Thursday, March 18, 2010

Great Screenplay, Clumsy Movie: Heat (1986)

I just treated myself to a DVD viewing of Heat, the 1986 Burt Reynolds vehicle. Burt Reynolds doesn't interest me - by 1986 he didn't interest most people. However, Heat is the brainchild of William Goldman, a screenwriter who is of perpetual interest.

By 1986 Goldman's star was pretty tarnished as well. In the seventies he had become pricey talent because of his work on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, Marathon Man and The Stepford Wives, brilliantly crafted hits. But a man can't top himself forever. He cemented his rep by writing Adventures in the Screen Trade, the best book ever about Hollywood, but when the decade turned the industry was content to leave him to his comfortable laurels and seemed a little annoyed that he kept writing anyway. Goldman came back the next year with The Princess Bride, which is significant in discussing Heat.

It's a kind of action movie/character study about Nick "Mex" Escalante, a freelance bodyguard (he lists in the yellow pages as a chaperone) in Las Vegas who never carries a gun but is brilliant in the use of improvised edged weapons. For example, a thrown ashtray. Nick is semi-famous due to some exposure in Soldier of Fortune magazine. One night a friend of his, a prostitute named Holly, asks for his help in locating the creepy pretty-boy john who beat her up and abused her. Nick discovers he's the son of a gangster kingpin but roughs him up anyway. Complications ensue.

The great joy of Heat is watching Goldman work the audience. He introduces Escalante as a guy harassing a nice girl in a bar who winds up taking a beating from her much smaller, less macho boyfriend. Goldman knows what you expect and takes delight in twisting it up. His dialog is tough and sounds less like people talking than it sounds like DIALOG. Characters are killed but it turns out they're not, gangsters do unexpected things.

It would all be textbook screenwriting, but Goldman at that stage in his career couldn't just phone it in. Heat, like The Princess Bride, is a parody of itself. It's the work of a great screenwriter working hard to keep himself interested, so he pushes everything just a liiiiiiiiitle too far, to see if he can pull it off.

One of the things to love about this movie is that Goldman basically stops the action dead in the second act for a half hour, to pursue other things. It's a breathtaking tactical mistake, and coming from a rookie it would have gotten him fired. But it give the movie its most interesting moments, separating it from the routine action fare (say Malone for example) available at the time.

So, great screenplay. Sadly the movie doesn't quite work - maybe it never could. Maybe it only works as a novel (Goldman wrote that too, and it's a better read than The Da Vinci Code) but it can't translate to the screen. It would be interesting to see this remade, with the exact same script. It doesn't date at all. Even downtown Vegas looks the same. Benicio Del Toro would make a pretty good Nick Escalante.

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