Michael Caine is one of cinema’s most renown and prolific actors, and in the 1990 undercard picture, A Shock to the System, Caine gives one of his finest performances in a film that is a dark satire of 80s capitalism and climbing the corporate ladder, but also acts as a companion piece to Joe Dante’s The Burbs as well as a precursor to American Psycho.
Caine plays Graham Marshall, a man whose oversaturation of the American Dream hits its breaking point when he gets passed over for a promotion that he was being groomed for. Caine then slowly begins to unravel and begins to commit a series of outlandish murders, seeking out an exact measure of revenge while at the same time finding his center with a self-indulgent escapade of faux mysticism.
The film is an excellent satire that strikes the balance of the political environment in today’s business world, while also acting as a time capsule piece of America’s cultural transition from the 80s into the 90s. The film’s dialogue is airtight, yielding wonderful witty exchanges between hard stereotypical characters where they operate on a level of honesty that would be fundamentally unacceptable in everyday conversation.
Cinematographer Paul Goldsmith constructs a slick looking film that is richly detailed with sweeping cinematic camera movements that blends with handheld shots, that perfectly flows with Caine’s voice-over narration. There are quite a few moments in the film that are stunning to watch and had the film found its rightful audience, would have become iconic shots from an already overwhelming Caine filmography.
Director Jan Egleson composes an excellent film with rich production design, costumes, and a rather excellent practical explosion. He also assembles a marvelous cast around Caine including Swoosie Kurtz as Caine’s relentless wife, Peter Riegert as Caine’s ill-fated new boss, Elizabeth McGovern as his secretary turned love interest, and Will Patton as a Colombo esque detective suspicious of Caine. Not enough can be said about Caine’s performance. He is charming, wickedly funny, and menacing all at once. Think of his character as an amalgam of his characters from Mona Lisa and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Yes, Caine is that good in the film.
While Patrick Bateman in American Psycho found a kinship with bloodlust, rage, and materialistic vanity; so does Caine in this film, and while his character isn’t propelled by 80s pop culture, yet another colorfully detailed layer of the film is Caine’s affinity for the wizard Merlin and making his problems disappear. A Shock to the System is now available from the Shout Factory, from their boutique label, Shout Select.