E. Elias Merhige’s Suspect Zero

E. Elias Merhige’s Suspect Zero is an interesting piece for me. Although it’s almost universally looked at as a failure, a shell of what it could have been, I’m crazy about it the way it is and think they did a fantastic job. It has a bit of a muddy past: Zak Penn wrote the script back in the 90’s, after which it gained much interest from the likes of Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck and others. It took until 2004 to finally get the film made, resulting in a version that many frown upon and consider a shitty film. Balls to them.

This is a grim, eerie serial killer chiller with an atmosphere thick enough to slice with a razor, and one extremely unsettling lead performance from a haggard, haunted Ben Kingsley. He plays Benjamin O Ryan, an ex FBI agent. Or is he? He’s efficiently hunting down and murdering random people (or are they?), leaving vicious visual calling cards and deliberately leaving victims lying on state lines to ensure the Bureau’s involvement. In particular he takes a shine to raw boned Agent Mackleway (Aaron Eckhart), leaving specific clues for him. O Ryan employs a metaphysical method of finding his victims, using an old psychic technique from a scrapped program the feds once explored. This gives extreme stylist Merhige a reason to throw sketchy, disconcerting images, sounds and editing into the fray, providing a visually and aurally chafing experience. Merhige is infamous for making the surreal, experimental shocker ‘Begotten’, and he brings the same stark, discomforting qualities to the proceedings here. I’m reminded of another experimental director who brought a near elemental aesthetic to an otherwise grounded serial killer flick: Tarsem Singh with his brilliant psychological fantasy ‘The Cell’. Suspect Zero is the grimy, fragmentary cousin to The Cell’s grandiose beauty. There’s also traces of Sev7n, Silence Of The Lambs, Millennium and more, yet the film finds its own groove and never sinks into derivative gestures. Composer Clint Mansell ditches his trademark celestial tones for something truly unique, a dread soaked nightmarish lullaby that gives the film an otherworldly tone to linger in dreams.

From Kingsley’s unnerving introduction hunting down a stranger on the interstate to his haunted, sympathetic final moments you get a feel for this extreme character that only this actor can give, infusing O Ryan with a zen like resolve that’s perforated by the psychological damage within. Eckart shows brittle desperation and blesses his performance with a touch of noir, which is appropriate to the film. Harry Lennix, Kevin Chamberlain, Frank Collison, William Mapother, famed writer Robert Towne and Carrie Anne Moss all give great work too. If you can forgive a few instances of murky plotting and one or two cheap plot turns, you’ll hopefully enjoy this as much as I do. It really deserves better attention and praise than it has gotten so far.

-Nate Hill



A lot was riding on Mission: Impossible (1996) for Tom Cruise. Not only was it the first film he produced (in addition to starring), it was also his first attempt to kick start his own film franchise. And what better way to do this than resurrecting a classic television show from the 1960s? Cruise, always the calculated risk taker, wisely surrounded himself with talented people: Robert Towne co-wrote the screenplay, Brian De Palma directing and the likes of Jon Voight, Jean Reno, and Vanessa Redgrave in the cast. At the time, the James Bond franchise was in a transitional period and didn’t produce a new film until the following year. Mission: Impossible was a huge box office success spawning a franchise that continues to produce installments.

Jim Phelps (Voight) leads his group of IMF agents on a mission to intercept Alexander Golitsyn (Marcel Iures), a traitorous attaché, who has stolen a list of the code names for all of the CIA operatives in Europe. He plans to steal the other half of the list with their real names from an embassy in Prague. One by one, members of the team are killed off by mysterious assailants. Only Ethan Hunt (Cruise) survives the bungled mission and rendezvous later with his superior, Kittridge (a wonderfully twitchy Henry Czerny) in a restaurant. Over the course of their conversation, Ethan realizes that he was set-up and that another team was shadowing his own. Kittridge reveals that the embassy debacle was actually an elaborate scheme to expose a traitor within the IMF organization and he believes that it is Ethan and that he also killed his entire team.

De Palma conveys Ethan’s growing sense of paranoia and panic in this scene through increasingly skewed camera angles as the magnitude of what has happened begins to sink in. Henry Czerny plays the scene beautifully as Kittridge talks to Ethan as a parent might scold a child. The conversation between them culminates with a daring escape as Ethan causes a large aquarium to explode, using the ensuing chaos to make his getaway. This scene was Cruise’s idea. There were 16 tons of water in all of the tanks but there was a concern that when they blew, a lot of glass would fly around. De Palma tried the sequence with a stuntman but it did not look convincing and he asked Cruise to do it despite the possibility that the actor could have drowned.

