Ryan O’Neal

Zero Effect

1998

Columbia Pictures

Directed and Written by Jake Kasdan

Produced by Lisa Henson

“TV pilot on steroids” is a phrase you’ve probably heard me throw around either here at The Ferguson Theater or on an episode of Better In The Dark. But just in case you haven’t, here’s what I mean by that. Sometimes I watch a theatrical movie and the way the situation and characters are presented and constructed feels like the filmmakers are  setting up a television series. You know what I mean. How many times have you seen a movie in a theater and thought “That would be a great TV series!” Too many times to count, I bet.

That’s the way I felt after having watched ZERO EFFECT recently. I remember watching this on VHS years ago and appreciating it as being a really ingenious and unique variation on the concept of a modern day Sherlock Holmes. The mysterious and brilliant Daryl Zero is a character that would be right at home on the USA network along with the other offbeat characters headlining their popular shows.  I discussed this movie briefly on the BiTD Facebook page and was made aware that there actually was an attempt to turn ZERO EFFECT into an NBC TV series starring Alan Cummings as Zero but it didn’t catch on. And that’s really a shame as ZERO EFFECT has tremendous potential as a series. I’d certainly watch it every week.

Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is the world’s most private private detective. He never meets with his clients, preferring to deal with them through his legman/assistant Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller.) And that’s a good thing because Daryl Zero is…well, nuts. He’s horribly inept in social situations, downright rude and mean, lives on a diet of canned tuna fish, methamphetamines and Tab while writing truly terrible folk songs (although truth to tell, I actually kinda like “Let’s Run Off And Get Married.”) But give him a case to work on and he suddenly transforms into a coolly confident, smooth, totally fearless professional investigator whose courage and near superhuman gift of observation while maintaining a emotionless objectivity toward his client and other people involved guarantees that he will solve the case.

His latest one seems very simple and Steve Arlo doesn’t even think it’s worth their time. Millionaire Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal) has lost the key to a safety deposit box and it’s vitally important that he find it as it’s linked to a complicated and elaborate blackmail scheme. And indeed, Daryl Zero figures out that the blackmailer is Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens) an EMT who works out at the same gym as Stark with ridiculous ease.

Arlo figures that wraps everything up but not so. Zero is intrigued as to why Gloria is blackmailing Stark and continues his investigation. This forces him to interact with Gloria and threatens to compromise his cherished objectivity as he finds himself strongly attracted to Gloria.  In the meantime, Arlo is resisting Stark’s repeated attempts to pressure or bribe Arlo into betraying Zero and giving Stark the name of the blackmailer so that Stark can have that person killed. He also is getting pressure from his girlfriend Jess (Angela Featherstone) who wants him to quit working for Zero and start working on them getting married.

Now before The Spoiler Police starts in on me because I revealed the identity of the blackmailer, let me explain that who is doing the blackmailing is nowhere near as important as why Stark is being blackmailed and that turns out be the real mystery that has to be solved. That and the mystery of his own emotions as Zero finds himself doing some very unexpected things contrary to his nature as he gets closer and closer to Gloria, irresistibly drawn to her as she’s the only person he’s ever met that can get into his head.

Bill Pullman is really amazing as Daryl Zero. Pullman is an actor who for years has danced on the edge of being a major star but never could seem to find that one role to put him over the top. When we first meet Daryl Zero he seems like such a weirdo it’s impossible to imagine he could be the kind of detective Steve Arlo describes to Stark as being so brilliant that in one hour and without ever leaving his home he locates a missing man the FBI hadn’t been able to locate for eight months. But once he’s on the case he turns into a totally different man and Pullman sells the transformation.

Ben Stiller is one of the most frustrating actors I’ve ever seen on screen. When he’s cooking on all burners he can be excellent. But when he’s bad he stinks like a houseguest who doesn’t know when it’s time to go home. Fortunantly we get the former Ben Stiller here. Steve Arlo is continually frustrated by Zero’s bizarre, manic mood swings and method of operation but he also cares for him and is fascinated by the man’s personality. Stiller does an excellent job here and I think gives one of his all-time best performances.

Since the plot of this movie is loosely based on “A Scandal in Bohemia” you can kinda guess where the relationship between Gloria and Zero is going to go and you’d be right. Kim Dickens is absolutely charming as Gloria and during the course of the movie I grew more and more to understand why Zero is becoming intrigued with this woman. In recent years I’ve been wondering why Ryan O’Neal is slowly morphing into William Shatner and I believe it may have started here. There are scenes where O’Neal’s mannerisms and way of delivering his lines are uncannily a lot like Shatner’s. He even looks like Shatner at times.

So should you see ZERO EFFECT? If you’ve never seen it and if you’re a fan of characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Adrian Monk, Jacob Hood and Gregory House then you’ll enjoy ZERO EFFECT, trust me. Enjoy.

