My awareness of The Experts dates back to 1994-95, back when my area first got Comedy Central on cable. Perhaps due to John Travolta’s renewed goodwill from Pulp Fiction, Comedy Central aired this movie alongside Ghostbusters II, Loose Cannons and a few others all the time in between Saturday Night Live reruns and Mystery Science Theater 3000. Without boring you about that, the summary of what I’m trying to say is that within six years of this film’s long-delayed release, it was about as relevant as Photon lasertag and Club Nouveau. Hell, by the time The Experts did get released in January 1989, glasnost and perestroika had become synonymous in helping to peacefully diffuse any threats the United States and Soviet Union had perceived itself as. That big pep talk Rocky gave sure worked, didn’t it?
A great number of critics and HBO subscribers alike of the time seemed to agree that this film was part of the thudding nadir of John Travolta’s career, a garish configuration of Cold War mockery and 1980’s pop culture and fashion that, in my view, totally works in some kind of weird, warped way. He and Tequila Sunrise‘s Arye Gross play Travis and Wendell, smooth-talkin’ nightclub promoters in New York City. Both of them are adorned with the most hideous haircuts either has ever sported.
Just look at this picture above. Travolta’s got this bad, greased-up Richard Marx rat-tail mullet that John Stamos would bury his face into his head over. Wendell goes further than the hip Mark Linn-Baker thing he has by wearing not only a massive pendant earring but a revolving collection of bad cardigan sweaters that look like they were made for a Fred Rogers guest spot on Miami Vice. Oh yeah, and Travolta’s got an earring too.
Anyway, basic plot is this: KGB spy Charles Martin Smith spots these two losers on the street and offers them tons of money to go to Nebraska to open a nightclub… except, unbeknownst to our heroes, “Nebraska” (the characters are so fucking stupid, they probably think it’s just the Springsteen album) is actually a Soviet-operated emulation of 1950’s suburban America that needs a quick infusion of the coolness of the 1980’s.
Commence the 80’s fixing up montage, set to a cover of “Back to the USSR” that I thought was Travolta and was disappointed to learn actually was not. Yes, this is THAT kind of 80’s movie. Thanks to Travis and Wendell, this Nebraskan town turns into a happenin’ place and they teach a lesson in American self-esteem and the advantages of capitalism, color TV’s, VCR’s, microwaves, ghetto blasters, and condoms. As Wendell proudly proclaims, “The key to modern America is Japanese products!”
Naturally, suspicious Soviet reverend Brian Doyle-Murray frowns for this, as does Smith’s (as Mr. Smith!) bosses. Wendell falls for Deborah Foreman, who has a kind-of unfortunate haircut in this as a shrill Russian/American prude, while Travis gets the hots for Kelly Preston. Yes, this was where the longtime power couple first met, and their chemistry is off the charts, especially in an extended dance sequence (because they needed a Saturday Night Fever joke) that probably had Quentin Tarantino recommending the tape to anyone who entered Video Archives and invoking the creativity of the famous Vincent/Mia dance sequence in Pulp Fiction.
It’s a crude, xenophobic fish-out-of-water comedy that plays like a cross between Spies Like Us and Gung Ho with shades of Back to the Future in its outsider’s-influence element. Travis and Wendell’s clueless minds and womanizing ways make for among the most moronic protagonists ever conceived for a film, a high-fiving, arrogant, materialistic duo so washed up in their narcissistic ways and face-value stupidity that they make Bill and Ted look like history scholars. My criticisms said, I think that part of the joke, at least in a generation-later viewing, is that it’s supposed to be ironic. After all, SCTV luminary Dave Thomas directed the film and he does his best to keep the satirical elements safe without turning it into an Alex Cox-esque outrage against the American empire.
And it plays on the impatient, immediate needs of Americans. Travis is infuriated to learn the one burger joint in town is closed for lunch, bellowing “That’s LAME!” at the twitchy soda jerk who runs the place. He also chastises Smith for his “giveaway” of expensive American goods to promote the club, bemoaning that a $600 VCR is an excessive solution to get someone to come to a nightclub. They bemoan the lack of “network television” and the pathetic skills of the Amerikans at trying to throw a Frisbee.
Objectively speaking, The Experts is a mean-spirited smearing of propaganda and a wacky comedy that subliminally praises how awesome America is and how the commies are nefarious but really buffoons. Further, it possesses an incessant, megaphone-amplified need to tell perestroika to hurry its ass up a little bit and get some goddamn Reeboks and McDonald’s and Budweiser into the Soviet Bloc. There’s a charm to the movie, however, in Travolta’s chemistry with his co-stars and the colorful soundtrack.