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December 01, 1994 - Image 14

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1994-12-01

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4 - The Michigan Daily - Weekend etc. - Thursday, December 1, 1994

The return of director Hal Needham

The definitive director of the '80s
must have a wise appreciation for the
power of a name, yet not the sense to
realize when his (or her) starhas fallen.
He must be willing to milk an idea
that was empty the first time around
for a sequel and still get the brain-
dead of this country to line up at the
box office. He must be able to spot a
cultural fad, no matter how poor, and
exploit it. He must be able to recog-
nize that people are fundamentally
suckers for special effects, car chases,
explosions and cleavage. Finally, and
most importantly, he must be recog-
nize that its not the artistic value that
counts, its the profit. He must be Hal
True, Hal first cut his directorial
teeth in the '70s giving us classics
such as the Burt Reynolds vehicles,
"Hooper" and "Smokey and the Ban-
dit," but he truly made his indelible
mark on the American public the fol-
lowing decade. Needham's first film
of the'80s was the sequel to "Smokey
and the Bandit," the aptly titled,
"Smokey and the Bandit 2." Along
with those in the "Star Wars" and
"Superman" camps, Needham led the
new '80s discovery that if the public
went to see a film once, they'll see
basically the same film again. Thanks
to Needham at press time we've had
the pleasure of enjoying six "Police
Academy" romps, seven "Nightmare
on Elm Street" films, and eight "Fri-

day the 13th" works.
The "Smokey" sequel not only set
the agenda for filmmaking through-
out the decade, but politics as well.
Sensing the new wave of conserva-
tism that would land Ronald Reagan
in the White House the following
January, Needham's second
"Smokey" featured our man Burt es-
corting a pregnant elephant cross-
country to the Republican conven-
tion. Both Smokey and the Republi-
cans were successful of course, de-
spite the combined efforts of Sheriff
Buford T. Justice (Justice. Get it!)
and President Jimmy Carter.
Following two profitable cross-
country, car-chasing Burt Reynolds
films, Needham somehow managed
to come up with two more, "The Can-
nonball" series. Needham, as in the
second "Smokey" combined
Reynolds and Dom Deluise for high-
octane action and belly laughs. Throw
in a few competitors in the cross-
country race, the Cannonball, for big
prizes and the audience was invited
along for the ride. Needham's
Altmanesque attempt at balancing
numerous characters on a single can-
vas came across as a'70s disaster film
without the disaster.
The cast of D-list celebrities in-
cluded the likes of Jamie Farr,
Adrienne Barbeau, Terry Bradshaw,
Richard Kiel, Farrah Fawcett, Telly
Savalas, Dean Martin and Susan
Anton. Each character no more di-

mensional than the next, completely
sacrificing plot for celebrities and
stunts, these two works are possibly
the decades' quintessential works.
Between the two "Cannonball
Run" films, Needham directed two
other films, "Megaforce" (1982) and
"Stroker Ace" (1983). Needham's
"Megaforce", his first fihm not to star
Burt Reynolds, instead cast Barry
Bostwick as his intergalactic hero.
The megaforce, in another ode to
Reagan's America, was sent out to
save a small country from being
stripped of its Democracy. This quasi-
Grenadian event summated the
American foreign policy of the '80s:
defend democracy no matter how
worthless the payoff (or even if the
country doesn't wish you to do so).
Who knows, the success of
Needham's megaforce may even have
influenced Reagan, he did have a cu-
rious affinity for confusing film with
Reverting to formula and the safety
of a name, Needham reunited with
Reynolds for "Stroker Ace." Burt and
Loni's only film together, "Stroker
Ace" may also have been Reynolds'
worst. Portraying aplayboy stock-car
driver sharing the stage with such a
talented and eclectic cast as Jim
Nabors, Bubba Smith, Ned Beatty,
and Loni's breasts, Stroker battles an
evil fried-chicken magnate. Redneck
humor never had it so good.
Sadly, Needham and Reynolds
parted ways, but while Burt's career
spiraled, Needham continued to de-
fine the times. In 1986 he directed the
BMX blockbuster, "Rad." Along the
same simplistic, over-moralizing,
crowd-pleasing and predictable lines
a, "The Karate Kid" before it and
"D2" years later, "Rad" featured the
good bikers vs. the bad ones for rac-
ing glory and pubescent hearts.
Needham balances the story line with
some gnarly BMX stunt work and
when the protagonist has to choose
between the big race and the SAT's
he even works in a lesson. Add Olym-
pic gymnast Bart Connor's attempt at
acting and you may even be wishing
for a Burt Reynolds cameo.
Concluding Needham's brilliant

'"."~'.lt. 1 >

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Above is the famous body cavity search scene from the ever-popular "Police Academy 2." Ouch!

decade was the pro wrestling drama
"Body Slam." A legitimate who's-
who of pro wrestling were featured
including the Tonga Kid, the Wild
Samoan, Captain Lou Albano and,
beginning a film career which would
eventually lead to such gems as "Hell
Comes to Frogtown," "Rowdy"
Roddy Piper. Yet the film was not
only a wrestling extravaganza, but it
also featured a raucous rock 'n' roll
tour. The non-wrestling cast included
such talent as "Battlestar Galactica"
star Dirk Benedict, Tanya Roberts,
John Astin and Charles Nelson Reilly.

Even Deluise strayed from this tur-
Yet big time wrestling was big
business. Wrestlemania III, an event I
had to savor from the living room on
pay-per-view just a few years earlier,
despite it's being at the nearby Pontiac
Silverdome, was, at the time, the big-
gest indoor sporting event or all time.
It may still be. The merger of rock and
wrestling had already resulted in a
Cyndi Lauper video, a Saturday morn-
ing cartoon and an album featuring
classics such as "Don't Go Messin'
With a Country Boy" and "Grab Them
Cakes." A feature film was the next
logical step and Needham was just

the auteur to deliver it.
Fittingly, Needham has not di-
rected a feature film since. The banal-
ity and the safety of the '80s is only
recently begun to be shunned by a
growing interest in independent film's
spirit and rewards. As the decade con-
tinues, and as this summer began to
prove it may, sequels and star ve-
hicles may die a slow, but deserving
death. The Hal Needhams of the in-
dustry may yet be sacrificed for qual-
ity, intelligence and risk-taking in an
industry which shamefully churnsout
a continued series of dribble for profit,
ignoring its potential to be the leading
cultural medium of our time.

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through Dec. 31

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