Wednesday, November 15, 2006

By At Least Eight Yards

1980's THE FORMULA is the only film in which the great actors Marlon Brando and George C. Scott star together. Based on a novel by producer/screenwriter Steve Shagan (SAVE THE TIGER), THE FORMULA is a maddeningly complex thriller about the murder of Tom Neely, a former Los Angeles cop, and the investigation into it led by the victim's friend, Lieutenant Barney Caine (Scott). I liked Shagan's novel, but his screenplay removes many of the book's best scenes, and as a result, the film suffers from plotholes that may well leave you scratching your head.

At first, it appears as though the victim's lifestyle is to blame. He's found tied up in bed with seven bullet holes in him and a voodoo doll filled with cocaine placed on his chest. However, when the victim's ex-wife (NETWORK's Beatrice Straight) is also found murdered, Caine digs deeper--far deeper than his superiors on the police force are comfortable with--and discovers the key to Neely's death may lie with his military service in Germany in 1945, where he captured a Nazi general (Richard Lynch) in possession of an amazing formula for synthetic fuel--gasoline that can be created using coal, of which the United States is the world's leading producer. Caine figures that the oil conglomerates may not be too thrilled to learn of such a formula, and heads to Berlin to find more answers.

Brando appears in only three scenes (and was reportedly paid $1 million per scene!), but makes the most of two of them. One is a throwaway that serves little purpose and looks as though it may have been inserted into the screenplay simply to give the film more Brando for the audience's buck. But it's bookended by two marvelously absorbing scenes which are little more than dialogues between Brando and Scott that remind one of the much admired two-man discussion between DeNiro and Pacino in HEAT.

The first is mostly shot as one long take. The two actors stroll down a dusty country road while Scott asks Brando, playing a major oil chairman named Adam Steiffel, a few background questions about Neely, who had worked as a bagman for Steiffel. Their piece de resistance comes at the end, a lengthy wrap-up session in which the two men attempt to explain the mystery's solution and leave the audience satisfied with the denouement. And while Shagan's plot is never satisfactorily pieced together, Scott and Brando aren't too blame. In fact, it hardly matters what the two men are talking about--it's simply a joy to watch these two screen greats sharing adversarial banter.

THE FORMULA was neither a hit with critics or with audiences, and I can't really say that it should have been. It's a talky, confusing thriller that wastes a solid starring turn by Scott and an eccentric performance by Brando, who wears a hearing aid, weaves his hair into a combover and speaks with an unusual mince. It's now out on DVD, and I must say that I enjoyed the film better than I did the first time I saw it, which was on a pan-and-scan VHS tape. The DVD also contains an audio commentary track by Shagan and director John G. Avildsen (ROCKY), which might be interesting, considering that the two men reportedly had a major falling-out around the time of THE FORMULA's release. Apparently, they've made up, but I'm curious to find out whether any contention remains.

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