If Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn can keep this conspicuously stupid action farce aloft at the box office for more than a few weeks, they probably deserve their inflated star salaries. It took three writers (David Seltzer, Louis Venosta and Eric Lerner) to devise one screenplay that states the obvious with no redeeming sense of shame. Example: Hawn, playing attorney Marianne Graves, is put in situations in which men can ogle her while the camera plays peekaboo up her skirts. Established: Hawn is a looker. Hell, we knew that. Seltzer, Venosta and Lerner (they sound like a law firm) do a similiar favor for Gibson. Playing Rick Jarmin, a man on the run since he turned state’s witness fifteen years ago against some killer drug lords, Gibson gets to change identities and break hearts – female and male – wherever the Federal Witness Protection Program sends him. Established: He’s a hunk. We’re ahead of the writers there as well.
The plot hinges, creakily, on a cute encounter between Marianne and Rick in Detroit. She’s there on business; he’s working in a gas station. Even in a downpour, she recognizes Rick as an old college sweetheart she had thought dead. Rick tries to deny he’s the man she loved, but Marianne knows better. When the bad guys, led by a stone-faced David Carradine, show up, Marianne is unwittingly drawn into a plot to help her former love skip town. Cut to the chase. Given the insipid dialogue, director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, Stakeout) is understandably willing to do just that. In fact, the mayhem never lets up. With wearying fervor, Badham sets cars, motorcycles and helicopters in motion. He stages shootouts, fires, explosions and rooftop escapes. He dusts off every cliché in the action-film library until the only way to stay awake is to count the better films this hand-me-down rips off.
None of this would matter, of course, if we rooted for the Gibson-Hawn romance. But their fighting and flirting are abrasively mechanical. Gibson showed a flair for humor in Lethal Weapon and its sequel, but Badham doesn’t allow for subtleties in this performance. Gibson is game, but he’s not trying any new moves. Since fans thrilled to seeing Gibson bare assed in the Weapon films, Bird on a Wire makes Gibson’s butt the butt of the joke. Early on, the industrious screenwriters arrange to get Rick shot in the gluteus maximus, which requires constant checkups. “Look at my butt,” Rick shouts in pain to Marianne. Later, another former flame of Rick’s, played by the leggy Joan Severance, removes the offending bullet, offering director of photography Robert Primes, best known for his work on TV’s thirtysomething, the chance to give Gibson’s rump its first screen-filling close-up; Primes really shoots the moon on this one. Gibson’s other erogenous zones aren’t neglected either. In bed with Marianne, Rick complains that being a fugitive can be tough on a man’s sex life. “Mr. Wiggly’s been on bread and water for five years,” he groans.
There are more cheap shots still to come. Especially repugnant is a scene in which Rick returns to a Wisconsin hair salon called Raun’s of Racine, where he once worked as a hairdresser. This allows Gibson to lisp and go limp wristed in a style of gay stereotyping that went out – or should have – with Milton Berle. Near the film’s end, Rick gets a few laughs at the expense of an FBI contact and friend who is now the victim of Alzheimer’s disease. This is not Gibson’s finest hour, and it could be enough to drive a serious actor back to drama. (Note: Gibson is currently in Scotland, starring in Franco Zeffirelli’s film version of Hamlet.)
Though this may be hard to believe, Hawn has it worse. Since her smash as the spoiled cutie-pie who joins the army in Private Benjamin (1980), Hawn has been trying to duplicate that success with increasingly weak vehicles (Protocol, Wildcats and Overboard). At forty-four, she is still a stunner, but her development as an actress has been arrested at the Dippity-Do level. In 1974, she gave a strong dramatic performance as a fugitive mother in The Sugarland Express, Steven Spielberg’s first film. When Sugarland flopped at the box office, Hawn reverted to comic type.
Bird is another regression, not just to Private Benjamin but to the ding-a-ling style she perfected back in the Sixties on TV’s Laugh-In. It’s disconcerting watching a mature woman trying so desperately to be adorable. Supposedly a high-powered lawyer, Hawn’s Marianne bites her lip, pops her eyes and, worse, shrieks like a banshee in the face of every emergency. Badham even includes the de rigueur insect-in-the-shower scene so that Hawn can scream her head off once again. During the film’s most elaborate car chase, Marianne contrives to get her head on the gas pedal, leaving Rick to manage hairpin turns while her flailing spike-heeled legs threaten to gouge out his eyes. And yes, she screams, long and loud enough to freeze the ganglia. Hawn’s shrill one-note performance is hell on the eardrums, not to mention feminism.
For the climax, Badham throws his stars into an indoor zoo complete with a three-story waterfall and ravenous tigers, jaguars, alligators and pythons. Constructed in Vancouver over two months, the massive set is the only original element in the film. But Badham winds up this birdbrained lark by including scenes of carnage better suited to a horror movie, such as wild-animal attacks and the sight of a villain having his face noshed on by piranhas. With this cynical, exploitive, high-priced hack job, the feelgood summer-movie season starts in earnest. So does the wave of dread.