August 16, 1985
VOLUNTEERS is a Summer of 1985 comedy that takes place in 1962 – about the same time Bobby Fontana died in THE HEAVENLY KID, when George and Lorraine McFly must’ve been a few years out of college. But it doesn’t really offer much commentary or even nostalgia for the era – the period detail is so understated (or half-assed) I thought for a bit that the JFK/Castro/Ed Sullivan/“Blue Moon” montage at the beginning was just a fun history leading up to the Peace Corps. I don’t know, maybe it was the ‘80s Tom Hanks hair that prevented me from being transported through time.
This is the fifth Hanks film, the fourth where he’s the star, and the second of the summer (I skipped THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE, released in July). It’s different from what we expect from him now, because he plays a total asshole. He’s Lawrence Bourne III, entitled rich jerk pursuing his hobby of high stakes gambling as he’s about to graduate from Yale. He’s introduced in a card game staring down five older Black men, meant to be scary in the same way as Steve James and friends in the Kandy Bar scene of WEIRD SCIENCE, but he’s not going to bond with them.
Lawrence smarmily wipes out this guy Cicero (Ji-Tu Cumbuka, UP TIGHT, THE JERICHO MILE – and his defiant slave character who tried to escape in MANDINGO was also called Cicero!?) but because he was bluffing I guess it doesn’t count or something and Cicero shows up at his mansion to collect.
To Lawrence’s astonishment, his old man (George Plimpton, RIO LOBO) refuses to bail him out this time, so he rushes to the airport (chased by Cicero in the form of little dots on a map) and trades places with his roommate (Xander Berkeley, TAG: THE ASSASSINATION GAME) on a Peace Corps mission to Thailand. So the premise is what if a selfish prick went on a humanitarian mission?
On the plane he sits next to JFK-idolizing do-gooder Beth (Rita Wilson, who Hanks had met on an episode of Bosom Buddies, but he was married to someone else at this time and wouldn’t marry Wilson until 1988). They hit it off until he makes it clear that he’s just trying to sleep with her, at which point she wants nothing to do with him and he starts insulting her. I should also mention that throughout the movie he does some kind of indistinguishable upper class accent that he has said was supposed to be an imitation of Plimpton.
Also on the plane he meets “Tom Tuttle from Tacoma” (John Candy, returning to the sidekick role one week after SUMMER RENTAL), an engineer who frequently mentions being from Tacoma, Washington and attending Washington State University, and whose engineer babble is immediately torturous to Lawrence. When they arrive in Thailand he tries to pull his rich boy strings to get flown back, but instead his dad gets him officially instated into the Peace Corps and the boss man John (Tim Thomerson in his followup to TRANCERS) assigns him and Tom Tuttle from Tacoma to help the villagers build a bridge. You see the irony of the title? Because he’s not a volunteer! He’s just an idiot!
Although a nicer guy than Lawrence, Tom Tuttle from Tacoma shows his true colors when he arrogantly laughs off the villagers’ reluctance to cut down the sacred trees he thinks would be the best wood for the job. There’s one young guy, At Toon (Gedde Watanabe, SIXTEEN CANDLES), who speaks English, so he laughs and tells Tom he’s an asshole.
The basic joke is that Lawrence is also an asshole but has some kind of rascally Bill Murray charm or some shit, so he gets the locals gambling (with turtles instead of money, get it), to the chagrin of uptight Beth. But also Lawrence and Beth get to know each other as the movie wildly fails to convince us that she would start to like him or that we should like him just because he creates his own CASABLANCA themed bar to woo her and she doesn’t want to drink but then he gives her a bottle of Coke and she loosens up and laughs with him and he shows some amount of gentlemanly restraint so all the sudden the guy is a god damn American hero. Anyway the bridge project gets caught between the various motivations of a drug gang, communist forces and John, who is secretly a CIA dude or something.
The drug lord guy (Ernest Harada, BLUE THUNDER, voice of Mr. Fuji on Hulk Hogan’s Rock ’n’ Wrestling) is a strange looking guy in a wig who lives in a matte painting adventure movie fortress and has three big “sumo guards” played by Guillermo Rio, Lonnie Wun (“Red Bandana Gypsy,” ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) and Professor Toru Tanaka (REVENGE OF THE NINJA). And they are very fond of At Toon, is one of the jokes, I guess? One gag that stands out as not really like the others is when nobody can understand what the drug lord’s dominatrix henchwoman Lucille (Shakti Chen, later in THE GOLDEN CHILD and STAR TREK VI) is saying, and then they all realize that they can look down and read the subtitles that are at the bottom of the screen. The rest of the movie is not so meta.
Co-writer Ken Levine has a blog, where he referred to this as “the scene that ruined VOLUNTEERS”:
We established a character (Lucille) whose English was so bad we needed subtitles. In this scene, played pretty much as written, the director made one change. He had the characters break the fourth wall and read the subtitles.
