Detective, Arthur Hailey

Berkley, 1997, 595 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-16386-5

Arthur Hailey is best known for novels that peeked under the surface of familiar institutions to reveal their inner mechanics. Hotel and Airport became blockbuster movies that did much to ensure Hailey’s continuing bestsellerdom. The Moneychangers dealt with banks. Wheels talked about the Detroit auto industry. Overload took on the power-generating industry. The Evening News… well, you get the picture.

In all cases, Hailey delivered intricately researched novels, seemingly taking more delight in showing us fascinating facts than in building a satisfying plot. You could say that Hailey practiced the technothriller years before the genre was formally defined by Tom Clancy. In almost all cases, the first half of his books -“the guided tour”- was far more interesting than the eventual plot of said novels. But as long as the guided tour was interesting, no one really minded.

In his latest novel, Detective, Hailey takes us behind the scenes at the Miami Police Department. In doing so, he faces perhaps the greatest creative challenge of his career: If there’s a social institution that’s been explored over the years, it’s police departments. The whole sub-genre of police procedurals, for instance, is based upon describing details of police work. Seasoned veterans of this sub-genre -and, given the popularity of crime-fiction, most general readers- already know most of the essential details; what could Hailey teach us?

The only way to avoid major problems would be for Hailey to abandon his usual reliance on “the Guided Tour” and, for once, give us a good plot sustained during the whole book.

Fortunately, he (mostly) manages to do that. Detective plunges in the story in an admirably efficient fashion, as a Miami police detective is summoned at the side of a death-row inmate. In a few deft pages, we’re in flashback city as previous events unfold (sometime in nestled flashbacks) and bring us up to speed in short order. The rest of the novel is smooth going, as elements of the plot are developed effectively and the writing is as compulsively readable as anything else written in the sub-genre.

I added the (mostly) qualifier because even though Detective is written with professionalism and skill, it suffers from major structural problems by the end of the book. As a crucial element of proof is uncovered, a hundred pages before the end, it essentially concludes any suspense as to the whodunit part of the plot. Everything else is redundant explanation or mechanical conclusion. The final climax seems as contrived as perfunctory.

Hailey might, in fact, be too professional in his approach; everything wraps up so neatly that it approaches ludicrousness. A minor criminal cannot simply be a minor criminal, but somehow be related in an exotic fashion to one of the book’s character to illustrate some kind or ironic counterpoint. The identity of the murderer can be deduced from a presence at an unlikely point. The fantastically gifted protagonist isn’t “just” a top-notch detective, but also an adulterous ex-priest… convenient…

It doesn’t matter much, though. Detective remains a good read and a good story. Worth a look, not only for Hailey fans, but also for anyone looking for some effortless entertainment.

Jagged Edge (1985)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Jagged Edge</strong> (1985)

(On VHS, September 2000) This, according to my sources, received a warm critical reception upon release. Either those critics aren’t working any more, or my sources are wrong: While it’s a competently-made film with good acting and adequate direction, the script (by Joe Ezherhas, who would go on to make such trash classics as Basic Instinct and Showgirls) is disappointingly weak. Though the start of the film is solid (woman is killed; husband is suspected and accused), the rest of the story gets ludicrous (a female attorney accepts to defend the husband, only to fall in love with him in a matter of days) and then solidly predictable. You only have to ask yourself what would be most interesting dramatically, and presto it happens! The ending is, with fifteen year’s insight, one of the tritest things I’ve seen in a while, a stock-routine thriller conclusion that thinks itself clever but really isn’t.

Jackie Brown (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Jackie Brown</strong> (1997)

(On VHS, September 2000) Considered without preconceptions, this is a standard crime film with some interesting moments. Disappointment set in as soon as we’re reminded that it’s “Directed by Quentin Tarantino” during the end credits. This isn’t the fantastic piece of cinema that could be expected from the wunderkind auteur of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. At best, it let itself be watched with interest despite its lengthy duration. At worst, it’s a regrettably boring adaptation of a lousy book. Few cinematic pyrotechnics, and the main event (a caper told from three perspectives) seems more gratuitous than organically useful. Robert de Niro’s character is nearly superfluous. Samuel L. Jackson is good, but routine, a description that might be applied to the film as a whole; unspectacular, but competent. Rather long, though.