116 minutes

Rated R

The Driver

1978                           

20th Century Fox

Produced by Lawrence Gordon

Written And Directed by Walter Hill

Some time back I wrote of review of the existential car chase thriller “Vanishing Point” and I received an email from a gentleman (at least I think it’s a gentleman…you can’t always tell just by email addresses) who informed me that he had seen the movie on my recommendation and found it pretentious and pointless and suggested that I watch and review what he considered to be a much better movie revolving around car chases: Walter Hill’s 1978 crime thriller THE DRIVER  I vaguely remember seeing THE DRIVER years ago at 42end Street.  This was back in the day when you could see three movies for 5 bucks and frankly, I remember the other two movies much better but thanks to The Fox Movie Channel I had a chance to see it again recently.  Maybe “Vanishing Point” is pretentious but THE DRIVER takes pretentiousness to an almost Zen-like level to the point where the characters don’t even have names.  They are just identified by what they are and what they do.

The Driver (Ryan O’Neal) is an undisputed professional master of driving getaway cars.  He does not participate in the actual robbery.  He drives and that’s all.  He commands a flat fee of $10,000 up front and 15% of the take.  And he’s worth it because he guarantees that you won’t get caught.  His driving abilities are inhumanly unnerving and he never displays any emotion at all.  The man’s a driving machine.  His nemesis is The Detective (Bruce Dern) who badly wants to catch The Driver.  So obsessed is he with catching The Driver he puts his career on the line by recruiting a second-rate gang of bank robbers to hire The Driver.  The Detective will ensure that the gang will rob the bank and get away then they’ll bring The Driver and the money to a spot where The Detective will be waiting to arrest The Driver, take the money and let the gang get away.  Of course, the plan doesn’t work out and pretty soon everybody’s double-crossed everybody else and the gang, The Driver and The Detective are all scrambling for the half-million robbery loot while The Driver and The Detective play their own cat-and-mouse game of Catch Me If You Can.  You see, The Detective has told The Driver the robbery is a set-up and he dares him to pull it off and get away.  The Driver takes the challenge and the game’s afoot…or awheel, I suppose is a better phrase in this case.

And that’s there is all, folks.  That is all the movie is about. THE DRIVER is probably the most stripped down movie I’ve ever seen.  There’s no characterizations, no background information about anybody given, No extra characters, no dialog exchanged that does not relate directly to the plot, no flashbacks, no nothing except for what is happening right at the moment.  In fact, there isn’t that much dialog.  Supposedly Ryan O’Neal only speaks 350 words in the whole movie and I think that’s stretching it.  Bruce Dern has most the dialog as The Detective and he’s really the main character in this thing as he has motivations and desires that we can understand and even though he’s a bit of a bastard at least he’s a human bastard.  Ryan O’Neal’s Driver is such an emotionless humanoid that we never understand why he does what he does.  He doesn’t seem to enjoy his work and we never see what he does with the money he makes.  He wears the same clothes throughout the movie and lives in a cheap hotel.  He only has three relationships: The Connection (Ronee Blakely) who sets up his jobs, The Player (Isabelle Adjani) a professional gambler who deliberately misidentifies The Driver in a police line-up, enabling him to avoid arrest and his pocket transistor radio.

There’s no point in talking about the performances in this one because outside of Bruce Dern’s, there are none.  This movie is all about plot and Walter Hill, who wrote and directed THE DRIVER cares about nothing else.  This movie is nowhere as good as some others he’s done such as the “The Warriors” and “Streets of Fire” which are both classics and I’d advise anybody to Netflix “The Long Riders” “Johnny Handsome” or “Extreme Prejudice” before this one.

Even the car chase scenes aren’t all that exciting but I liked them a lot because back then when movies did car chases you knew that some fool was actually doing the driving and when a car flipped over, it was because a trained and experience stuntman was doing it and it added a sense of realism.  For sheer exhilaration, none of the car chases in THE DRIVER don’t match anything done today, true, but it works for this movie because it gives it a gritty realism.  None of the driving stunts done here don’t seem like anything that couldn’t be done in real life and I liked that.  After all, The Driver is supposed to be trying to get away from the cops, not showing off how many aerial acrobatics he can do.  The whole movie has a realistic feel to it that is probably the movie’s greatest strength.  Nobody here takes a whole clip of .45 slugs in the chest then drags himself or herself half a mile before expiring.  You get shot and you fall over dead.  End of story.  There’s no meaningless romance between The Driver and the two women he knows just to have a romantic subplot.  These people are involved in a dirty, dangerous business and they conduct themselves accordingly.

There is one really cool scene where The Driver is asked to demonstrate his skill and he does so by proceeding to demolish a car while he and three passengers are inside. They climb out completely unharmed but the car is a wreck and still able to run.  But that comes halfway through the movie and it’s over much too soon.

So should you see THE DRIVER?  I can think of a couple of reasons why you might want to: if you’re a Walter Hill fan like me, you’ll want to check out this early work of his.  Hill is an infuriating hit-or-miss director.  When he’s good, he’s very good but when he’s bad he’s even worse and THE DRIVER is an example of this, especially in the last five minutes of the movie when you’ll probably be screaming at the screen; “That’s IT????” even as the credits are rolling.  If you like Bruce Dern you’ll also enjoy seeing him in this one as he really doesn’t get to play a cop that often but when he does, he makes the most of it.  If you like him as a cop here, check out “The Laughing Policeman”.

But as for THE DRIVER if you’re at all curious by all means check it out.  But if you’re not, don’t worry, you won’t be missing a thing.

91 minutes

Rated R