Getting Inside the Least Formulaic Movie Ever Made


The only thing worse than a formulaic action movie is a non-formulaic action movie. Chris Neumer delves into the short lived period in Hollywood history where Whoopi Goldberg, Action Hero was a thing. And while this period didn’t go much beyond 1987, it was as beautiful a train wreck as one will ever see.

by Chris Neumer

As a film lover, I often find myself wondering things like: “What would happen if Wes Anderson directed the fourth installment of The Expendables?” and “How much different would it have been if Larry Clark had written and directed Sweet Home Alabama?”  It turns out that I’m not alone.  When I spoke to Clark a few years ago, he confessed he too thought about stuff like this.  “I would take [my daughter] to go see all those romantic comedies with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant,” Clark said.  “We’d see all those and they’re so unrealistic.  I would wonder sometimes, ‘What would happen if I’d made this?’”

The sad truth is that if one of these delightful hypotheticals came to light the result would probably be an absolute train wreck.  It’s the reason why no one ever ponders what Michael Bay’s Pride & Prejudice would look like, even though I have long been curious what CGI aliens would bring to Jane Austen’s work.  Anderson is great because he makes Wes Anderson™ films, the same way that Michael Jordan was great as a basketball player and ridiculous as a baseball player.  Context matters.  It’s also why Sandra Bullock will be able to continue making romantic comedies until well into her 80s.

FatalBeauty3Whenever I see a terribly formulaic action/adventure movie—the kind that Jean Claude Van Damme might roll his eyes at—my mind quickly skips over the benefits of the usual script structure and questions why some filmmaker won’t take a stab at making an action film that doesn’t follow the normal formula.  Well, it turns out someone did and the movie is like none other that I’ve seen.  The good guy not only doesn’t catch the bad guy, but the lead’s love interest ends up going to jail and I spent the entirety of the movie hoping and praying that there wouldn’t be a sex scene between the leading man and lady.  In one fell swoop, this movie shows exactly why formula is used so often: because it mostly works.  Welcome to the world of director Tom Holland’s Fatal Beauty.

This story begins, of all places, with the Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines film, Running Scared.  I love Running Scared.  I think it’s one of the best action/comedies ever made.  That it’s set in Chicago and features a spectacular car chase on the el tracks is just gravy for me.  And when I went to watch it earlier this year, I couldn’t find my copy of it.  So I got another one.  For some reason, I was instead sent a two pack with Running Scared and Fatal Beauty.  After starring at the box art for two week, I couldn’t take it anymore, I had to see it; Fatal Beauty wasn’t just an action movie, it was an action movie starring Whoopi Goldberg where the film’s tagline triumphantly announced that she played “the toughest cop on the street”.  Sentences like that one are catnip to curiosity seekers.

The eighties were a fertile ground for horribly produced action movies that have gone on to become cult classics precisely because of their poor production values and sub-par scripts.  The leads were bullet proof, never acted as though they were ever in any danger and, generally speaking, behaved like well intentioned cartoon characters.  Think of Commando, Cobra or anything involving Chuck Norris and you’ll quickly get the picture.

The leads in these projects are hardcore individuals and not to be trifled with.  They have one goal in life and one goal alone: to take down the bad guy.  After taking out every henchman working for the bad guy, there would be a climactic scene where the lead would then kill the bad guy in a most painful (and deserved) fit of karmic justice.  It’s pretty standard.  And Fatal Beauty couldn’t be farther from this.

Goldberg is not hardcore—we’re talking about Whoopi Goldberg here!—she is constantly being trifled with and her goal doesn’t have anything to do with taking down a bad guy; while there is, technically, a bad guy played by Harris Yulin, the plot of Fatal Beauty is about Goldberg getting a bad batch of cocaine off the streets.

Unlike a lot of the other action stars of the day, Goldberg plays a character whose name is not supremely American in nature.  While Arnold Schwarzenegger played characters named Ben Richards, Jack Slater and John Kimble and Norris played characters named Matt Hunter, Scott James, and Matt Logan, in Fatal Beauty, Goldberg tackled the character of Detective Rita Rizzoli.

As just about everyone in the movie notes, it’s a weird name for her.  Rita Rizzoli wouldn’t, however, be a weird name at all for a character that singer/actress Cher would play.  And that is precisely who was attached to the project early on and then dropped out.*  Cher’s distancing herself from the project led to this quote delivered years later from Holland, “[Cher] bowed out early on, which is what I should have done.”  So with Rita Rizzoli firmly in place as the name of the main character, Goldberg was brought on.