Ethan regroups at a safe house where he meets Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), another surviving member of his team. He must find out who set him up and retrieve the list. To aid him in his endeavor, Ethan enlists the help of Claire and two other disavowed agents (Ving Rhames and Jean Reno). The film really gets going once Cruise hooks up with Reno and Rhames (playing an ace hacker no less) and they decide to break into CIA headquarters for what is Mission: Impossible’s most famous set piece. This impressively staged sequence is cheekily dubbed the “Mount Everest of hacks” by Ethan and is masterfully orchestrated by De Palma. The heart of this sequence is nearly soundless proving that one doesn’t need a ton of explosions and gunfire to have an exciting, tension-filled action sequence (Michael Bay take note).

Paramount Pictures owned the rights to the television series and had tried for years to make a film version but had failed to come up with a viable treatment. Cruise was a fan of the show since he was young and thought that it would be a good idea for a film. The actor chose Mission: Impossible to be the first project of his new production company and convinced Paramount to put up a $70 million budget. Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner worked on a story with filmmaker Sydney Pollack for a few months when the actor hired Brian De Palma to direct. They went through two screenplay drafts that no one liked. The screenwriting team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) wrote a draft and then David Koepp (The Shadow) was reportedly paid $1 million to rewrite it. According to one project source, there were problems with dialogue and story development. However, the basic plot remained intact. De Palma brought in screenwriter Steve Zaillian (A Civil Action) and finally Robert Towne to work on the script. According to the director, the goal of the script was to “constantly surprise the audience.”

Amazingly, even with all of these talented screenwriters working on it, the film went into pre-production without a script that the filmmakers wanted to use. De Palma designed the action sequences but neither Koepp nor Towne were satisfied with the story that would make these sequences take place. Towne helped organize a beginning, middle and end to hang story details on while De Palma and Koepp worked on the plot. The director convinced Cruise to set the first act of the film in Prague, a city rarely seen in Hollywood films at the time. Reportedly, studio executives wanted to keep the film’s budget in the $40-$50 million range but Cruise wanted a “big, showy action piece” that took the budget up to the $70 million range.

The script that Cruise approved called for a final showdown to take place on top of a moving train. The actor wanted to use the famously fast French train the TGV but rail authorities did not want any part of the stunt performed on their trains. When that was no longer a problem, the track was not available. De Palma visited railroads on two continents trying to get permission. Cruise took the train owners out to dinner and the next day they were allowed to use it. For the actual sequence, the actor wanted wind that was so powerful that it could knock him off the train. Cruise had difficulty finding the right machine that would create the wind velocity that would look visually accurate before remembering a simulator he used while training as a skydiver. The only machine of its kind in Europe was located and acquired. Cruise had it produce winds up to 140 miles per hour so it would distort his face. Most of the sequence, however, was filmed on a stage against a blue screen for later digitizing by the visual effects team at Industrial Light & Magic.

The filmmakers delivered Mission: Impossible on time and under budget with Cruise doing most of his own stunts. Initially, there was a sophisticated opening sequence that introduced a love triangle between Phelps, his wife Claire and Ethan that was removed because it took the test audience “out of the genre,” according to De Palma. There were rumors that Cruise and De Palma did not get along and they were fueled by the director excusing himself at the last moment from scheduled media interviews before the film’s theatrical release.

In some scenes, Cruise has a tendency to over-emote, like when Ethan is reunited with Claire after their entire team has been wiped out. Sleep deprived and paranoid, Ethan yells at Claire, “They’re dead! They’re all dead!” It’s an embarrassing bit of overacting on Cruise’s part but the actor redeems himself somewhat later on in a cheeky bit of acting when he cons Reno over a CD of vital information through a clever display of sleight of hand.

