THE SUMMER OF 1990: BIRD ON A WIRE

This summer, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of 1990, a year that boasted what is arguably the last summer movie season that almost exclusively catered towards adults.

The great Scott Mendelson of Forbes posted an article shortly after wanting to embark on this journey. When studios tried to go kid-friendly, they could barely get to the $100 million mark, but R-rated films and decidedly mature PG-13 efforts ended up proving to be the kings of summer. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Home Alone proved PG-rated movies were moneymakers, but that happened outside of the season. And now, in 2015, The Pleasuredome salutes the crazy, big-budget, high-profile, and often overblown summer that was the beginning of the 90’s.

Our first submission comes in from a writer who will only refer to himself as “Mark Puckerberg.” As such, I can only post this under the pseudonym due to his fear that the principles of the summer’s first star-studded gambit, Bird on a Wire, would provide unfathomable retaliation against him. Mr. Puckerberg has shown great courage in kicking off our look back, and I hope you enjoy what he has to say about Mel & Goldie’s adventure

. Mind you, I’ve actually never seen this movie.

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The Movie: Bird on a Wire

The Director: John Badham (Stakeout)

The Stars: Mel, Goldie, David Carradine, Bill Duke

Release Date: May 18, 1990

Box Office: $70,978,012

Nobody has ever said that Bird on a Wire is their favorite movie. Maybe there was one guy back in ’90 whose yearbook caption listed this as his favorite movie. Director John Badham made a career out of nobody’s favorite movies. Sure, he’s got a good solid contender in Saturday Night Fever, but otherwise it’s the odd man out that claims to be the world’s number one Blue Thunder superfan.

Let me back up a bit and give a little personal story about this movie. Don’t worry, it’s not about formative sexual experiences or the cold, distant love of my father. Just relax. I won’t ask you to open your dead heart and emote. The weekend this movie opened, what I really wanted to see was Class of 1999, which is about cyborg teachers, and let’s leave it at that. That flick was playing way across town, and my pre-license self was still at the mercy of adults with cars. Therefore, if I wanted to see a movie, I had to settle on a closer theater. This was the only movie whoever was involved agreed to see.

Mel, Goldie, and John Badham’s unremarkable style was no proper substitute for cyborgs. Don’t worry, gentle reader, I saw the cyborg teacher movie when it hit video. In those days, however, we had to wait sometimes as long as six months for a movie to hit home video. Yes, it was a cruel and barbaric time.

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Now, I reluctantly return to Bird on a Wire, which, all these years later, is still no match for cyborgs. Let me explain the labyrinthine plot right away: Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn get chased by David Carradine and Bill Duke, playing themselves. That’s roughly the extent of the plotting. The rest is exposition, and not all that interesting. Apparently, 15 years before the film, Mel & Goldie were lovers. Mel and a friend were caught up in a drug smuggling operation (it’s really not made clear; this movie doesn’t seem interested in explaining its own bullshit) against their will. David Carradine ends up murdering the friend, as David Carradine often do (see also: Kill Bill).

Mel enlists in the Witness Protection program, and things seem okay… until Carradine is released from prison. For some reason, he cannot proceed with a lucrative partnership with a drug lord until Carradine kills Mel. When the movie opens, Mel is working for an older black man that owns a garage in Detroit. Sounds a lot like a popular series of movies Mel made, right? Anyway, this guy might as well have been named “Short Timer.” I half expected a scene of him being fitted for a coffin as he walked and talked. As fate has it, and it always does, Goldie must go to Detroit as part of her soulless corporate gig. This affords Mel & Goldie a (re)meet-cute, and poop plops in the toi… I mean, the story gets set in motion. Soon, they’re aided of a crooked FBI agent, and there’s no doubt he’s crooked. He’s played by Stephen Tobolowsky of “Ned Ryerson?” fame, but that was before he played sympathetic characters so he’s a jerk. The bad guys end up chasing Mel & Goldie all over the country. Well, at least two states.

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Bird on a Wire came out at a time when Hollywood was at least minimally obsessed with hippies and their ethos, but they were more concerned with the fallout of that over the decades. All of that was an unfortunate byproduct of baby boomers running Hollywood, and the silly next generation assumed all that hippie nonsense actually meant something. This was evident in both thoughtful ways (Running on Empty) and not so thoughtful (Rude Awakening, Flashback). Bird on a Wire manages to be neither of those. The movie isn’t even interesting enough to let Mel be a smuggler or have any guilt or remorse over the death of his friend.

Instead, they were very innocently flying back and forth to Mexico in the mid-70’s, probably delivering much-needed medicines and supplies to impoverished orphans. Yes, some murky blackmailing is the only reason that he ever crossed paths with Carradine’s character, who, I must note, spends most of the movie dressed like modern-day Steven Seagal, replete with garish tinted sunglasses. There is no real reason the movie presents why these characters have to be hippies, or ex-hippies, or any iteration thereof, except that it makes sense for the timeline. At one point, Mel dances and sings along to Bob Dylan, but the movie constantly throws Aaron Neville slow jams on the soundtrack. If it was all in tandem with Mel’s identity crisis following 15 years in Witness Protection, then great job.

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Mel’s history with the FBI is also treated just as haphazardly. In Bird on a Wire‘s version of the Witness Protection Program, the biggest problem for Mel isn’t ordering spaghetti and meatballs and getting noodles and ketchup. Rather, Joan Severance pines for him, forcing Mel to have the indignity of having to pretend to be a gay hairdresser. That’s right, Mel has to affect a stereotypical lisp in order to fall back in with his former compatriots at the salon. Thankfully, there isn’t much of this. Considering it was 1990, it could have been worse. This movie’s FBI just generates new identities based on possible Three’s Company plots, as another variation has him being a hunky carpenter and all around handyman for the aforementioned Severance, who runs an idyllic veterinarian’s clinic/home for wayward fatales. Rough life.

Everything climaxes in what we’re told is a zoo, but this zoo looks like no zoos I’ve ever seen. In design, it looks like one big room where they let all manner of big cats and monkeys play together in a warped representation of the laws of the jungle. It looks more like a laser light show than zoos of which you would see in San Diego or the Bronx. Mel used to work there, so he knows the layout, but the movie makes sure to not have him use that advantage in any meaningful way. If all you want out of a movie is to have Bill “Anytime” Duke mauled to death by big cats, then this is the movie for you.

Spoiler: Mel & Goldie sail off together, probably much to the chagrin of her loving and loyal boyfriend. A similar fate befell Charles Grodin in Seems Like Old Times, when fate puts her and Chevy Chase together in the final scene. Goldie was kind of trifling.

I’d go into more detail, but as it is, I just told you the whole movie. That’s it. It’s uncannily generic. Mel & Goldie get off a few good zingers, and they have chemistry together, that’s for sure. I did spend most of the runtime wondering why Kurt Russell wasn’t involved, but I don’t want to go overboard here. I’m not even sure why the movie is called Bird on a Wire, when I’m surprised it wasn’t simply released as Untitled Mel & Goldie Project, as that’s the only thing is really has going for it: the innate likability (before 2006) of Mel & Goldie.

In conclusion: Not enough cyborgs.

Bird on a Wire is running on Starz and Encore right now. It’s available to buy and rent on iTunes and Amazon, or on DVD.

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