Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Film Review: VISION QUEST (1985, Harold Becker)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 105 minutes.
Tag-line: "All he needed was a lucky break. Then one day she moved in."
Notable Cast or Crew: Matthew Modine (FULL METAL JACKET, THE BLACKOUT), Linda Fiorentino (GOTCHA!, AFTER HOURS), Ronny Cox (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL), Charles Hallahan (THE THING, FATAL BEAUTY), MADONNA (BODY OF EVIDENCE, DICK TRACY), Forest Whitaker (BIRD, GHOST DOG), Frank Jasper (FREEWAY MANIAC), J.C. Quinn (THE ABYSS, TURNER & HOOCH). Music (ostensibly) by Tangerine Dream. Screenplay by Darryl Ponicsan (novelist of THE LAST DETAIL and CINDERELLA LIBERTY).
Best one-liner: "SHUTE? Shute's a monster! A genuine geratoid! His own father has to use a livewire to keep him from fuckin' the fireplace!"

VISION QUEST is one of those unsung 80's workhorses- it's not flashy, it's not glitzy, it's not silly. And aside from a brief, refreshingly low-key early appearance by Madonna (her first movie role aside from a student film, A CERTAIN SACRIFICE, which she later tried to have banned), it's not populated with the biggest of stars or the slickest of production values. Shot on location in ramshackle diners, hotel kitchens, and sweaty high school gymnasiums in Spokane, Washington, it has a genuine, blue-collared determination to it. High school is not depicted as some nonstop keg party where the 'rents are on that everlasting "weekend getaway" and every teen has got a bedroom tricked out more elaborately than Pee-Wee's playhouse (a representation which I certainly enjoy in the proper context). Instead, it's filled with true-to-life characters who have to balance extracurriculars with thankless jobs and uncertain futures. On the surface, I suppose you could say that it's about wrestling. Generally, my feeling on sports movies is that if they don't involve soul-crushing performances by Stacy Keach & Susan Tyrrell (FAT CITY), dog skulls (THE BLOOD OF HEROES), pedestrian casualties (DEATH RACE 2000), or Sub-Zeros who become just plain zeros (THE RUNNING MAN), then they're going to be an uphill battle. But this isn't a sports movie. Not exactly. It's about the solitary, spiritual journey that every person must one day embark upon- that critical juncture when you must decide upon the answer to that weighty question- 'How to live?'

Based on Terry Davis' 1979 award-winning Young Adult novel (which was called "the truest novel about growing up since THE CATCHER IN THE RYE" by John Irving) and directed by the generally skillful Harold Becker (CITY HALL, TAPS, SEA OF LOVE...and MALICE), our story revolves around the eighteen year-old Louden Swain (Matthew Modine) and his desire to imbue his life with purpose by dropping twenty-some pounds and challenging Brian Shute, the menacing titan state wrestling champion. Along the way, he develops a sort of relationship with a New Jersey wandering artist (Linda Fiorentino, in her screen debut), who's on her way to San Francisco... and crashing at his house. The plot is deceptively simple, and though it lends itself to some rockin' montage sequences, it's a film very much in the mold of other slice-of-life quotidian storytellers like Vittorio de Sica or Satyajit Ray. And while that claim may seem (and may in fact be) ridiculous, VISION QUEST succeeds in getting you to take it seriously enough that the teased Jersey hair, the silver (astronaut?) track suit,

an odd athletic formation that involves purple jumpsuits & a raging circular movement, and even the presence of Madonna never distract you, never send you on a nostalgia tangent, never extract you from the pure, human drama.

The cast is excellent. Modine is committed, connected, and living the role. Fiorentino is taking that whole 'sexy deadpan' thing that she does and is running with it.

Charles Hallahan is appropriately gruff and appropriately supportive as the Coach, and, as a side note, he worked alongside Madonna twice– with this and BODY OF EVIDENCE. Maybe she was a closet fan of THE THING and pulled a couple of strings? Speaking of Madonna, she shows up merely as a singer on stage at the Big Foot Tavern, singing "Crazy for You" and "The Gambler." Hoping to bank more on Madonna and less on the thoughtful storytelling, the studio marketed the film on more than a few occasions as CRAZY FOR YOU.

Madonna: not the focal point of VISION QUEST.

Annnyway, Ronny Cox, the icy corporate villain of ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL, plays against type as Modine's encouraging, working-class pop (!), and it's a joy to watch. J.C. Quinn is tearing it up as a ragged but kindly arm-wrestlin' co-worker of Modine's.

Forest Whitaker has a bit part as a lighthearted fellow wrestler who doesn't quite qualify as comic relief, but he's got a palpable joie de vivre and he'd work again with Modine some years later on Abel Ferrara's MARY.

The soundtrack is solid, though calling it a Tangerine Dream one is extremely misleading. They only show up a little over an hour in to offer some of their patented, tense 'fiercely pulsating montage music.' The rest of the soundtrack belongs to satisfying 80's rockers like Foreigner, Journey, Don Henley, Sammy Hagar, and Red Rider, whose classic rock radio standby "Lunatic Fringe" is used in such a way that it now makes one think of of Modine working out in a gym instead of Holocaust denying.

Along the way, there's nosebleeds, jealousy, road trips, fainting spells, and martial arts tips from a creepy dude in a hotel room. When it all comes down to it, it's the rare sports film where you actually care about who wins. And you care because you really have no idea which way it's going to go.

Hallahan is impressed by Modine's fortitude.

In all, it's a mature, muted look at the formative years. My one complaint is that a near-rape scene is forgiven too easily, but on the whole it deals with sexuality in such a frank, honest way that I have no choice but to admire it. As far as I can tell, it's become a cult hit with the 'high school wrestling' crowd, and that probably has more to do with a loving attention to every grapplin' detail than the rich, character-driven monologues, but I can live with that. Four stars.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

I always thought that this film would make a good double bill with RECKLESS as both films are coming-of-age tales featuring blue collar settings. Both shot in rather gritty fashion and deal with their subjects with refreshing honesty.

I caught up with VISION QUEST a few months ago when it popped up on cable and it has aged surprisingly well. It's a shame that Madonna and "Crazy for You" kinda eclipsed the film but hey, she was on her way to becoming a big deal and this was just another stepping stone for her but there's no way that such a small, personal drama like this was gonna explode on the scale of something like, say FOOTLOOSE (damn you, Kenny Loggins!) and so I think it's rather fitting that VISION QUEST has remained under the radar. Of course, I'm sure Modine's not sweating it either, he got to work with Kubrick after all!

Sean Gill said...

I haven't seen RECKLESS, despite your great writeup of it some time ago, but I'd certainly like to.

(The writeup in question is here, if anyone's interested–

I certainly get more out of the grittier coming of age tales, though sometimes (THE PRINCE OF PENNSYLVANIA comes to mind) you can succeed in a fusion of wacky and gritty sensibilities.

Ha!- the FOOTLOOSE comparison is amusing. It's true- no top 40 hit could make VISION QUEST into straight-up popcorn fare!

And I like the phase of his life which Modine has entered in the last decade- staunch environmental activist, maker of short films, and Abel Ferrara muse!

J.D. said...

Yeah, nothing wrong with making some Ferrera films! Hell, he even played a creepy beau in one of Merchant-Ivory's last collabos, LE DIVORCE (a guilty pleasure).