The film’s overriding theme is one of deception, a world where nothing is what it seems. The prologue has a disguised Ethan trick a captive man into giving up a name of a key operative. This is only one of many disguises (created by make-up legend Rob Bottin) he adopts throughout the film in order to obtain information or trick an opponent. The prologue also cleverly serves as a metaphor for filmmaking. The spy trade, like cinema, is all about creating an illusion and pretending to be something that you’re not. In addition, several members of his team are not who they appear to be as well and this keeps the audience guessing as to who is “good” and who is “bad.”

mi_still02The common complaint leveled at Mission: Impossible was that it was hard to follow, fueling speculation that De Palma’s original cut was non-linear in nature and that Cruise re-cut it after disastrous test screenings. Regardless, if one is paying attention to what is happening and what is being said (or not being said, in some cases) it isn’t difficult to navigate the film’s narrative waters. The script is lean and unusually well-written for a big budget action blockbuster, which is quite amazing when you consider how many writers worked on it. Make no mistake about it; this is a paycheck film for De Palma. However, being the consummate professional that he is, the veteran director still delivers an entertaining film with some nice stylistic flourishes. What more could you ask for from this kind of film?



Hal Ashby directed some of the best films to come out of the 1970s, exploding out of the gates with four motion pictures over five years. They were all quirky comedy-drama hybrids that, in terms of subject matter, couldn’t be more different and yet are united in the sense that they all feature offbeat protagonists. They focus on outsiders that exist on the margins of mainstream society, like the death-obsessed young man who falls in love an unflappable, optimistic septuagenarian in Harold and Maude (1971). In its own way, The Last Detail (1973) is a comedy tinged with drama and one that features marginalized protagonists in the form of two veteran United States Navy petty officers that have to transport a young sailor from Virginia to New Hampshire and end up learning something about themselves and each other along the way.

At the time, Ashby was coming off the commercial and critical failure of Harold and Maude when Jack Nicholson told him about The Last Detail. Then up-and-coming screenwriter Robert Towne had adapted Darryl Ponicsan’s novel of the same name with the actor (they were close friends) in mind. Nicholson was on an incredible run of classic film roles that started with Easy Rider (1969) and continued with two Bob Rafelson films – Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). His role in The Last Detail would yet again demonstrate his power and versatility as an actor, resulting in him being crowned Best Actor at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival.

Billy “Badass” Buddusky (Nicholson) and Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are assigned “chasers” duty, which involves taking a young sailor by the name of Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to Portsmouth Naval Prison. He’s been sentenced to eight years for trying to steal $40 from the Commanding Officer’s wife’s pet charity project. They have a week to do it, but Buddusky proposes that they can pocket more of the per diem and spend it on the way home if they get Meadows there as fast as possible. I like how the film settles into a character-driven groove with a series of colorful encounters that provide insight into these guys after efficiently setting up the premise.

Meadows is just a scared kid that did something stupid and pissed off the wrong person as a result. Meadows has hardly had any life experiences and will be denied the possibility of them for eight long years unless Buddusky and Mulhall do something about it. Not surprisingly, Buddusky’s original plan goes out the window as he and Mulhall bond with Meadows by getting him drunk, stoned and laid in one last hurrah before eight years of imprisonment.

The Last Detail continued Jack Nicholson’s fascination with angry outsiders that live on the margins. It was the start of a great run of like-minded characters, beginning with Easy Rider. It is interesting to watch the choices he makes as an actor in this role, from the way Buddusky seems to sarcastically chew his gum to the way he wears his sailor’s cap. Nicholson is equally adept at showing the anger that simmers under his character’s façade and the explosion of rage that occurs when provoked, like the famous scene where a bartender refuses to serve the three sailors, which is reminiscent of the even more well-known diner scene in Five Easy Pieces. Later on, there’s a nice moment where Buddusky explains why he gets so angry and how liberating he finds it to wail on someone that ticks him off. He even tries to pick a fight with Meadows. It gives us some valuable insight into Buddusky’s volatile nature. Nicholson also shows us moments where his character is a consummate bullshit artist, like when he, Mulhall and Meadows get invited to a party in New York City and he tries to impress a young woman (Nancy Allen) by romanticizing life in the Navy. He’s stoned and getting nowhere with this girl who looks like she’d rather be anywhere else. Nicholson effortlessly inhabits the role in a way that seemed to disappear through the late 1980s and beyond when he relied more and more on his movie star persona.

Fresh-faced Randy Quaid does a nice job of conveying his character’s clueless naiveté. He plays Meadows as a pathetic mess of a human being. With his young, soft face, the actor projects a kind of innocence, but his actions sometimes say otherwise. For example, on the train he tries to make a break for it and when caught breaks down crying. Quaid achieves just the right mix of awkwardness and an occasional sympathetic side to keep us interested in this bundle of contractions all the while holding his own against a flashy actor like Nicholson. Quaid exhibits character behavior that is intriguing to watch – so much so that we want to know more about Meadows. Why did he try to steal the money? Over the course of the film, Buddusky and Mulhall try to find out what motivates this kid. As they get closer to prison, Quaid shows how the inevitable weighs more and more on Meadows’ mind by facial expressions, which oscillate between contemplative and anxious.

