ICYMI: Best Seller (1987)
Back in the day, Roger Ebert would often be dismissive of sequels and remakes. I could imagine the intensity of his eye rolls in a 2019 that includes sequels to First Blood and The Terminator as well as the live action remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King. By no means did he dislike every sequel and remake on face value. He actually enjoyed his fair share like Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Lethal Weapon 2 as well as 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven and 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate. Ebert was just always looking for originality, which was not an unreasonable request considering the 150-200 films that he viewed in any given year.
Ebert also had an interesting suggestion for Hollywood: instead of remaking good movies, remake bad ones. Instead of giving the audience something that they know already works, find a bad or misguided film and fix it. Based on all the bad films he detested I am sure he had plenty of candidates. But, I too, think there are a number of films that should be remade to either make them simply good or even better.
1987’s Best Seller is very good movie…..for a little over an hour. Then sadly it takes a conventional turn to make everything black and white with a shootout that’s supposed to clear everything up. And it’s a shame for a film with such an intriguing premise and that features both James Woods and Brian Dennehy at the tops of their games. The film stars Dennehy as Lt. Dennis Meechum, a long tenured cop who also has a side gig as an author. As the film starts, we see a young Dennehy get ambushed on a security job and left for dead, while two fellow officers die. This incident becomes an inspiration to write a best-selling novel. Fifteen years later, Meechum is still on the force and now suffering from writer’s block. Enter James Woods as Cleve, who claims to be a corporate hitman who wants to tell his life story.
Dennehy is obviously incredulous to such a claim but as Woods explains, “Corporations deal in two things: liabilities and assets. I took care of the liabilities and provided some of the assets.” Woods’ former employer is a larger than life industrialist named David Madlock (Paul Shenar) who is seemingly untouchable, which is why Woods would rather hurt him via publishing than legal testimony that can be thrown out. Woods spends the remainder of the film taking Dennehy on a tour of his “greatest hits” and surprise, surprise, Woods was one of the robbers from that security job that inspired Dennehy’s first book.
At this point, the film starts to get interesting. Dennehy is writing the book and enjoying his best work in years but is also obsessed with the idea of killing Cleve as revenge for his fallen comrades. He says he wants to arrest him but Dennehy may be holding back. Woods on the other hand needs Dennehy to bring his life story to light and bring down his former employer but all the while may be planning to kill Dennehy himself out of sheer habit since he’s not used to leaving witnesses behind.
As I mentioned earlier, both Woods and Dennehy are excellent. Dennehy is completely believable as Joseph Wambaugh-type. He centers the film with stature and even a little wit, like in the scene with Madlock’s’ lawyer who is threatening a lawsuit over the impeding book. Dennehy may be a little slow to catch on to Woods’ claims but that’s just him being a good cop and a studious author. Woods marvels in one of his signature “crazy roles.” His Cleve is a sociopath who revels in the many lives he has taken and yet his surprisingly charming. I also enjoyed his neediness to be liked by Dennehy and come off as a “good guy” in the book.
Sadly, Best Seller missed an opportunity to continue to rachet up this tension between Dennehy and Woods and transcend into greatness. What could have been an intense psychological thriller with cop and killer playing the ultimate game of cat and mouse descends into convention when Madlock kidnaps Meechum’s teenage daughter and it’s up to Woods to save her. The ending is a true cop out.
So, perhaps someone can find the genesis of this film and re-shape it into an actual film of merit, living up to its initial premise. In today,s world, especially after TV shows like SCANDAL and LEVERAGE, is it really that hard to believe in the concept of a “corporate hitman?” Their tales of murder in the name of capitalism could be frightening, horrifying, and compelling via the right filmmakers. I know I would watch.