' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Company Business (1991)

Friday, August 10, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Company Business (1991)

Nicholas Meyer’s “Company Business” is set in the year of its release – 1991 – meaning it is set amidst the new world order, with the Berlin Wall having fallen and Soviets having become Russians. It is a foreign world to Sam Boyd (Gene Hackman), former CIA operative now reduced to spying on behalf of captains of industry, like Maxine Gray Cosmetics, glimpsed in the movie’s opening. Though Sam is later made to exhort that he’s “too old for this shit”, a line heard from far away and with the character’s back to the camera, suggesting it was added in post-production, he looks too old for this shit as he sits in a plush red couch amidst gunmetal gray walls at the Maxine Gray offices next to a nerdy looking young guy who explains how he simply hacked a computer system to get the same information that we see Sam go to extravagant, adventurous lengths to obtain. The patented Hackman chuckle in this moment conveys having aged out more than any recitation of Detective Murtaugh’s famous lament.

Sam is a dinosaur, another comparison made explicit in a line of dialogue, and so is KGB spy Pyotr Grushenko (Mikhail Baryshnikov), currently rotting away in a Fargo jail though now the CIA is looking to use him in a prisoner exchange. Sam is reactivated to act as Pyotr’s escort, which smells like a set-up not only to every wary audience member but to the two men as well. Pyotr’s senses remains heightened while Hackman, ever warily jolly, sort of plays it as a guy who knows all along something is off but forges ahead because his whole life has been fording intimidating rivers of espionage. Sure enough, the deal goes wrong, revealed as a cover for buying back a downed U-2 pilot with Colombian drug money. Now the Americans and the Russians both want Sam and Pyotr dead meaning they must team up to stay alive.

From there the movie becomes an odd amalgam of a spy adventure, a buddy comedy, and a leisurely travelogue. Meyer, who also wrote the script, comes across rather uninterested in the adventuring part, with a shootout atop the Eiffel Tower that is conspicuously blasé while the suspense of the prisoner exchange gone wrong is not sucked dry because we know it will go wrong but because Meyer invests it with so little urgency. That un-urgent feeling is better in the buddy-buddy moments, like when Sam and Pyor briefly ride bicycles through the red-light district of Berlin, or when the two men sit down for dinner and a few steins at some place in the same city, where the atmosphere briefly teases the more conversational “In Bruges.”

That confused air trickles down to the performances of Hackman and Baryshnikov. They are not electric, more easygoing, or maybe more like lackadaisacal because they are disoriented, unable to determine if they are playing to the tone of an old world, Cold War throwback or to some slightly grittier reboot of one. Meyer must have been disoriented too. Late in the proceedings one character remarks that eventually Europe will be nothing more than one big corporation, an idea evoked all the way back at the movie’s beginning, but then mostly just a thread that the movie spends the rest of its time dangling right there in the open without getting pulled. But perhaps “Company Business” knew this global corporatization better than it even knew. Maybe the movie itself was done in by board room strategists, arguing for some whiteboard box office formula, insistent on synergizing styles, hanging their characters out to dry.

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