Mr. Billion

Director: Jonathan Kaplan                 
Terence Hill, Valerie Perrine, Jackie Gleason

Back in the early days of video (those ancient 1980s), I can remember being confused as to why Fox Video (which was then called CBS/Fox Video) not only had this main video label, but also put out videos under the labels of Key Video and Playhouse Video. I wondered why they just didn't release everything under one label. Further investigation of the movies under these labels did give me some clues. First, not all the movies on these labels were made by 20th Century-Fox - there were a number of movies by United Artists and assorted independent studios released on these labels. So maybe it was a way for 20th Century-Fox to not have consumers confused into thinking their company made these movies. On the other hand, 20th Century-Fox released some of their own movies on these two labels. And looking at them, one sees that these particular movies on a whole are hardly classics, like Shock Treatment. It goes without saying that Mr. Billion was released on Key Video.

This movie, and the same year's big box office failure of March Or Die explain why Italian actor Terence Hill never made it big in the States. The movie's premise is good, promising to not only let Hill keep his Italian background, but to give him a chance to continue in the tradition of smarter-than-they-look characters he previously played: In San Francisco, the billion dollar Falcone corporation is shaken when its elderly Italian born founder Anthony Falcone is killed in a freak accident. (Meant to be funny, but isn't.) John Cutler (Gleason) had previously had power of attorney over Falcone, so he is of course shocked to find out that Mr. Falcone not only had a nephew (guess who?) named Guido, but that the entire corporation has been willed to this previously unmentioned nephew. When Guido arrives in New York, he has just a few days to make it to San Francisco, but decides to travel cross country like his immigrant uncle did and see the sites along the way. This gives time for Cutler to hire a female detective (Perrine) to try and get Guido to sign over the corporation, for kidnappers to grab and hold him for ransom, and for Guido to meet various oddball characters along the way as he gets repeatedly delayed and in danger of losing his inheritance to the dastardly Cutler.

Goofy, cornball, sure, but it sounds like it fits right into the kind of movies Hill made in Europe before and after this movie. But it doesn't work here. What made Hill charming and a big star in Europe is completely missing here, though it is not his fault. The language barrier he conquers, speaking English well enough so that it's not only clear enough to understand, but clear that he understands what his character is saying. (We also get to hear him speak his native Italian.) The problem is that Hill doesn't get much of a chance to say anything. When other characters come onto the screen, usually they have most to all of the dialogue. Hill ends up looking befuddled and somewhat bewildered, like he doesn't know what he's doing there. This is not the fun-loving, crafty Hill that we've come to love. Playing another kind of character isn't necessarily a bad idea, but there's nothing in Guido Falcone that makes us really want to root for him. The rare times we get to know him, we see him imitating John Wayne or Steve McQueen. His character doesn't have his own personality.

Almost all the other actors in the movie are wasted as well. We know from reruns of The Honeymooners that Jackie Gleason could play a greedy unstoppable fellow with big plans, and this movie would seem like a good opportunity to play an evil Ralph Kramden. Here, Gleason seems bored, almost as if he's ill. Not only isn't he funny, he isn't even trying to be funny. Almost all of his scenes have him sitting down behind a desk and  mumbling his lines. When his character becomes more wicked, his bland delivery just worsens things. As the detective with a heart of gold, Perrine has the task of having her character fall in love with Guido, and her infatuation seems so artificial, it's hard to tell the difference when her character is faking it and when she really feels this way. In fairness, the progression between these attitudes is so sudden, no actress could pull it off. The only actor who puts any life into this movie is Slim Pickens, an evicted rancher who joins up with Guido in the second half of the movie. Whether he's punching someone in a bar, making various asides, or encouraging Guido to, "Put the pedal to the metal!", Pickens adds a badly needed jolt of adrenaline to the movie whenever he appears. Not only is he funny, he's the only one in the movie who seems to be having any fun.

It's amazing how many of the other characters in the movie are wasted in countless scenes where they are arguing in front of the befuddled and silent Guido, sometimes arguing so intensely and quickly that you can't figure out just what the heck they are talking about. Speaking of dialogue, there are several places in the movie where words like "ass" and the "God" part of a certain seven letter word have been curiously blanked out, leaving strange pauses in some exclamations. Perhaps they accidentally used a TV print for the video edition by accident, but if not, it would only fit in with the general ineptness that occurred when the pieces of the movie were being made and put together. In the chase scenes, Guido and his pursuers jump all over the place, making it hard to figure out not only where they are, but just how they got there. The fight at the redneck bar has signs that it was originally a lot funnier, but just as we are about to see a funny punch or fight maneuver, we're cut to another area of the brawl. The few large scale stunt sequences actually manage to insult the intelligence of viewers; the people behind this movie think that we'd be amazed by a skydiver parachuting over a city, and that we'd not notice that when Guido jumps his car through a moving train that the boxcar is clearly not moving when we see the car flying through it.

Mr. Billion tries to have a couple of sweet little messages buried in it: If you help others, you'll be rewarded in the end, and also that bad people will get punished in the end. I won't say what happens in the end (though I'm sure you already know), but that these messages get screwed up by the end of the movie. First, a number of people clearly not deserving of reward get rewarded, and that the fate of Gleason's character is not revealed or even hinted at. All of this left a bitter taste in my mouth. Though even if the ending had been better, I would have felt sour from an earlier scene involving a sniper that is way out of place and too intense for country cornball like this. It's no wonder that even the most devoted Terence Hill fans haven't heard or seen of this movie. Just as well - it's yet another case of Hollywood bringing a foreign actor in, and getting him to do different material than what made him famous in the first place.

Check for avaiability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: Amanda And The Alien, Crime Busters, Renegade