What makes a good story? What makes a story good? Those are actually two different questions and the search for answers has frustrated Hollywood for generations. Why does the public connect with one story and not another, regardless of quality? Oscar-winning films are forgotten almost as soon as the awards telecast is over and drive-in theater pieces of schlock keep gaining new fans decades after release. And as our long national nightmare of remakes, sequels and reboots has shown, the exact same tale can wildly succeed or embarrassingly fail depending on how it is told. What are the secrets?
KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will try to find out as we test the mettle of two big screen productions that spawned a couple of small screen descendants. It’s “Westworld” (1973) vs. “Shooter” (2007) in a contest of high concept against lowest common denominator and hidden depth against shallow ambition. One is a sci-fi classic that morphed into one of those HBO shows which garners immense praise from critics, even as it blatantly relies on the base appeals of profanity, violence and nudity to engage viewers. The other is a blink-and-you-missed-it action flick adaptation of a book by Stephen Hunter that was a dud at the box office, then was dug up and had its corpse stretched out to fill 12 or so episodes on USA network.
Yes, I am aware no one except pro wrestling fans has paid attention to USA network since the fourth season of “Burn Notice,” but “Shooter” is an actual TV show starring Ryan Phillippe and everything.
Yes, Ryan Phillippe is still getting work.
Written and directed by Michael Crichton, “Westworld” is set in the promised vacation paradise run by the Delos corporation. The company has created three elaborate theme parks in a remote desert location and filled them with human-looking robots so guests can live out their dreams of adventure and romance. There is Medieval World, Roman World and, you guessed it, Westworld. Or Western World as it is occasionally referred to, reminding us that continuity errors will always be with us.
The film focuses on two newly arrived guests at Westworld, Peter Martin and John Blane (Richard Benjamin and James Brolin), and a look behind the scenes as the Chief Supervisor (Alan Oppenheimer) tries to keep the whole operation running smoothly. He fails, of course, or else there wouldn’t be a movie. The robots malfunction and instead of letting the guests use and abuse them, go on a murder spree. Peter and John have to try and survive a deadly duel with a man in black (Yul Brynner) and find a way to safety.
If you can look past the oddity of someone like Richard Benjamin as the star of a sci-fi adventure flick, and it helps to remember that in the 1970s both Woody Allen and Alan Alda were held up as exemplars of the new male ideal, “Westworld” still holds up fairly well all these years later. Modern audiences will, of course, notice the vastly inferior special effects and production values and while Yul Brynner makes an unmistakable impact on screen, his largely mute performance has to lose a little something if you didn’t grow up with him as a big time movie star.
What keeps “Westworld” watchable is that it’s an intelligently written story that doesn’t wear all its smarts on the surface. For example, a great deal the TV adaptation appears to be inspired by a single brief scene at the end of the film when Peter is trying to escape through Medieval World and finds a girl chained up in a dungeon. He thinks she’s a human, with the assumption she was being tortured by berserk robots, but it turns out she’s a robot, with the very clear implication from the movie that she was there to be tortured by humans. But that glimpse into the darker side of humanity is merely a tiny element in the film that is woven together with many other themes.
“Westworld” isn’t just about Man’s technology turning on him or just about Man’s animal nature being unleashed or just about Man’s retreat into fantasy to avoid reality. It’s a little bit about all of them, while also having a nicely designed plot that keeps everything in motion. It inspired a sequel and a brief TV spinoff not just due to its box office success but because there’s so much going on in the story that it practically begged for further exploration. “Futureworld” (1976) and “Beyond Westworld” (1980) sucked, not because there wasn’t anything more to say about the premise, but because the people who made them weren’t interested in looking within the robots-that-look-like-flesh-and-blood-people concept. The original used technology to examine human nature. The immediate follow ups just used it as a gimmick.
And that’s about the level of thought that went into the making of “Shooter” (2007), a 21st century version of those bad 1980s action flicks where the hero is a superhuman killing machine that badly staples some baldly obvious political moralizing onto its lackluster plot in an effort to deny what it truly is. Steven Seagal launched a fairly successful career with the exact same thing in “Above the Law” (1988). 19 years later they tried to repeat the formula with Mark Wahlberg.