(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, October 2018) I don’t often “catch movies on cable” (my tool of choice for mass movie consumption is the DVR), but when I happened to see Jackie Brown playing while I was doing other things around the living room, I left it on … and became increasingly mesmerized by the film. When I first saw it in 2000, it simply didn’t click for me: It felt dull and anticlimactic from Quentin Tarantino after the more explosive Pulp Fiction, and there wasn’t much in the film to remind us that this was from the same whiz-kid auteur. Nearly twenty years later, I’m far more sympathetic to the film: It’s a solid crime drama, well told in a more grounded way than what would be called the “Tarantino style”. Pam Grier is spectacular as the middle-aged protagonist of the story, using and manipulating three separate parties to get what she wants. Robert Forster is almost as remarkable as a grizzled bailsman, with good supporting performances from actors such as Robert de Niro (playing a second fiddle, refreshingly enough), Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson in his inimitable persona. Tarantino keeps things moving, keeps his own excesses to a minimum and the result still stands, twenty years later, as his most grown-up piece of cinema. As for myself, I’m far more receptive to older characters, to solid crime drama (now that those are far less prevalent now than in 1997) and to the idea of damaged character somehow trying to make the best out of what they’ve been given in life so far. Disregard my first take on the film—I’m much better now.

Idle Hands (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Idle Hands</strong> (1999)

(On VHS, September 2000) Even staunch civil-right defenders might admit that the current plague of would-be cinema censors might have a point after watching Idle Hands. Depictions of violence, drugs and sexual content are not bad things in themselves, but when they’re used to such juvenile goals, they’re definitely not as morally acceptable as in the context of, say, an anti-war drama. To put it simply, Idle Hands is a meaningless teen film that wallows in the gratuitous use of the afore-mentioned violence, drugs and sex. There are stupid moments everywhere, insipid jokes and inane plotting everywhere you care to look. Chances are that you won’t because this slasher is pretty stupid even as slashers goes. (Yes, that includes I Still Know What You Did Last Summer) What’s even less funny is how Idle Hands drapes itself in the excuse that “it’s a comedy!” to feebly justify it. There are, granted, a few bright spots: Devon Sawa does a good job (especially in the “fighting his hand” scenes) and Seth Green is his usual scene-stealing self. There are a few good jokes. But they’re not enough to bring this film much above mediocre ratings.

Hideaway (1995)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Hideaway</strong> (1995)

(On VHS, September 2000) Boring by-the-numbers horror film starring Jeff Goldblum as a man getting psychic visions about/by a serial murderer fascinated by Goldblum’s daughter. You can guess where it goes from there. Flat direction, bad writing, obvious plotting. Not as bad as completely devoid of good -or memorable- qualities. You can skip this one.

Heaven’s Burning (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Heaven’s Burning</strong> (1997)

(On VHS, September 2000) Avoid! Though it stars the ever-dependable Russell Crowe in a suitable tough-guy role, the rest of this low-budget effort hovers between ludicrousness and boredom. Ludicrousness, demonstrated by scenes after scenes of implausible plot mechanics and suspect character choices. For instance, the conservative -and myopic- Japanese husband suddenly buys a gun, kills his best friend without remorse, shaves his head, chucks his glasses and goes across the country on a motorcycle to kill his runaway wife. Boredom, as interminable stretches of nothingness (I’m not talking about the Australian desert) pepper the narrative. Rent Natural Born Killers if you want a similar story, but only die-hard Crowe afficionadoes will enjoy this one. And even then…

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Grosse Pointe Blank</strong> (1997)

(On VHS, September 2000) A professional hit-man dealing with his ten-year high-school reunion? Funny premise, and even if Grosse Pointe Blank never quite delivers everything we could expect from this concept, it remains a great little comedy. Of course, most of this success depends on the leads, John Cusack as a tone-perfect assassin with faint neurotic tendencies and Minnie Driver as an adorable, but dangerously bitter radio DJ. Both are sympathetic, cool, competent and enormously likable. The film itself lacks the spark required to propel it from good to great (many missed opportunities and not enough laughs from a fertile premise, mostly) but that shouldn’t be a reason not to check it out, especially if you’re a fan of either leads.