Otis Young has the least flashiest role, but it is a crucial one as he provides the stable, calming voice of reason, trying to keep everyone on track. When Buddusky comes up with some wild idea or wants to diverge from their mission, Mulhall is the sober realist and this sometimes causes friction between him and Buddusky, but when they are presented with an outside threat they quickly close ranks.

Robert Towne’s script hits us up with salty language right from the get-go, but it never feels false or forced because it rolls off the tongue so easily off someone like Nicholson who curses as naturally as breathing. I also like how the film is set during the winter months and you can tell that they actually shot it during that time by how you can see the actors’ breath in outdoor scenes. It looks so cold that it is almost tangible, most notably in a scene towards the end when the three sailors decide to have a makeshift picnic out in a snowbound park. They stand around freezing their asses off while trying to start a fire to cook hotdogs.

Producer Gerry Ayres had bought the rights to Darryl Ponicsan’s novel The Last Detail in 1969, but had difficulty getting it made because the studio was concerned about all of the bad language in Robert Towne’s screenplay, asking him to reduce the number of curse words. Towne told them, “This is the way people talk when they’re powerless to act; they bitch.” The screenwriter had refused to tone down the language and the project remained in limbo until Jack Nicholson, who was by then a bankable movie star, got involved. Towne, who was good friends with Nicholson, had written the role of Buddusky with the actor in mind.

Director Hal Ashby was in pre-production on Three Cornered Circle at MGM when Nicholson told him about The Last Detail, his upcoming project at Columbia Pictures. Ashby had actually been sent the script in the fall of 1971, but the reader’s report called it, “lengthy and unimaginative.” After looking at it again, he had warmed up to it. Ashby wanted to do it, but the project conflicted with his schedule for Three Cornered Circle. However, he pulled out of his deal, impressed by Nicholson’s loyalty, with MGM and took Nicholson’s suggestion that they work together on The Last Detail.

Ashby and Ayres read Navy publications and interviewed current and ex-servicemen who helped them correct minor errors in the script. During pre-production, Ashby worked with Towne on polishing the script and with Nicholson on his character. Ashby wanted to shoot on location at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia and the brig at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but was unable to get permission from the U.S. Navy. However, the Canadian Navy was willing to cooperate and in mid-August 1972, Ashby and his casting director, Lynn Stalmaster, traveled to Toronto to look at a naval base and meet with actors. The base suited their needs and Ashby met actress Carol Kane whom he would cast in a small, but significant role.

Nicholson was set to play Buddusky and so the casting of The Last Detail focused mainly on the roles of Mulhall and Meadows. Nicholson and Towne were friends with Rupert Crosse and felt that he would be perfect as Mulhall. Bud Cort, who had worked with Ashby on Harold and Maude, begged the director to play Meadows, but he felt that the actor was not right for the role. Stalmaster gave Ashby a final selection of actors and the two that stood out were Randy Quaid and John Travolta. Quaid had the offbeat and vulnerable qualities that Ashby wanted.

Shortly before principal photography was to begin, Crosse discovered that he had terminal cancer and Ashby delayed production a week so that Crosse could come to terms with the news and decide if he still wanted to do the film. However, a day before filming was to begin, Crosse had to pull out and Ashby and Stalmaster scrambled to find a replacement, quickly casting Otis Young as Mulhall. Ashby had tried to get Haskell Wexler, Nester Almendros and Gordon Willis as the film’s director of photography, but when none of them were available, he promoted Michael Chapman, his camera operator on The Landlord (1970). Ashby and Chapman worked together to create a specific look for the film that involved using natural lighting to create a realistic, documentary style.

Ashby decided to shoot The Last Detail chronologically in order to help the inexperienced Quaid and the recently cast Young ease into their characters. Quaid was indeed very nervous and wanted to make a good impression. Ashby kept a close eye on the actor, but allowed him to grow into the role. With the exception of Toronto doubling as Norfolk, the production shot on location, making the same journey as the three main characters.

