Movie Review: 52-Pick Up (1986) What to expect: John Frankenheimer, Elmore Leonard and Roy Scheider at the top of their game.
I think this film, which turns 30 this November, has been sorely overlooked for far too long. 46% on Rotten Tomatoes with only 13 reviews? And a 6.4 out of 10 on IMDb with less than 3,500 votes? Get outta here. This should have been an 8.0 at the very least. It stars Roy Scheider, an actor who instantly makes a movie better just by being in it. It’s produced by Cannon Films, which gave us the “Ninja”, “Death Wish” and “Delta Force” films, as well as “Cobra”. It’s co-written by the late Elmore Leonard, adapting his own novel here to good use. And it’s directed by the late, great John Frankenheimer, who needs no introduction. This film has four good things going for it, delivers them all confidently, and gets swept under the rug? Hollywood sure is a strange place.
Scheider plays Harry Mitchell, an L.A. manufacturer with a fancy car, a nice house, and wife Barbara (Ann-Margret) running for city council. Things are going good for them, so good, that Harry is having a little something (Kelly Preston, what a something) on the side. You can’t keep a good man down, it seems. So three crooks, led by the slimy pornographer Raimy (John Glover) decide to make an example out of him by blackmailing him for $100,000 with this little tidbit. It may ruin his wife’s political aspirations.
If this film were made today, our hero will spend the entire film wracked with guilt for disrespecting his woman, and probably go “confront his demons” by facing both his mistress and his wife with “shocking truths”, and with the thugs bookending the story with few appearances. Political correctness, see. Not here. The second those slimeballs turn their backs, Mitchell just straight out lays the truth to Barbara, who is surprised as the audience that he’d reveal it this early. You’d think that, with her already knowing, there’s no blackmail plot, no ransom. Nope, there’s still 100 minutes to go. That’s when Raimy and the blackmailers get really, really nasty; resorting to additional kidnapping and murder. Mitchell is not one to admit defeat, and brings the fight back to them by sowing the seeds of distrust in Raimy’s unstable cohorts (Robert Trebor and Clarence Williams III), risking Barbara’s life in the process.
This is film/neo-noir unleaded, where the normal everyman is faced with increasingly bad luck as the story progresses. Here, the noir factor is cranked up to eleven as Frankenheimer and Leonard present the underworld of the 80s L.A. porn scene as unclean, unglamorous, seedy and grimy as it can be; you’d want to take a clean shower after finishing this film. It works for the film, because Mitchell is a character who seems trapped, but remarkably uses plausible wit to outsmart his enemies. Because this film was written by Leonard himself, every line of dialogue is gold. When Scheider confronts Raimy in one of many times, he firmly says this immortal line: “There’s something about your face that makes me want to slap the shit out of it!”
Scheider, manly man and perhaps the most underrated actor of all time, has the look and presence of a true everyman in charge: quiet and understated, yet fully in command when needs be, and uses these qualities to great effect here, ultimately delivering a career-best. Glover, however, is a real surprise as a sociopathic, borderline over-the-top scumbag who is hell-bent on terrorizing the Mitchells. His performance is so good here, so deliberately slimy, it’s a wonder why Hollywood didn’t cast him as high-profile villains following this film. Bonus points to Williams in a scene where he breaks into the Mitchells’ home and gets caught, only to be served liquor by Harry as a means of tricking him, leading up to the film’s funniest line of dialogue. Yes, even in films as bleak as this, good humor can be found.
This is the kind of film sorely missed in Hollywood now, lean, mean and grainy thrillers that never get cute, featuring believable characters that you root for because of their flaws. Without spoiling anything, even as the final scene does admittedly get over the top, it is a scene of sheer crowd-pleasing catharsis, a righteous ending that films today need. Perhaps one of Cannon Film’s best entries, up there with “Runaway Train”, it’s a 80s gem that needs to be rediscovered and celebrated. At least one critic did back in the day: Roger Ebert, who gave this film the unsung praise it deserved.