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ICYMI: Bad Influence (1990)


I am sure we have all had the fantasy of meeting someone who indulges us in our true dark side. That person who has little shame, inhibition or morality and is willing to push and guide us on a hypothetical wild ride as we give zero f**ks, take whatever we want and avenge any perceived wrongs. It’s a part of being human when you recognize such darkness and temptation. A true sense of your own humanity is how far you would go and how much of a push you would need.

1990’s Bad Influence epitomizes what happens when you take such a guided tour in sin and “dance with the devil.” From Hollywood-lifer screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, Panic Room) and Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, 8 Mile) comes this mostly overlooked thriller that is also notable for its “reverse casting” with James Spader as the mild-mannered “good guy” and Rob Lowe as the “bad influence” of the title.

As the film starts, we meet Spader’s Michael who is a fairly meek stockbroker. He has recently had a major account stolen by a weaselly co-worker and is engaged to a woman whom he is too timid to break up with. In a bar one night, Spader sticks his nose into an argument and finds himself facedown on the bar top. To his rescue comes Rob Lowe’s Alex, who diffuses the situation with a broken bottle and an intense glare. Spader is justifiably grateful and immediately taken by Lowe’s bravado (there’s plenty of homoeroticism) and after a “thank-you” drink a tentative friendship is born. Spader confesses his troubles and Lowe quickly surmises how he can help.

After a crash course in computer software, Spader is able to blackmail his co-worker by temporarily stealing some of his files. And after a wild drunken night, Lowe videotapes Spader’s infidelity and puts it on display at an engagement party aka engagement over. After a while, Spader is enjoying the new person he is becoming thanks to Lowe’s tutelage. But like most wild rides, eventually the more innately moral individual wants to get off. Soon, Lowe has Spader mixed up in armed robbery, assault, and murder. A cat and mouse game ensues with Spader trying to stay one step ahead of Lowe, and Lowe being able to see everything coming from a mile away. Thankfully, Spader finds assistance from his ne'er-do-well brother, Pismo (played by Christian Clemenson, who would later join Spader on TV’s Boston Legal) and a final trap is set.

The film is taut, thanks to Koepp’s sleek and sharply drawn script and the direction of Curtis Hanson keeps everything moving along with plenty of lurid tension. The performances are key as well. James Spader’s Michael is a sympathetic protagonist, someone who has been pushed around his entire life and was just waiting for someone to teach him to stand up for himself. Spader captures both Michael’s impishness and his casual perversity (it is James Spader, after all).

Rob Lowe’s Alex is a complete departure from his “Brat Pack” and Teen Beat cover boy days. The film was more timely in 1990, since it was Lowe’s first film after his video tape documented sexual dalliance with an underage girl at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. We never get a cliched background or explanation for the evil perpetrated by Alex but Lowe is eerily convincing as a first-rate con man who lives to satisfy his own desires and watch the lives of others crumble around him.

Bad Influence also works because of the homoerotic nature of Spader and Lowe’s relationship. They never sleep together (that would be a more daring film) but the nature of their relationship is built on Spader’s perceived latent homosexuality. Lowe worms his way into Spader’s life by playing the Alpha Male and keeps testing his masculinity at every turn. You could say this is an early demonstration of what is now known as “toxic masculinity.”

Bad Influence works on many levels, I may have missed one or two, but as a lifelong introvert I am always fascinated by stories like this about what might happen when you meet that certain someone who takes you out of your shell. And while I have no true murderous intentions towards anyone, I do wonder what it would be like to be loud, vane, and overtly immoral. Not sure of how far I would go, nor do I really want to know.

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