Thursday, July 07, 2011

Senses Working Overtime: Freejack

Senses Working Overtime is an occasional series in which I recap old movies that for one reason or another didn't get (or warrant) much attention when they came out.

Freejack (1992)

The early '90s were a heady time. Times they were a'changin' in the music world, as a bunch of upstarts from Seattle and elsewhere took over the album charts and radio dial for a few years. Hair metal was banished from popular culture for a while, but classic rock artists also took it on the chin. It wasn't too rough for the Rolling Stones; they wrapped up a successful tour behind 1989's Steel Wheels and took some time off in 1991.

This gave frontman Mick Jagger some time to do a little acting. He had starred in 1968's Performance and 1970's Ned Kelly, but had only had a few bit roles since then. He'd auditioned for the role of Frank N. Furter (immortalized by Tim Curry) in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and was cast in Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, but had to drop out. So he took a major role in Freejack, a $30 million cyberpunk thriller about a bounty hunter trying to a catch a race car driver who had been transported from a car crash in 1991 to the dystopian hellscape of 2009. Brat Packer Emilio Estevez (now better known as the sane brother of Charlie Sheen) was the fugitive, playing the "freejack" whose body was supposed to be given to a dead billionaire, whose brain would inhabit the younger man's frame.

Based on a 1959 novel (Immortality, Inc.) by Robert Sheckley, the movie was directed by Geoff Murphy, a New Zealander who had directed Estevez in 1990's Young Guns II and who later worked on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The cast was fairly impressive, including Anthony Hopkins (hot off his career resurgence in 1991's Silence of the Lambs) as McCandless, the would-be recipient of the new body; Rene Russo as Estevez's old girlfriend who watched him die in '91 and now worked for McCandless (of course); Esai Morales (in eyepatch and Edward James Olmos facial scars) as Jagger's henchman; David Johanson (of New York Dolls and Buster Poindexter fame) as the agent of Estevez's Alex Furlong; Jonathan Banks (a character actor who played many a heavy in TV shows and films like Beverly Hills Cop) as a ruthless exec who wants to take over McCandless' company; and bit roles for notable character actors like Amanda Plummer, Frankie Faison and John Shea, who all chewed scenery with aplomb.

It's always fun to see how the future is imagined, especially when it's a year you just lived through. While 2009 had its lousy moments, it certainly bore little resemblance to the future world cooked up by Murphy and crew. The movie's take on New York City is dark, desolate and fairly ridiculous, filled with starving, unhealthy rabble and cars that look like giant uneven Kleenex boxes on wheels. And there's the obviously fake backgrounds and special effects; hey, it was 1991, after all. They couldn't just CGI the whole damn thing. The film was definitely aping the far superior Blade Runner with minimal success. And the fashions worn by the non-street people seemed to resemble the '80s, with Russo forced to wear shoulder pads befitting a linebacker.

As for Jagger, his performance consisted mainly of arch line readings and far-off looks as he plotted his next move. Estevez got the action hero one-liners that had become de rigeur in the '80s from folks like Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis. Russo played the damsel in distress while Hopkins didn't have much to do until the end, which I'm sure paid for another yacht or something. The big showdown leads the film to try for a surprise ending, because at first you're meant to believe that Hopkins has indeed taken over Estevez's body. But the last scene reveals (Spoiler alert! Ha.) that Jagger knew all along that Estevez was just pretending to be the old man. Yuk yuk, and off drive Estevez and Russo into a suddenly not-so-shitty looking 2009.

Alas, the film never appealed to audiences: not those who may have been fans of young Estevez, Hannibal Lecter or rock star Jagger. It got mixed to poor reviews and only made back about half its money. Those folks looking for fun dystopian action thrillers probably got their fill seeing Terminator 2 about 10 times the year before.

Another example of the confused state of the film was its soundtrack, which featured contemporary artists like Ministry, Jesus Jones (hey, they were contemporary once), Jane Child and Little Feat (wha?), but it closed with a 1990 song by the Scorpions, "Hit Between the Eyes." The band had some success with its Berlin Wall song "Wind of Change," but by the time January 1992, it was on the downside with all its '80s metal brethren.

After Freejack, Estevez had a fairly big hit with The Mighty Ducks and its sequels, but his career steadily declined after that. Jagger went back to music, releasing a solo album Wandering Spirit, and continuing to sporadically record and tour with the Stones. Hopkins and Russo worked regularly in hit films for many years afterward, content to have Freejack as forgotten entries on their IMDB pages.

Hollywood kept cranking out the futuristic flicks, though, with duds like Johnny Mnemonic and Strange Days until 1999's The Matrix exploded onto the scene. Of course, then they went and screwed that up with crappy sequels. But that's a story for another day.

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