My Misspent Youth In Films...
Bird on a Wire
Directed by: John Badham
Starring: Mel Gibson, Goldie Hawn, David Carradine
Released: May 18, 1990
Directed by: Jerry Zucker (yes, that Jerry Zucker)
Starring: Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg
Released: July 13, 1990
What I Thought Then
These are two of the adultier movies in our collection that I was probably too young to watch but watched anyway and the rule in our house seemed to be "well if they've seen it once there's no harm in them seeing it again." I only understood the stories in the broadest senses, but I really enjoyed the set-pieces and tone, as well as the bits of humor.
What I Think Now
Both of these movies feel like throw-backs, in a way. They're mid-budget movies targeted at adults, the kind of thing you'd expect to be released directly to streaming services, maybe with a token theatrical release if they thought awards could be in the offing. Bird on a Wire, in particular, feels like it easily could have been a late-night HBO original starring Tom Berenger.
But instead, it stars Mel Gibson as Rick, an ex-hippie who's been in the Federal Witness Protection program for fifteen years after testifying against two corrupt DEA agents played by David Carradine and Bill Duke (whom you think you don't know, but google him, you've absolutely seen him before). Carradine is out of prison now and they've decided to try and track down and kill Rick with the help of a dirty Federal Agent played by Stephen Toblowsky (Oh, hey, Stephen Toblowsky's in this!). Meanwhile, Rick runs into his ex-fiancee, Muffie, played by Goldie Hawn, who thinks he's been dead this whole time. Plots collide and Rick and Muffie are on the run, backtracking through Rick's various identities in a cat-and-mouse game via car, train, plane, skyscraper exterior, maybe a boat at some point, and an eventual showdown at a zoo. Uh-huh. A zoo.
It's a proudly schlocky action comedy. Muffie screams a lot, because people thought it was funny when Goldie Hawn did that, apparently. Rick makes a lot of snarky asides and gets to do impressions because of course his past identities were all larger than life caricatures: a Southern auto mechanic, a gay hairstylist, a handyman at a veterinary clinic who could invent everything. He was unquestionably the best at whatever job he'd been at, making him feel a like a little bit of a Mary Sue. He's also tough as nails, because this was the era of Mel Gibson action movies in which he just got the snot beaten out of him over and over again, but kept going. The action beats hold up reasonably well. The humor feels dated and isn't helped by Gibson's more recent being-a-racist-asshat baggage. But if you can get past that, Gibson and Hawn have decent chemistry and a lot of screen charisma, which makes an otherwise vapid movie feel just good enough.
Ghost, on the other hand, is kind of a conundrum. On paper, it makes no damn sense. Let's make a romantic supernatural thriller with the guy from Dirty Dancing, the less-famous gal from St. Elmo's Fire, that one black comedian lady, and we can get the guy who did Airplane! to direct it. HOW DID THIS GET GREENLIT? And yet it was the highest grossing film of the year at over half a billion dollars and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. And small wonder, because it's a really good film. Man, does it hold up! The story is simple, but compelling--a murdered man named Sam stays behind as a ghost to solve and avenge his own murder and protect his girlfriend Molly. The drama is relatable, the stakes are tangible, the world-building is easy to understand, and the movie balances its tone on a knife's edge, managing to be legitimately thrilling and laugh-out-loud hilarious sometimes even within the same scene. The background cast is filled out with comics and character actors like Vincent Schiavelli, Phil Leeds, Rick Aviles, and Stephen Root (Oh, hey, Stephen Root's in this!). All of the performances are stellar.
Well, nearly all. The weak point here is Swayze. He's an engaging screen presence, yes, and a good physical performer, he but he didn't have a particularly broad range as an actor. Thankfully, the movie leaves the emotional heavy lifting to Moore, who is more than capable of shouldering it. And it's not like Swayze's performance is bad. He has some great comic moments playing against Goldberg. In fact, their relationship is more interesting than Sam and Molly's, if we're being completely honest. The other weak point as far as the film goes is the special effects. They look pretty janky by modern standards, which is a shame because there are some interesting ideas in there. When bad guys die, they're dragged to hell by shadows that come to life. It's really cool, conceptually. But... they look like cartoons that were drawn onto the film. Because they are. Fortunately, the movie doesn't rely too much on special effects, and does a lot of sleight of hand to sell the ghost-ness. It's subtle, but after Sam dies, you never see his reflection in a mirror, for instance.
If I had any sway at Paramount--which, just to be clear, I definitely don't--I'd recommend giving this one a digital remaster to clean up matte lines and polish the supernatural elements, and also introduce it to a new generation, because it really is that good. On that note, I want to give shout-out to the writer, Bruce Joel Rubin, for his fantastic screenplay. It's taut, funny, and even manages to sneak in some nuanced thoughts on race and class in New York City. I especially love that it just sort of throws the rules of its world out the window in the last two minutes, allowing Molly to see and hear Sam so they can say goodbye. There's literally zero justification for it, but no one cares because it's a tear-jerking moment of closure and it's magnificent and stop it I'm not crying you're crying!
Bird on a Wire is watchable but entirely unnecessary. Ghost is a modern classic.