Duck Soup (1933)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Duck Soup</strong> (1933)

(On VHS, September 2000) In humor, there’s a tendency to assume that everything relevant was invented recently, but this Marx Brothers film shows that most comedy tactics were used well before our birth. Duck Soup isn’t a film to see for a strong plot (there isn’t one beyond stringing together a few vignettes), original characters (the Marx brothers basically play their specialties; Groucho with his verbal deftness, Guido with his pantomime and Chico somewhere in between) or cinematic qualities (though there are a few surprisingly modern sequences). But is it funny? Definitely. Enough to track down the film and see it as a group. You’ll be quoting from it for days after.

Detroit Rock City (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Detroit Rock City</strong> (1999)

(On VHS, September 2000) This teen comedy (about four friend who practically do everything in order to get to a KISS concert) is more entertaining than it should have been, though not much more. The teenage antics and handled with a heap of good-natured anarchism and it’s hard to be unsympathetic to such cheerful mayhem. There are quite a few good scenes, though some showcases (the strip performance, the church love scene and the subsequent confrontation with the parent, notably) don’t come off as strongly as they should. The film also ends five minutes too quickly, crying out for some sort of “twenty years later” epilogue. Maybe a bit too scattered to maintain a high level of interest.

Courage Under Fire (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Courage Under Fire</strong> (1996)

(On TV, September 2000) Years before Three Kings, this was the first film set during the Gulf War. Notice that it’s not about the Gulf War; it’s about a military investigator trying to find the truth about a helicopter pilot’s alleged heroism. Through various interviews, a Rashomon-like mosaic or truth emerges, both good and bad. (Though, in the end, definitely too sugary good to be very interesting) Not to be watched by those who are easily bored: The film starts out slow (after a good first five minutes) and remains that way for thirty minutes, until conflicting testimonies appear and things start to heat up. Then the film becomes compelling, but unfortunately you have to hang on until that point. A few actors slated for greatness – Meg Ryan, Denzel Washington, Matt Damon- pepper the film.

City Hall (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">City Hall</strong> (1996)

(On TV, September 2000) John Cusack junkies will love the film, which shows him in the mold of the smart-proper-clean-cool protagonists he does best. Plus, he gets the chance to act against Al Pacino, which is always fun to see. Non-fans won’t be as enthusiastic about this film, which constantly shows signs of being brilliant, but has to settle for being merely okay. You’d think that a city-wide plot about crime, power and corruption in New York City to be involving, but not really. The film goes through the motions but never sparks and finally kills itself at a train stop scene. The final few minutes are predictable. Too bad.

Carrion Comfort, Dan Simmons

Warner, 1989, 884 pages, C$6.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-35920-3

One of Carrion Comfort‘s main characters is a Hollywood movie producer of the shlocky kind. It’s not hard to imagine someone like him taking a look an an early version of this novel and berating the author: “I want more sex! I want more violence! I want more action scenes! Give me helicopters, Nazis, explosions, gay sex, conspiracies, religion, chases, nuclear submarines and destroyers! Give me more! I want more! More! More!”

Because Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort has it all; it’s the epitome of the blockbuster horror novel, the type of book designed to be so over the top that you can’t but admire its audaciousness. You’ll cheer as you cringe, and laugh while you’re disgusted.

The premise itself is endlessly rich in sadistic possibilities: Simmons postulates the existence of a group of “psychic vampires” (so to speak) that have the Ability (or Power, or Talent) to take control of other people’s minds, effectively controlling them for as long as they want. From that point, it’s ridiculously easy to imagine these Mind-vampires indulging themselves in gory violence, simply because they can. Lack of accountability has its privileges.

