Sunday, January 25, 2015

1980 Week: Hero at Large

          An innocent fable very much in the Frank Capra mode, Hero at Large tells the story of a normal New Yorker who adopts the guise of a superhero simply because helping other people makes him feel good. Seeing as how his innocent motivations become complicated by money and romance, the goal of the story is asking whether a genuinely decent human being can find a place in the cynical modern world. Timing-wise, it didn’t hurt that Hero at Large was released two years after the blockbuster success of Superman (1978), starring Christopher Reeve, which demonstrated the public’s appetite for old-fashioned heroism. Given this context, there’s every reason to believe Hero at Large could have become a sleeper hit had it delivered on its own promise. Unfortunately, neither director Martin Davidson nor screenwriter Stephen J. Friedman delivered exemplary work. Hero at Large is earnest and periodically charming, but it’s also contrived, shallow, and trite. There’s a reason why the filmmakers couldn’t attract A-list acting talent, even though leading man John Ritter—attempting to translate his Three’s Company TV fame into movie stardom—gives a likeable performance.
          Set in New York, the story focuses on Steve Nichols (Ritter), an actor who can’t catch a break in his career. To pay the bills, he takes a gig dressing as Captain Avenger, the comic-book character whose exploits have been adapted into a new movie. The idea of using actors to portray Captain Avenger at theaters showing the film was hatched by PR man Walter Reeves (Bert Convy), whose company also handles publicity for the re-election campaign of the city’s mayor. One evening, while still dressed as Captain Avenger, Steve foils a burglary at a convenience store. His bravery makes headlines, so Walter hatches a scheme—find out which actor did the good deed, put the man on the payroll, and use the resulting publicity to enrich the mayor’s image. Two birds with one stone.
          As should be apparent, the plot is rather laborious, and a good portion of the film is wasted on dry scenes explaining the logic of circumstances and situations. This talky approach drains most of the fun out of the enterprise. Similarly, Steve’s repartee-filled romance with his next-door neighbor, Jolene Walsh (Anne Archer), strives for the effortless wit of classic screwball comedy but doesn’t come close. (Fun fact: Archer was one of the actresses who auditioned for the part of Lois Lane in Superman, eventually losing the role to Margot Kidder, so Hero at Large represents superhero-cinema sloppy seconds.) While the fundamental shortcoming of Hero at Large is the weak script, Davidson could have helped matters considerably by adopting a breakneck pace. Instead, the movie sprawls across 98 minutes that feel much longer. So, while it’s hard to dislike a movie that tries this hard to engender goodwill, it’s equally difficult to generate enthusiasm for something that’s mired in well-meaning mediocrity.

Hero at Large: FUNKY

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