Mark Wahlberg is no Steven Seagal.
Which kind of sums up both this movie and the challenge of cinematic storytelling. “Shooter” was a failure at the box office, yet it’s really not all that bad. It looks good, has plenty of action and only reveals itself as amazingly stupid in its last 15 or so minutes, which viewers would have forgiven if they’d enjoyed it up to that point. What prevents “Shooter” from working in even a minimal fashion is literally that Wahlberg is no Seagal.
I’m not saying that Seagal is a better actor than Wahlberg but they are similar. Wahlberg and Seagal both have what used to be known as “a limited instrument.” They can do certain things very well on screen but only those things. Put them in the right project with the right director and a willingness to be used the right way and they can both be excellent. Take them outside of those strict conditions and you wind up with Wahlberg embarrassing himself in “Planet of the Apes” (2001) and “The Happening” (2008) or Seagal in basically every movie he’s been in since “Executive Decision” (1996).
Wahlberg isn’t quite that terrible as Bob Lee Swagger, a retired military sniper who winds up framed for an assassination by evil forces within the U.S. government and has to kick ass to clear his name, but he’s not at all good. It’s the sort of part that demands an actor with a personal, assertive machismo and Wahlberg neither has that not has a clue how to fake it. The entire story turns on Swagger being the most badass badass who ever badassed and Wahlberg comes off like he should be playing that guy’s sidekick. Throw in director Antoine Fuqua seemingly doing an impersonation of Michael Bay and Kate Mara in a Thankless Girlfriend role that gets REALLY offensive if you think about it for even five seconds and you get “Shooter,” which for some inexplicable reason wound up in theaters instead of direct-to-streaming/blu ray/DVD.
But while “Westworld” spawned other versions of itself at least in part due to the intriguing potential of its story, a TV adaptation of “Shooter” exists for only one reason. Hollywood is so creatively bankrupt that its ongoing efforts to strip mine past entertainment can’t even afford to skip over the lame stuff. What other explanation could there possibly be for taking a movie that failed to hold an audience for two hours and turn it into a TV show that tries to hold an audience over the course of three or four months? After all, if “Shooter” had been either a commercial or creative success…why wouldn’t they have just made a sequel?
The reality is that almost all cable TV networks survive and thrive on reruns. Whether it’s episodes of “Family Guy” or “Law and Order” or “Hogan’s Heroes,” that’s what the audience is mostly watching. But cable TV network executives can’t justify their extravagant salaries if the only decisions they make are when to schedule the 167,293rd showing of the fourth season of “Golden Girls.” They need new content or they have no reason to exist. And if executive producer Mark Wahlberg is pitching you a show about this movie he did almost a decade ago, most networks will pick that over a new idea from someone they’ve never heard of.
This Throwdown goes to “Westworld,” naturally, because a fundamentally good story remains so no matter how much time has passed. People are still reading “The Epic of Gilgamesh” and “The Iliad” thousands of years later, for pete’s sake. But as “Shooter” demonstrates, even a good or at least semi-decent story doesn’t matter if it isn’t told the right way…and that usually doesn’t involve Ryan Phillippe.
Written and directed by Michael Crichton.
Starring Richard Benjamin, Yul Brynner, James Brolin, Norman Bartold, Alan Oppenheimer, Majel Barrett, Victoria Shaw, Dick Van Patten, Linda Gaye Scott, Steve Franklin, Michael T. Mikler, Terry Wilson, Anne Randall, Julie Marcus and Orville Sherman.
Written by Jonathan Lemkin.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua.
Starring Mark Whalberg, Michael Pena, Danny Glover, Kate Mara, Kate Mara’s southern accent, Elias Koteas, Rhona Mitra…why has she never become a bigger deal?…Jonathan Walker, Louis Ferreira, Tate Donovan, A.C. Peterson, Ned Beatty and Lane Garrison.