Expanded from the novella of the same name, Carrion Comfort tacks on 850 pages to the original story, taking it much farther than Simmons’ initial effort. What gradually emerges isn’t an expansion of three Mind-vampires’ game of remote killing, but a power struggle between highly-placed forces of evil. The French Translation of the novel is aptly titled Evil’s Checkerboard (L’échiquier du mal, actually)

In theory, it sounds impressive. In practice, it has numerous great moments but suffers too much from unequal pacing to be epic horror. At 880-odd pages, it’s inevitable that there are long stretches in the book, but the second quarter seems to serve no other purpose than to kill off a main character. The third is dedicated to preparations for the fourth quarter. (It doesn’t really help that by mid-book, we have a pretty good idea of where the book’s going to end, and with whom.)

To be fair, some of the action set-pieces are so good that they elevate the book to “should-read” status anyway. There’s a spectacular helicopter explosion. A few great confrontations between the Mind-vampires and our dedicated protagonists. A momentous final chess game. A great set-piece inside a semitransparent airplane where the ultimate villain reveals himself to be far more powerful than anyone suspected.

And to be frank, the characters are developed with a lot of skill. Despite the large cast of characters and the multiple double-crossing parties, the plot remains easy to follow and to enjoy.

Did I say “enjoy”? Truth is, Carrion Comfort isn’t for the weak-stomached among us. It’s filled with gratuitously grisly material, pushing violence and exploitative sex to levels which might be unbearable for some. But then again, why would these people read horror?

In any case, this big bad horror package is exactly what you should read if ever you start wondering what Hollywood could do with an unlimited budget and none of those pesky parental ratings problems. Granted, Carrion Comfort isn’t subtle, particularly original, or even better than competent in its execution (making it a great horror novel would require editing out maybe three hundred pages) but it’s a whole lot of fun.

Nazis, Vampires, explosions, sex, violence, religion, money, power… wrapped in carefully-chosen psychobabble to give it a sheen of respectability. I tell you; this book’s got it all. Don’t feel too guilty for enjoying it; after all, mom told you to eat properly, but that never stopped you from enjoying that occasional burger, right?

Chin wong ji wong 2000 [The Tricky Master] (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Chin wong ji wong 2000</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">The Tricky Master</strong>] (1999)

(On TV, September 2000) A Chinese movie parody? Heck, yes, and a pretty funny one at that. Though much better in its first hour when it spoofs action films, (what with the totally unexpected The Matrix gag and the hilarious Mission: Impossible mask riff) it then moves on to parody the less-familiar genre of Hong Kong gambler films. Still, The Tricky Master is a fun way to spend an evening, and there are a few touches (like the appropriate use of Computer-Generated Imagery) that ought to perk anyone’s interest. Don’t expect much more, however, than a series of comic vignettes (most of which making references to films you’ve never seen) loosely connected together by a threadbare plot. Stay at the end; bloopers run through the credits.

Chao ji ji hua [Supercop 2] (1993)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Chao ji ji hua</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Supercop 2</strong>] (1993)

(On VHS, September 2000) Standard action film saved by two Hong Kong tricks. The first is a good car chase filmed as if the stunts were actually dangerous. The second is an impressive martial arts sequence between the petite Michelle Yeoh and a bulked-up American stereotype, filmed with an appreciable lack of quick cuts, which allows the actors to shine in their acrobatics. The rest of the film is fine, but ultimately forgettable. The Jackie-Chan-as-a-matron shtick cameo not only isn’t very funny, but feels totally out of place in this somewhat humorless film.

Am zin [Running Out Of Time] (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Am zin</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Running Out Of Time</strong>] (1999)

(On TV, September 2000) As cat-and-mouse movies about cops and robbers go, this one’s pretty good. A great script (loses steam in the last hour, though) filled with clever details, neat tricks and fun repartee provides the solid foundation for the film, and the good acting does the rest. It’s interesting to see how the villain plays upon the ultra-competent protagonist’s biggest strengths in order to get his way. On the downside, there are at least two major plot holes (the locked emergency exit, and the final car’s origin.) as well as a few incoherently staged scenes (the middle shootout is particularly confusing). Still, the film is slickly produced, and the result is engrossing. A Hong Kong film that would hold its own against Hollywood fare.