I’m getting a new column going here, so the early choices are going to be the toughest. Last week I kicked off the column with GYMKATA. I couldn’t have been more pleased with my choice. But fear of a sophomore slump set in quickly. Part of my passion for this column lies in unearthing undiscovered gems for myself. Sure, I look forward to reacquainting myself with some great action films of my upbringing, too. But I really need a great excuse to dig up hidden treasure and share it with people. So I wanted to find another title I’d never seen before. But before I get TOO obscure with this column (which I eventually hope to do), I want to latch on to a few “names”. And Burt Reynolds? That is a name.
In 1985, Reynolds directed and starred in STICK. He plays Ernest “Stick” Stickley; a man fresh out of prison and ravishingly handsome. There’s tons of movies about ex-cons trying to get straight, but getting pulled into “one last job”, so what drew me to press play on STICK?
Well, just get a load of that cover art, would ya? The movie has been beckoning me from my Netflix Queue for some time now and this column was the perfect reason to heed its siren song. Burt Reynolds. 1985. An automatic weapon in hand. I was intrigued, but this could really go anywhere, right?
As the opening credits rolled, I realized that none other than Elmore Leonard had written the screenplay for the film (based on one of his novels). So I rested easy, because I knew I was in good hands. And it all clicks together, too. Set in Florida, witty convicts, clever banter, an interesting crime saga. STICK has Elmore Leonard’s fingerprints all over it, and Burt Reynolds totally nails the landing in the director’s chair and as the leading man.
There is some pretty run of the mill stuff going on, like how Stick is totally a crook with a heart of gold. Or how Stick has a sharp teenaged daughter who only exists to be… in peril. Or how everyone always has an amazing one-liner right on the tip of their tongues. These are all sort of hallowed tropes of the action film, and though they can get a little repetitive, they are par for the course. If you love action films, you have to be willing to suffer the daughter in peril. You must stomach the saintly crook. What really matters is how the film fills in the cracks AROUND those tried (or tired?) archetypes.
Well let me tell you, STICK fills in more than its fair share of cracks. This movie features an icy cold hitman who sells his loyalty to the highest bidder. Oh, and that hit man is an ALBINO! There is also a crustily-mustachioed lead heavy who is a practitioner of Santaria, a cousin to voodoo. This, of course, means that he has a case full of live scorpions in his hacienda. And we all know scorpions are badass because Ryan Gosling wears them on his jackets. There’s also this awesome subplot about this filthy rich movie producer who likes to “flirt with danger” so he hires a bunch of ex-cons. Reynolds finds a friendship with some of the members of this motley crew that is genuine and often hilarious. Oh, and Burt Reynolds regularly wears a PINK Members Only jacket that puts ole’ Gosling’s scorpion number to shame.
What is actually going down in the film? Well, the impetus of the story is actually surprisingly haphazard. Stick just runs into his old buddy Rainy (Jose Perez in solid “buddy sidekick” fashion) and ends up mixed up in a job with him. The job goes sour, and you know the drill. Reynolds is forced to kick ass on principle. He wants the $5000 that is owed him. That’s all.
So yeah, STICK is a principled criminal story. Much like Mel Gibson’s character in PAYBACK, which is based on the Parker character of Donald Westlake’s creation. And you know a funny thing? I love principled criminal stories. STICK’s screenplay gives Reynolds’ character a way out of the situation several times. But the guy just can’t shed his principles. He just wants the $5000 that is owed to him. But in this film, our lead is willing to at least wrestle with his own motivations. Pulling at his heart to make him walk away is none other than Candice Bergen in full 1980s hairspray helmet.
So there’s a lot of awesome ingredients, little pieces of flair that offer a little life to the proceedings. But I contend that STICK is actually a somewhat forgotten action gem that is very much worth checking out. Beyond an Elmore Leonard screenplay, a bunch of creative flourishes, and a rock solid cast, the movie stands out from the pack because of absolutely extraordinary stunt work. Which is key in action films of this ilk.
SPOILER FOR A MOVIE MADE IN 1985 BELOW
The aforementioned Albino hitman is named Moke and he’s played by Stuntman Dar Robinson. His performance is rock solid, but I honestly believe this is one of those scenarios where the film had such a mind-blowingly great stunt planned, that they went ahead and cast a stuntman to act in the role just to make this stunt go through the roof. And it pays off majorly. This movie came out in 1985, and you know the good guy is going to win. So forgive me as I link to this stunt and spoil a fairly major moment in the climax of the film. Part of my goal is to get you to watch this bad boy, and if this doesn’t sell you… I don’t know what will:
But that isn’t the only great action set piece to be found here. Early in the film there is a car chase that takes place in some kind of sugar cane field. It all culminates in a breathtaking explosion captured on camera from a helicopter that makes you go “Seriously, how did they do that?” And as one of the world’s only fans of Arnold’s recent THE LAST STAND, I’d say that the dried corn field car chase in that film is much stylized and resonant in that film; but it is no longer as original as I had once thought. Someone on the crew of THE LAST STAND probably worked on STICK back in ’85 and had a great idea for how to amp up the tall grass chase scene!
Not to mention that Reynolds will, at some point, wield that hand cannon as promised on the cover art, and it will be glorious.
I flat out loved STICK and am frankly shocked at how little I’d heard about the film amongst Reynolds’ oeuvre. The characters are universally well-acted and each are interesting in their own way. The story doesn’t go to particularly brave places, but it is wholly satisfying as an action comedy. The stunt work and direction are really to be commended. And I had an absolute blast. I’ve got to think you will too.
And I’m Out.