Sunday, 29 May 2022

Review: Condorman

Cert: U / 86 mins / Dir. Charles Jarrott / Trailer

Standing astride a cross-beam on one of the world's most prominent landmarks, Woodridge Wilkins fumbles for the activator button on his suit. Photographers wait below, disbelievingly eager for this new breed of hero to prove himself. Distant, mumbled shouts of... encouragement?... crowd his head and threaten to derail the absolute concentration needed. No. Shut them out. Silence. The time is now. Time to prove to the world that The Condor Man is indeed its saviour. That mistakes may have been made, but all in the name of progress. Of success. Of freedom.

Daring to look down for a fraction of a second, the concourse is full of gawping tourists not yet realising the importance of this moment in their lives. Activity is frantic, but Wilkins cannot discern it clearly because of the cumbersome nature of this iteration of his flight suit. He is certain it will fly this time, though. It has to fly. If Woody can't convince them of The Condor Man's significance, then his friend Harry will, he knows it. Good old Harry.

Everything which has happened has led to this point. Woody firmly thumbs the activator and leaps forward, wings unfolding into the arms of destiny.

The story begins...

One rather suspects that when Disney commissioned screenwriter Marc Stirdivant to adapt Robert Sheckley's The Game of X into a feature film, they'd expected the end-product to tap into the post-Superman zeitgeist and the ongoing Bond/Palmer/U.N.C.L.E. ethos simultaneously, giving a family-friendly entry point into action cinema. By the time director Charles Jarrot had joined the team, what they received instead was indeed this, but also one of the most brutally efficient examples of high-concept physical and psychological revenge-horror (and at several points, actual snuff-movie) of its era.

That the film owes no small amount to the likes of Scorcese's The King Of Comedy is a given (in development at the same time, writer Paul D Zimmerman was a close friend of Stirdivant) but it goes much further, surpassing subtext and suggestion, straying into territory only previously covered by Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre seven years earlier. An unlikely yet perfect casting choice, Michael Crawford channels pride, anger and ultimately fear into his performance as proto-incel Woody Wilkins, a socially introverted comic writer who escapes into his own fantasy as reality repeatedly stifles his dreams and crushes opportunities at every turn. Condorman is a blunt parable, showing us what happens when those two worlds collide. It presents its hero without judgement, but also without apology.

Damn Harry. Where was he? The man was supposed to be Woody's friend - his best friend - and now look what he'd gotten him into. A simple desk clerk at the CIA probably shouldn't have access to the information which Harry kept unearthing, but Wilkins was glad that he did. Or he had been glad at any rate. No one had been more surprised than Woody when a favour in delivering a package to a locally-based undercover cop had resulted in one of the city's largest drug busts. Woody's part in this had been hushed up of course, he was an undercover agent himself now.

And how. The hoodlum's neck hung limply in Woody's hands, snapped like a crusty baguette as his heart pumped out the last of its blood through a serrated hole in his sternum. That stain wasn't going to come out in a hurry. Four more similarly attired henchmen lay around the outside of the farmhouse. Convincing disguises - indeed, Morovich had even gone so far as recruiting a pair of old women for this gang - but the heavy villager's peasant clothes had impeded their ability to fight and The Condor Man had succeeded in this strand of his mission. "Send more, I'll kill more" he muttered. To himself.

Backup should have arrived by now, and it was a point of growing concern that there was no sign of the special ops team which Harry had assured him would be there to ease escape from a tight situation. Then again, Woody suspected that Natalia was playing her 'double agent' card a little too wildly, hedging her bets as to which side of the iron curtain to finally fall. If the 'former' spy had interfered in Harry's plans, that would put everyone in danger. This wasn't an insurmountable problem though, Woody could kill her easily enough if needs be...

Set within the extended flashback of The Condor Man's flight into the Paris skyline, Jarrott's film darts around a kaleidoscopic vision of Woody's domestic life - constantly demeaned and put-upon by an ageing but acerbic mother whom we hear but never see, causing us to wonder if she's just another figment of his imagination - and an unfolding backstory of the protagonist coming to believe he's a deep cover black-ops agent for the CIA. The reality that we're watching a man suffer a chemically-exacerbated breakdown and subsequent murder-spree is not fully clear until we see 'Harry' pleading that he barely even knows Wilkins for a third time in police custody.

But rather than use this darkly farcical setup as a prop for any sort of biting commentary (the film predates James Gunn's Super and Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America, both structurally and thematically similar, by almost three decades), Jarrott chooses to bring his creative vision closer to that of outright exploitation cinema, a genre which was in its death throes by the early 1980s. This was a definitively bold artistic choice at the time, and one which has ensured his film has only barely survived in terms of its notoriety alone. The fact that three stunt performers died during the intense fight-scenes ensured that there was a four year delay in Condorman coming to VHS. The fact that those scenes were somehow left in the edit ensured that it was instantly banned for another ten. Much like De Palma's Scarface, there are few characters to actually like here - even the most vulnerable are shown to be riven with moral weakness - and the key to salvaging any aesthetic satisfaction from this really lies in enjoying the majesty of a terrible thing done well.

Morovich dead. His goons dead. That lying, brazen, teasing, lying temptress... dead? Almost certainly, she couldn't have survived the blood loss. Good. And where were his thanks? Where were the parades and laudatory press columns and interview requests and Congressional Medals and just general fucking gratitude for all that he - that The Condor Man - had done? For the sacrifices he'd made in the name of freedom? Nowhere to be seen. He'd been sold out by those he'd sworn to protect. Well, so be it. It should hardly come as a surprise, yet the disappointment was no less tangible. It had been worth it, though. Those others, they needed to be stopped. Perhaps one last show of prowess was required. Perhaps the people need a super-hero, not a spy. Well okay, one last punt then.

Back midway up the Eiffel Tower we cut to a wide shot as Wilkins fumbles with his suit-activator button. We now see the reason he has been having trouble with it. 'Harry' - a man who works at the methadone clinic where Woody has been a service-user - is gagged and bound, his limbs crudely amputated, in a device which appears to be half-sack/half-harness on Woody's front. Screaming and wide-eyed, the counter assistant's constant terrified squirming has been threatening to pull Woody out of his reverie and off the steel beam. But even now that The Condor is ready to take flight, everyone knows the glider-suit cannot possibly take the weight and imbalance of two men, let alone one. Only death awaits; glory is an illusion just out of Woody's grasp. But ever the optimist, he has to try. The mechanism engages with a satisfying *clunk*.

The Condor Man takes flight.

Cut to black.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…
(Yes, the vast majority of the above is a sort of sarcasm, but Condorman is surprisingly good nonetheless.)

...and if you want to listen to some words about this film which take it far less seriously, are far more sweary and have All The Drink involved, here's a podcast version you might be interested in:

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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