The day after principal photography was completed; Ashby had his editor send what he had cut together up to that point. The director was shocked at the results and fired the editor. The director was afraid that he’d have to edit the film himself. Ayres recommended brining in Robert C. Jones, one of the fastest editors in the business and who had been nominated for an Academy Award for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Jones put the film back into rushes and six weeks later had a first cut ready that ran four hours. Ashby was very impressed with Jones’ abilities and trusted him completely.

However, the studio was not happy with the length of time it was taking to edit The Last Detail as well as the amount of bad language in it. Columbia was in major financial trouble and needed a commercial hit. Jones called Ashby while he was in London meeting with Peter Sellers about doing Being There (1979), telling him that Columbia was fed up. The head of the editing department called to tell Ashby that a studio representative was coming to take the film away. However, Jones refused to give up the film and Ashby called the studio and managed to smooth things over with them.

By August 1973, the final cut of The Last Detail was completed and submitted to the MPAA, which gave it an R rating. Columbia was still not happy with the film and asked for 26 lines with the word “fuck” in them to be cut. Ashby convinced the studio to let him preview the film as it was to see how the public would react. The film was shown in San Francisco and the screening was a success. Columbia decided to give the film a limited release to qualify for Oscar consideration with a wide release in the spring of 1974. Both Nicholson and Quaid were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively.

For all of their fun and wild times – including picking a fight with some army soldiers in a train station washroom – Meadows’ fate hangs over them like an ominous storm cloud that occasionally makes itself known. While Mulhall wants to take Meadows straight to prison, Buddusky wants to show the kid a good time because it will be the last one he’ll have for eight years. Even though, by the end of The Last Detail, Buddusky and Mulhall do their job, you can tell that Meadows got to them, past their hardened Navy lifer exteriors. For them, Meadows represents how fucked up the system is – that someone could get punished so severely for such a minor crime. It’s not right, but there is nothing they can do about it, which ends things on a rather melancholic note of resignation that is refreshing for a film that started off as a comedy.

The Last Detail performed well at the box office and it has gone to become an influential film, representing one of Nicholson’s finest performances of the ‘70s. It was an excellent early role for Quaid and was also part of a fine run of films during this decade for the character actor. And finally, for Ashby it marked another great effort in a decade chock full of classics as he would go on to make, including Shampoo (1975), Coming Home (1978), and Being There.



Sidney Pollack’s The Yakuza, released in America in 1975 after a Japanese premiere a year earlier, is a unique neo-noir gangster hybrid boasting an excellent script written by Leonard Schrader, Paul Schrader, and Robert Towne. Despite not being a box office hit at the time, the film has certainly gained a cult following over the years, and it was a movie that had always escaped my grasp. I’m so glad I finally caught up with this exceedingly entertaining drama, one that’s spiked with some truly great action scenes and a narrative that’s engaging on a story and emotional level. Featuring a solid-as-oak Robert Mitchum as an ex-private investigator who returns to Japan in an effort to rescue the kidnapped daughter of his friend, there’s a distinctive quality to this movie that’s hard to describe. There’s a great mix of hard-core shoot-outs and bloody sword play, Dave Grusin’s music supplied tension and grandiosity in equal measure, and the thoughtful and at times ruminative screenplay stressed character and motivation and thematic context rather than being an empty display of action. Ken Takakura provided more than just a steely gaze, injecting the film with a sense of lethality and wisdom, while supporting cast members Brian Keith, Richard Jordan and Herb Edelman made the most out of their distinctive roles. Especially Jordan, whose unique face was able to convey just as much information than the script ever could. But it’s Mitchum who totally owned the picture, bringing his customary gruff line delivery and masculine sense of purpose to this exotic and violent story that traded off of noir tropes and the demands of the action picture in equal measure, with Pollack’s sure and steady directorial hand bringing it all together in a very elegant, crisp fashion. The rich screenplay investigated themes of moral and social expectations on the part of the Japanese culture, and how familial loyalty and personal friendship can be tested through the differing viewpoints of Eastern and Western school of thought. Ridley Scott and his creative team would heavily borrow from this film for the 80’s classic Black Rain, and clearly, this must be a favorite for Quentin Tarantino.


PTS Presents The Gary Young Special Episode 2: CHINATOWN, LA CONFIDENTIAL and TRUE DETECTIVE

For our second episode in the Gary Young Series, we sat down and discussed Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN, Curtis Hanson’s LA CONFIDENTIAL and both of those films influences on the second season of TRUE DETECTIVE.  We had a blast, hope you guys enjoy!