I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

52 Pick-Up

So let’s say you’re an old rich dude who runs an auto factory and lives off the patent money from inventing a latch that they use on cars and spaceships. And you’ve been having an affair with a girl your daughter’s age, and you decide to call it off. But when you get to her apartment the girl is not there and instead there are 3 dudes in ski masks and they force you to watch a video of you and the girl fooling around and they tell you how they are going to show this movie to your wife unless you pay them 105 grand hush money.

So you figure no fucking way, I’m not paying, instead you tell your wife about the affair and figure that’s that. But next thing you know these fuckers drag you into a warehouse and show you another video where they execute the girl with a gun stolen from your bedroom and wrap her in a coat with your name stitched into it. And they tell you now it’s 105 grand a year or the cops find the body and trace it to you.

Okay so it’s not so easy to really picture yourself in that situation, especially the part where you are rich and also invented something. Fortunately this lean thriller by John Frankenheimer, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, doesn’t try real hard to make you feel sorry for this fucker Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider). He never whines or justifies himself, he just stubbornly forges ahead trying to find the anonymous three who are after him and fuck them up.

52 Pick-UpI read the book not too long ago and I wasn’t sure how faithful this one would be. And I got a little nervous about 1 second into the movie when it said, “Los Angeles.” (Like most of Leonard’s books, it’s a story about Detroit.) Then when I found out his wife Barbara (Ann-Margaret) was running for city councilwoman I thought jesus, this is gonna have nothing to do with the book.

False alarm though. The LA setting is just a convenient excuse to shoot in LA. The political campaign is just a convenient excuse for Harry to keep his situation secret and not go to the cops. The murder footage is on video instead of film but otherwise the script (co-written by Leonard) stays real close to the book. So it’s tight and sleazy.

I do think they fucked up a little though. Even though Barbara’s not a politician in the book, she is a stronger character and their relationship is more compelling. Here she seems like kind of a nutcase. But that happens in movies. They also dumped a subplot about Harry dealing with a union guy and a series of fire bombings at the car factory. I can understand why this was too complicated for a movie, but since Harry ultimately deals with his problem by blowing a motherfucker up, it works alot better in the book. (I did like that the movie didn’t explain things too much. There’s a scene early on where Harry oversees an auto test that involves explosions, so you can assume that’s where he gets the explosives, and they don’t have to tell you that.)

Like all the older Elmore Leonard adaptations they just don’t get his sense of humor. This book isn’t one of the funnier ones but there’s a little bit there, and I think Frankenheimer fucked it up. Like there’s a scene where Harry catches Clarence Williams III as Bobby Shy breaking into his house and they beat the crap out of each other. When Harry has him at gunpoint with blood dripping down the bridge of his nose, he asks him if he needs a Band-Aid. In the book, I read it as a sincere question, the kind of overly nice thing a guy like Harry might say because he’s never had a guy at gunpoint before. In the movie they made it sarcastic, he’s taunting Bobby Shy like a prisoner at Abu Ghraib. But I don’t know, maybe I just read the book different than Frankenheimer did.

I liked the movie overall. Just a simple amoral revenge thriller where a rich dude’s fooling around forces him to work his way through a sleazy world of porn, coke, peep shows, snuff films and murder. Roy Scheider is perfect for this type of role, John Glover is fittingly obnoxious as Alan Raimy, and Clarence Williams III is pretty scary as the coked out Bobby Shy. The main Elmore Leonard touch is that neither the victim or the victimizers really know what the fuck they’re doing. These guys think it’s gonna be easy to blackmail the guy and they quickly find themselves running scared. And Harry sort of charges at them blindly and gets lucky.

Remember that scene in OUT OF SIGHT where George Clooney and Don Cheadle are in Albert Brooks’ mansion, they get in a scuffle at the top of the stairs and some badass funky high speed percussion busts onto the soundtrack? I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not but this one has a similar scene with similar music. When Scheider catches Williams in his house, they fight and roll down the stairs. But here it’s even more chaotic because it’s only lit by Scheider’s flashlight, which is bouncing all over the place, so you can’t tell WHAT the fuck is going on.

Not a great one, but a good one. One of those rare high quality b-movies from our old pals Golan and Globus.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 4th, 2004 at 9:22 am and is filed under Action, Mystery, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “52 Pick-Up”

  1. *SPOILER*

    Do you get that ‘Oh shit’ moment, where his wife is force fed heroin and abused? I was enjoying the book and still did, but that scene woke me up and freaked me out. It went from being playful to scary within one page.

  2. I’ve just finished this book – read it all last night – the Library compendium 4 Novels of the 1970s, highly recommended – great stuff. Short and brutal.

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