We argued that it destroyed the reality of the film. There was now no jeopardy. It became a Hope-Crosby Road Picture where the fish could talk. The director argued that it got a big laugh. Why would we want to remove a big laugh? The answer is that it destroys the movie.
He also notes that her makeup is “pretty ridiculous,” which I disagree with. She kinda looks like she could be a Gorgeous Lady of Wrestling or one of the Misfits (whose songs are better) from Jem and the Holograms, and I’m always in favor of that.
There’s also a blind man in the village named Ah Po, who initially seems like a more important character than he turns out to be, but anyway he’s played by Harry Yorku, that weird guy I talked about in SUMMER RENTAL. His only three movies are that, this, and VICE VERSA. A legend. They should make a documentary about him like they did with John Cazale.
We know now that Hanks is most comfortable playing likable everymen and wholesome heroes. And he can switch that up sometimes or be a grouch like in A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, but it’s pretty clear here that it’s not that fun to watch him be a spoiled rich prickface quick to make racist comments or call the woman he’s falling for “that easy bitch” because she got kidnapped and he assumes she left him for another guy. But if he does play that type of character, I think it would work better just letting him be that and not pretending like hey you know what, deep down he’s a good person, and he’s learned so much from this couple of days getting to know the woman whose defenses he eventually wore down because she was trapped with him in a remote village.
Candy fares much better in his supporting role. Instead of enjoying being mean to everybody like Lawrence, his thing is that he doesn’t realize he’s being condescending (like when he’s told Ah Po is blind and lights up and starts telling him a quote from Helen Keller). And I like when he falls into a tiger pit and says, “This could be a setback.”
As a Washingtonian it’s funny to see Candy always talking about WSU. It’s about a four and a half hour drive from Seattle, but I have family that went there, and I once got trapped there overnight by a snowstorm. The idea of him being so proud of his alma mater that he sings the fight song when tied to a tree by communists is pretty great. (I have no idea if it’s the real fight song or not.) The one thing I know about WSU that I wish he would’ve mentioned is that they have their own creamery and they’re really proud of this very expensive cheese called Cougar Gold that they sell in a giant can. I tried to be a good tourist and bought one but I didn’t know you were supposed to refrigerate it so I never found out what it tastes like. But I bet Tom Tuttle is into it.
Apparently the scene with the bottle of Coke was criticized as crass advertising because TriStar was part of Columbia, which was owned by Coca-Cola at the time. (When soft drinks could just go around buying movie studios.) But according to Levine the idea came from interviewing Peace Corps volunteers and was in the script long before Tri-Star was involved. It reminds me that people complained about the Coke scene in THE ROAD, not knowing it was straight out of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. In fact both use Coke in a similar way – drinking it is an unexpected chance to experience and remember the luxuries they no longer have access to. (Of course it’s much deeper in THE ROAD, because it’s a father sharing with his son a treat from a world that he doesn’t even remember and that will never exist again.)
VOLUNTEERS is directed by Nicholas Meyer, who had previously directed TIME AFTER TIME, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, THE DAY AFTER and an episode of Faerie Tale Theatre. He must’ve brought along STAR TREK score composer James Horner. Screenplay credit went to Ken Levine & David Isaacs (writers from M*A*S*H, AfterMASH and Cheers, working as script doctors on JULE OF THE NILE at the time of filming), with a story credit for Keith Critchlow, who had not had a writing credit before, but worked in the sound department for THE DELTA FORCE and NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE.
It opened at #2, below BACK TO THE FUTURE (week 7). It ended up making roughly double its budget, so it must’ve been a mild financial success, if not artistic.
Summer of 1985 connections:
John Candy obviously was in SUMMER RENTAL and FOLLOW THAT BIRD. Big summer for him. Ji-Tu Cumbuka was Melvin in BREWSTER’S MILLIONS. Lonnie Wun was in PRIVATE RESORT (which I didn’t review). Professor Toru Tanaka was Francis Buxton’s butler in PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. James Horner also scored COCOON. Director of photography Ric Waite also shot BREWSTER’S MILLIONS and SUMMER RENTAL.
This another spin on the Cold War themes that were bigger earlier in the summer, but with more of a “people get silly fighting communists” angle than a “we must fight the communists” one.
Writers Ken Levine and David Isaacs moved on to writing MANNEQUIN: ON THE MOVE.
D.P. Ric Waite, in addition to for some reason being John Candy’s guy (he also did THE GREAT OUTDOORS), became an accomplished action d.p. with COBRA, MARKED FOR DEATH, OUT FOR JUSTICE, RAPID FIRE and ON DEADLY GROUND.
This was only the second movie produced by Walter Parkes, after THE CALIFORNIA REICH. He later was one of the founders of Dreamworks and president of Amblin Entertainnment, so he’s a producer or executive producer on many huge movies including MEN IN BLACK, AMISTAD, THE MASK OF ZORRO, A.I. and THE RING.
Meyer’s next gig was as one of several writers n STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME, or as I call it, “the good one.”