½*/**** Image D+ Sound D+
starring Gene Hackman, Matt Dillon, Gayle Hunnicutt, Josef Sommer
screenplay by Howard Berk and Don Petersen
directed by Arthur Penn
by Walter Chaw Of the myriad disappointments of Arthur Penn's atrocious Target, one of the smaller ones is the appalling score by Michael Small, who, in the Seventies, was doing very fine work on Penn films like Night Moves and Alan Pakula flicks like The Parallax View and Klute. His music for Target reminds of the incidental cues on "Scarecrow and Mrs. King". The rest runs the gamut from flat direction from one of the prime architects of the amazing cinema of the American '70s, an unspeakable screenplay by non-native speaker José Luis Navarro and some idiot named Don Petersen, a pair of squandered (if only mediocre) performances from the great Gene Hackman and the badly-miscast Matt Dillon, and a plot that's an unapologetic ripper of John Schlesinger's Marathon Man. It's such a bad film, in fact, that the only enjoyment to be had from the thing is through the cruel deconstruction of its gaping implausibility. If Target finally provides a few chuckles, it does so at the expense of one of the United States' genuinely important actors (Hackman, natch) and directors.
Walter (Hackman) is estranged from his underachieving boy Chris (Dillon) when their obviously community theatre-trained, ridiculous ham of a mother Donna (Gayle Hunnicutt) goes missing on a trip to gay Pah-ree. (It's a plot that will be combed over again in a couple of years with Roman Polanski's moderately superior Frantic.) Turns out Walter is an ex-spook named "Duke" who speaks French and German and has a few skeletons in his closet--but of all the challenges facing The Duke, the biggest is bridging the gap between he and his little boy lost. Yeah, it's horrible--a trite idea made treacle by its execution, with issues of the morality of a cold war and its collateral damage carried as far as Hackman can carry them but betrayed utterly by stupid chases, bumbling henchmen, and Josef Summer as a CIA bigwig in a year (1985) that saw him play essentially the same role in Peter Weir's Witness. The film is bad enough that it causes the mind to wander to dozens of others that do similar things with more grace (not to mention other Penn films) in an attempt to discern how it is that Penn took the Frankenheimer path to sudden, puzzling obsolescence.
I confess I had to pause the film for a while after a wheelchair-bound East German Strangelove (Herbert Berghof) exclaimed "Bah! I eeeevacuate myselvf on your explanation!"--but laughing at this stuff (and I'm reminded of Frankenheimer's similarly hilarious Testament) isn't good for the soul. For good measure, though, should you manage not to chortle when, after the rescue of the mother, nobody thinks to take the gag out of her mouth, you're made of stone, my brother. Target is embarrassing, bargain basement crap whose awfulness is aggravated by the film's sterling pedigree. It's possible to push it with the caveat that you not expect too much, but if you're not expecting very much, why, then, are you even bothering? It's a checklist of clichés and howlers that confirm for some the inconsequence of film theory and study. Like paying to see the Colorado Rockies play a baseball game, it's escapism that fails to transport--a Cold War flick made during the Cold War that has nothing to say about its era, rendering Target as inert and uninteresting as a cotton ball.
Though it presents the film in what appears to be 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen, Paramount's bare-bones DVD release of Target is of very poor quality. Grain is endemic, print flaws mar throughout, and colour looks washed out and anaemic. A DD 5.1 remix takes pains to separate dialogue into discrete front channels, but there's little to no use of the surrounds or the subwoofer throughout. More, it's tinny, exhibiting the same kind of audio degradation that the video demonstrates. Shoddy all around, but at least we're spared anything resembling a special feature. Originally published: August 4, 2005.