Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Best Performance in This Film is By An Actor You Never Heard Of: "Act of Vengeance" (1986)

Charles Bronson, mired in crappy B action flicks in the 1980's, decided to take this made-for-HBO flick to stretch his acting chops. He should have just made another "Death Wish" movie, instead.

Based on a true story set in 1969, Bronson plays United Mine Workers union official Jock Yablonski. He fawns over union president Tony Boyle (Wilford Brimley), who is made out to be a ruthless crook immediately. As Jock and his wife Margaret (Ellen Burstyn) coast through life, a mine accident claims the lives of eighty people. Boyle arrives in the grieving West Virginia town and defends the coal company over the miners.

Yablonski is almost run out of town, and decides he has had enough. He announces his candidacy for the union presidency, and begins campaigning. Boyle then orders a hit on his former friend.

The film shifts gears and introduces us to Paul (Robert Schenkkan), a house painter with a lot of guns and a huge ego. Paul is married to the oversexed Annette (Ellen Barkin), who is probably carrying on behind Paul's back. Annette's father Silous (Hoyt Axton) comes to Paul with a job- kill Yablonski and collect ten thousand dollars. Annette uses her feminine wiles to convince Paul, and he hires local petty criminal Claude (Maury Chaykin) to help.

With the campaign in full swing, both sides are confident about victory. Boyle's side is more confident since he has stuffed the ballot box, winning in a landslide. Yablonski decides to challenge the election, and his death becomes more important to Boyle and his gang. Paul hires another killer Buddy (Keanu Reeves), and the trio decide to carry out their plan.

With a good cast and confident direction, this film really should have hit its mark. Unfortunately, it never seems to get momentum going, as the central plot about the campaign takes a back seat to the killers' subplot.

The staged campaign speeches are, well, stagey. The crowd scenes never move, and Boyle is so evil right away, the election's outcome is never in doubt. Bronson tries, but his dramatic scenes are just like other action films he has done, except he does not pull out a gun. Burstyn is wasted in the dutiful wife role, I have a feeling stronger writing would have bolstered her part.

The best performance here? Writer/actor Robert Schenkkan as Paul. He turns Paul into such a desperate loser, he would be pitiful if his actions were not so despicable. One creepy scene has him humping a sleeping Annette to calm his urges, and Annette obviously knows what a little oral sex will do to better her station in life.

Claude and Buddy are also disgusting creatures, there are plenty of opportunities to kill Yablonski but Claude chickens out. Claude and Paul make the trip to the Yablonski's country house so often, they know where to stop for gas.

Claude, Paul, and Buddy eventually cross over into "funny" territory, and that is where the film finally lost me. The final violent scenes show the trio bumbling like the unfunny "I Love You to Death," but the humor is completely wrong here.
Barely an hour and a half, "Act of Vengeance," a generic name that could serve as a "Death Wish" subtitle, never grabs its audience and proves to be an exercise in predictability, despite the excellent work of Robert Schenkkan.  (* *) out of five stars.