want to play up for a camera — that of “standard-issue street soldiers” asserting they contend with “dope pushers, pimps, killers and child molesters” when they clearly battle only their own boredom. Rollins’s spidery veins and Mostel’s soft middle make an unlikely comic duo, but theirs is a fun, withering blend of pinched-up aggravation and pudgy angst. (Plus, the actors allegedly ad-libbed many of their jokes, including Rollins’s priceless “You always want to try and keep vehicular intercourse to a minimum.”)
Then there are the news anchors with stirred bloodlust at the faintest suggestion of danger, overwrought ticker graphics and dishearteningly asinine conjecture from live reporters — most a hilariously interchangeable horde of pale, white 50ish guys.
As one of few men or women of color, actor Rocky Carroll sneaks in a few clever quips. His wildly hyperbolic helicopter traffic reporter inadvertently picks up the story, and, after one pure-luck gunshot, infers Jack “must be a sharpshooter, possibly an ex-Marine.” Later, after a pair of would-be hero yokels (Anthony Kiedis and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) flip their truck trying to stop Jack themselves, he says theirs was “obviously an undercover law-enforcement vehicle.”
Such armchair analysis in the absence of actual intelligence keeps The Chase rolling — even if it more depressingly reflects today’s craven, fill-every-second approach of the 24/7 news cycle than it did in an era before Internet saturation. Plus, Rifkin nudges even his nastiest gross-out humor into the realm of satire — namely Swanson’s carsick puke splashing on Rollins’ windshield and a corpse-spillage joke Michael Bay would inject with steroids nine years later in Bad Boys II. As the vultures await bodies to pick, are vomit and corpses really that disgusting?
Through it all, the ironic rage with which Sheen Prime implores peace amid madness showcases his stealthy comic chops. He’s throwaway droll when Jack reminiscences about his work as a clown at children’s parties, laugh-out-loud defensive about people thinking he’s a criminal (“Intent means you plan something. I didn’t plan anything!”) and irreverently ribald in imagining a bleak future (“You know what awaits me in prison? Large, hairy-backed men who think I have a cute ass.”)
Sometimes, all these sorts of movies need to work is a central presence who’s convincing enough as a guy inadvertently swept up in a large, crazy plot. It’s more or less the same mien Sheen Prime assumes, while upping the seriousness a scooch, in Terminal Velocity — a brisk, sleek wrong-man story that’s easily the better of 1994’s dueling skydiver movies. (I revisited Drop Zone, too, to confirm. What can I say except “You’re welcome”?)
If any Sheen Prime film tagged him as Russell’s generational would-be heir apparent, Velocity is it. As Olympic gymnast-turned-skydiving instructor Ditch Brodie, his cocksure bravado might as well be a genetic splice from trucker Jack Burton’s DNA in Big Trouble in Little China. Any resemblance to real heroism within them is purely coincidental, and the zeal with which Sheen Prime emasculates himself in Velocity is something to which Darkest Sheen only pays lip service.
Velocity’s earthbound story can’t possibly capture China’s supernatural flair, but it’s a gleeful goofiness all its own. How many films open with their star unintentionally exposing himself to 8-year-old girls in downtown Tucson and end with him walking a three-legged German Shepherd along the Moskva River?
In between, Ditch must clear his name of something worse than Jack’s alleged robbery in a clown costume. He thinks lithe, laughing Chris Morrow (Nastassja Kinski) is an easy target, a newbie customer to woo with wild-man ways and satisfy sexually in enough time to skulk back to his place for The Tonight Show. But the jump goes horribly awry — as Chris achieves the menacing titular speed before bouncing off the Sonoran Desert ground without opening her chute. Soon, deputy D.A. Ben Pinkwater comes snooping to build a manslaughter case against Ditch.
You’ll do a double take at the first blush of Pinkwater, played by a comparatively svelte James Gandolfini. The late actor also disappears behind cheap eyewear, ill-fitting government-issue suits and meek dust allergies, playing a persuasively passive guy until he starts pummeling on people and the menace materializes — the one who relishes bitter, metallic blood in his mouth and the skin-splitting sting of a punch on his knuckles. Often relegated to burly hired henchmen in his early days, Gandolfini is terrific as the eventual heavy here — at one point pounding out a Van Dyke of blood on Ditch’s face.
Ditch admits he’s an idiot, but he knows safety protocols, and his nagging feeling that something’s afoot proves right. He discovers Chris is alive and well, a former KGB agent who faked her death to flush out rogue Russians (of whom Pinkwater is the leader) who want to reignite the Cold War via a vicious coup d’état.
If Ditch helps, Chris will reveal herself to absolve him of any wrongdoing. So he’s inveigled into international espionage, but not entirely without personal stake. In Velocity’s strangest, silliest twist, Ditch has been screwed over by Russian politics before. He trained for the 1980 Summer Olympics, the U.S. boycott of which cost him a shot at the gold and sent his life into a tailspin.
As in The Chase, Sheen Prime excels at the one-liner, albeit of the more abrasive-wiseass variety. Following a dressing-down from his boss, Ditch asks, “Can I use a Q-tip inside my ear or just around the edges?” And when Pinkwater asks him about Chris, Ditch utters, “I think she did for bullshit what Stonehenge did for rocks,” like a soft-boiled Hammett character.
Ditch talks a great game but folds under pressure —perpetually on the verge of going home, cracking a beer and awaiting his fate. Sheen Prime’s palpable nervousness here keeps Velocity nifty during mostly journeyman action scenes. “It’s broken!” he shouts when his gun jams, blissfully ignorant of its safety. “The whole plane is shaking,” he argues during a tense midair moment when he’s accused of having the jitters. And he’s a natural at bellowing out the Willis Yowl during a wild rocket-sled ride with a climax straight out of Die Hard 2.
Even in Ditch’s climactic moment when he embraces true heroism, he espouses at length with blowsy bluster about his plan, just like Jack Burton. He’s gotta do something to talk himself into a plan that involves daredevil wing-walking, hanging from an open cargo bay and, in Velocity’s pièce de résistance, escaping a free-falling Cadillac Allanté, freeing Chris from its locked trunk and pulling the chute in enough time to survive. It’s a Bond-movie dessert to a B-movie meal, awesomely combining derring-do stunts with an effects team’s smoke and mirrors.
Sheen Prime squeezed in a couple more movies in this mode before the stars swallowed him up — 1996’s so-so alien-invasion adventure The Arrival (which bombed in Independence Day’s wake) and 1997’s Shadow Conspiracy, an abysmally lame political “thriller.” These consecutive box-office failures only widened the fissure into which he was sucked all those years ago. Let’s just hope that, somewhere out there among the stars, Sheen Prime is thriving as he should have been in our world.