Monday, April 6, 2015

Off the Shelf: Night Game / The End of Violence (Blu-ray)

by Patrick Bromley
The age old cinematic question: What's better -- a forgettable movie that works well enough or a mess that strives for greatness?

It took me a long time to appreciate Roy Scheider. Growing up, he was always just the guy from Jaws; I'd see him pop up in movie after movie, but never managed to pick up on just what a great actor he is. Only in the last 10 years or so have I begun to understand that the guy makes everything better just by virtue of being in it, to the point where now I'll seek titles out for no other reason than because they star Roy Scheider. One such title is the 1989 thriller Night Game, a by-the-numbers thriller in which Scheider plays a Texas cop on the hunt for a serial killer.

That's essentially the whole plot of Night Game: Scheider is Detective Mike Seaver, investigating a series of brutal murders in which a series of women had their throats slashed on nights when the pitcher for the Huston Astros pitches and wins a game. Seaver is a former ballplayer himself and a big Astros fan, giving him special insight into just what's going on. Will he find the killer and stop the murders before they reach his front door?
Minus the presence of Scheider, there aren't a whole lot of reasons to recommend Night Game. It is as standard as late-'80s thrillers get: a little heavy on the violence, a little heavy on the shots of women being cut up, a little light on plotting and characterization. I'll give Spencer Eastman and Anthony Palmer's script credit for not making Scheider's detective a burned out alcoholic or womanizer (he's engaged to be married, actually), as such a character was the default movie cop during the period in which Night Games was made. The mystery isn't all that compelling, either, and for as big a role as you might think baseball would play in the proceedings (given the plot and the title), it doesn't factor in all that much. It's the hook (see what I did there) and there's talk around the game, plus some scenes filmed at the Astrodome, but it would be a reach to call this a baseball movie.

Night Games' non-stylish competence shouldn't be surprising, as it was directed by Peter Masterson (he of former Off the Shelf entry Blood Red fame). His every choice behind the camera is predictable and safe for this kind of movie, resulting in something that's totally watchable but which fails to leave any kind of impression. It's slick enough and skillful enough and entertaining enough, but not much more. Unfortunately, the cop-chasing-a-killer genre is just too vast to recommend a passable time waster like Night Game too enthusiastically. It's not even the best late '80s thriller Roy Scheider made.

On the other side of the spectrum is Wim Wenders' 1997 drama The End of Violence, which opts for the ponderous and occasionally pretentious route over Night Game's sleazy commercialism. Bill Pullman plays Mike Max, a very successful, very famous producer of trashy, violent movies who receives an anonymous letter containing super secret and super sensitive informaton. Before he's able to read it, though, he is kidnapped and held at gunpoint. He manages to escape and his captors end up dead, leaving the American public believing he's either dead or guilty of murder himself. Max falls in with a group of Mexican migrant workers (among them Henry Silva), who help him investigate the kidnapping and the contents of the top secret letter. Elsewhere, his unhappy wife (Andie McDowell), who was planning on leaving him before his disappearance, ponders solemnly in her big house...and that's pretty much it for her.
But wait! There's more! Gabriel Byrne is a scientist who sees Max's kidnapping on the wall of surveillence monitors in front of which he sits at his Griffiths Observatory lab. He finds himself wrapped up in a shadowy government conspiracy and surveillance project which, despite his efforts, he is mostly powerless to do anything about. AND there's a cop (played by Loren Dean) who is a big fan of Max's movies and is investigating his disappearance; he begins a relationship with a stuntwoman-turned-actress (Traci Lind, one-time love of my life) who was injured on the set of a Mike Max movie heavy-handedly called simply Violence. All of these story threads overlap and intertwine, though rarely to a larger thematic purpose.

Give Wim Wenders credit for this: he does not make stupid movies. He is an artist with a capital A, a visionary filmmaker with more than truly great film to his credit. It's just that when he falls short -- as he does with The End of Violence -- the results can seem stupid even when they are not. Wenders clearly has some big ideas he's working with and big things he wants to say about American culture in the late '90s, but those ideas never quite come together in a meaningful way. We can draw our own conclusions and connect some of the dots ourselves -- it's usually to a film's credit when it assumes intelligence on the part of the audience -- but Wenders doesn't give us enough tools to decipher the film. Everything comes out half-baked.
It doesn't feel half-baked as it unfolds, which is a testament to Wenders' ability to create beautiful, haunting images and an atmosphere of quiet, contemplative reflection. The cast he assembles is really something; in addition to those previously mentioned, there's Frederic Forrest and Pruitt Taylor Vince and K. Todd Freeman and Daniel Benzali and Nicole Ari Parker ("You want it clean, don't you?") and even Samuel Fuller (!!) as Byrne's miserable father. His casting is not a mistake, as Wenders is trying to make a Fuller-esque movie, many of which were about our relationship to violence both on screen and in reality. The difference is that Fuller's movies are visceral and kinetic -- they offer a charge at the same time they punish us for feeling that charge. Wenders would rather write a graduate thesis on the subject.

Make no mistake that The End of Violence is a mess -- a movie confused about what it wants to say and how to say it (some of that may be because it was recut after audiences at Cannes reacted poorly; perhaps the original version was clearer in expressing Wenders' intentions). And yet it is completely watchable and absorbing; until the moments in which my hands closed on air, I was sure the movie was building to something profound. Unlike Night Game, a one-and-done paperback of a thriller, I suspect I'll be coming back to The End of Violence. That's in part due to the cast -- 1997 Bill Pullman is my very favorite Bill Pullman (between this movie, Lost Highway and Zero Effect, it's safe to say this was the best year of his career) -- and in part because I'm a fan of these big ensemble movies. If the choice is between a movie that achieves its modest goals in an unremarkable way and a movie with a reach that exceeds its grasp, I'll always pick the latter.

Night Game 
Blu-ray release date: March 31, 2015
95 minutes/1989/R
1.85:1 (1080p)
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)

The End of Violence Blu-ray release date: March 24, 2015
122 minutes/1997/R
2.35:1 (1080p)
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Bonus Features: Trailer

Buy Night Game from Olive Films here

Buy The End of Violence from Olive Films here


  1. The poster and subsequent VHS box for Night Game captured my imagination like few others. Once I finally saw the movie a year or two after it hit VHS I was sorely disappointed. That being said, I remember very little of it and I've been awaiting the bluray so that I could give it another chance. I've also learned the greatness of Roy Scheider over the past decade or so and I'm happy just to watch him work. Between this and the recent releases of Sorcerer (so goooood) and Last Embrace (a fun little thriller from Jonathan Demme that needs more love) on bluray it's a great time to be a fan of his.

    1. I still need to see Sorcerer. That good? I had been avoiding because I really like Wages of Fear.

    2. Sorcerer is something special (though I haven't seen Wages of Fear so your mileage, as they say, may vary).

    3. Right on, I'll bump it to the top of the list. Time to check it out.

  2. Wim Wenders use to be one of my favorite directors. Wings of Desire was once in my top three favorite films of all time and I still think it is a masterpiece (and fuck City of Angels, btw). I saw The End of Violence in the theater with super high expectations and was ultimately let down, although I do think there are some excellent shots, performances and statements in the film. The End of Violence is probably his last decent film (I'm not counting Buena Vista). His earlier works are magnificent. Fun fact - Wenders gave his prize winnings for Wings of Desire from Cannes to Atom Egoyan. This was in 1987 so we can only assume that the money went to making Family Viewing or Speaking Parts; two of Egoyan's best in my opinion.