* And the thought of an action movie starring Cher is even more exciting than one starring Goldberg.

If it’s possible, Goldberg was an even more unusual choice to star in an action movie in 1987 than she is now.  Prior to 1986, Goldberg was known for her improv abilities and stand up comedy chops.  This all changed in 1986 when she made her silver screen debut as the lead in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple.  Goldberg was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award and earned rabid praise for her work.  Roger Ebert called Goldberg’s performance, “one of the most amazing… debut[s] in movie history.”  Goldberg promptly followed that as the lead in a Cold War comedy, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and then as the lead in the comedy, Burglar, where she plays, no kidding, a burglar who runs a used bookstore.  It was on the heels of these three projects that Goldberg then tackled the actioneer, Fatal Beauty.

FatalBeautypostervertFatal Beauty was a truly fish-out-of-water comedy… and that was just behind-the-scenes.  So much so that, if we can use the film’s poster as any indication, the toughest cop in LA has no clue how to even hold a pistol.

Goldberg’s on-screen love interest is played by the supremely floppy haired Sam Elliott (or ‘love interest’ in quotes if I want to be accurate because they barely ever hold hands… thank God.  There are many people you want to see making out, Whoopi Goldberg and a man with a huge porn ‘stache are not two of them).  Early in the movie, Rizzoli finds a dead body in the back of a van owned by a mega corporation called Kroll Enterprises.  Following up on this, she decides to go question the CEO of Kroll Enterprises, Conrad Kroll (Yulin) at his palatial Beverly Hills estate.  She is summarily rebuffed at the gate by Kroll Enterprises’ head of security, Mike Marshak (Elliott), much the way one would hope she would be; if a detective finds a Mac laptop at a crime scene, he shouldn’t try to go question Tim Cook.  Rizzoli is yelled at by her superiors for this move and ordered to stay away from Kroll, as literally no one else on the police force believes he is up to anything.  Rizzoli promptly ignores these orders.  Marshak is bemused by Rizzoli’s antics and feels a strange attraction to her.  Strange because Goldberg seems to be giving off an almost sexless vibe throughout the film.  Her wardrobe is what most actresses would wear to the set—oversized sweatshirts, baggy jeans and the occasional turtleneck—and she goes out in public wearing, uh, the monstrosity she’s wearing in the picture at the top of the page.  More than once.  Nonetheless, Marshak is smitten.

But because this is Hollywood, there’s a twist.  It just so happens that Rizzoli’s correct: Kroll is a drug dealer.  And he’s not just a drug dealer, he’s also one of the dumbest drug dealers in history.  I mean, what CEO in his right mind chooses to supplant his exorbitant and, more importantly, legal income by becoming a small time drug dealer?  But, more to the point, why would the president of a Fortune 500 company ever stash a dead body in one of his own company’s vans?

FatalBeauty4Interested in not getting busted by Rizzoli, Kroll instructs Marshak to get close to her and ingratiate himself to her so that he can keep tabs on how her investigation is going.  Since he’s taken with Rizzoli, Marshak happily obeys and begins following her around town.  He essentially becomes her guardian angel, saving her multiple times from certain death… which allows her to continue her off-the-books investigation into Kroll.

By the time Fatal Beauty‘s climactic gun fight rolls around, there are so many different groups of bad guys operating independently of one another—four groups of bad guys in total—that the scene is basically compromised of bad guys shooting other bad guys while Rizzoli waits for Marshak to help her.

When Rizzoli finally does end up one-on-one with Kroll, Kroll is pointing a pistol at her and is quickly shot by another bad guy.

After this series of gun battles has ended, Rizzoli and Marshak share a tender moment in an ambulance (without any touching) where Marshak explains that he’s going to go to jail.  Rizzoli nods warmly and tells him that, on the bright side, she’ll be waiting for him when he gets out.

Normally, with a movie that goes so much against type, I’d consider the possibility that it was simply misunderstood in its own time.  In the case of Fatal Beauty though, this is an impossibility.  It is a horribly made and constructed movie.  It’s not right for any time.  If it was misunderstood—and there’s a damn good chance it was—it’s because of shotty screenwriting and quizzical production choices, not an artistic ethos the country wasn’t yet ready for.  Whether the same can be said for Michael Bay’s Pride & Prejudice is anyone’s guess.

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