Wrong Turn At Tahoe

Director: Franck Khalfoun
Cuba Gooding Jr., Miguel Ferrer, Harvey Keitel

It sure seems at times that being a motion picture actor is a sweet deal. But when you analyze the occupation some more, there are some definite pitfalls. Some of these pitfalls can be avoided, but there are many times when a successful actor finds his or her career going into a tailspin that they can't pull up from. There is the tale of actor Tommy Kirk. Kirk, as you may recall, was a big youth star in the 1950s and the 1960s. He had a contract with the Disney studios and appeared in movies such as The Shaggy Dog, Babes In Toyland, and Old Yeller. Then in the early 1960s, disaster struck Kirk's acting career. The Disney company had found out that Kirk was gay, and that was simply unacceptable to the studio, so they dropped Kirk like a hot potato. Over the next few years, Kirk's acting career went slowly downhill. He went to work for American-International Pictures with movies like Pajama Party, but soon he was down to It's A Bikini World, which was so bad that A.I.P. released the movie under their Trans American label, which they reserved for movies that might tarnish their reputation. Things soon got worse, with Kirk having to find work in movies like Larry Buchanan's Mars Needs Women. Years later, Kirk revealed to an interviewer that he was represented at the time by a manager who had the belief that it was not as important to find quality projects as it was important to simply keep working and visible to the public. But the poor quality projects took its toll on Kirk, and eventually he became so sick of acting that he decided to pretty much leave the business altogether, and eventually found newfound success by starting a cleaning business.

There's another actor whose career was once at such a high that he was a major "A" player in Hollywood, but as the years past his career severely diminished. That actor is Cuba Gooding Jr. Long time readers of The Unknown Movies will remember years ago I briefly discussed Gooding's career when I reviewed his movie The Devil's Tomb. I wondered out loud back then at his fall from the "A" list, and today I still have some questions. I've studied his career some more, and it seems that there is not one reason why he fell from power. Certainly, there were some bad projects he signed on for; I have no idea, for example, why he thought Chill Factor would be a success. There is also the uncomfortable fact that minority actors, even ones who've appeared in multiple successful movies, often find they are not the first ones offered top quality movie projects. Whatever the causes may be, it's an undeniable fact that Gooding has found most of his work in recent years in direct to video projects. I have an idea that Gooding and his management may be thinking along the lines of what Tommy Kirk's manager was thinking - that constantly working, even if the projects are not high quality ones, is the best route to take. In the case of Gooding, there may be some reason to believe that. Though the past fifteen plus years has had Gooding appearing in one direct to video project after another, occasionally he has been hired during this period to appear in a major Hollywood studio production, such as Red Tails and American Gangster. It's likely that had Gooding not been active before these major projects were proposed to him, the projects might not have been offered to him at all.

Still, I have a feeling that when Gooding gets out of bed each morning and passes his Oscar in his living room, he wonders, "How did I get down to doing Lies And Illusions?" (To find how unbelievably bad that movie is, check the user comments for it at the Internet Movie Database.) Wrong Turn At TahoeBut I do hope that Gooding doesn't give up. Though it's primarily for the direct to video business, he is working on a regular basis, something that many struggling actors would kill for. I'm also sure he gets a fair chunk of change in the process despite the projects' low budgets. I'd tell him to keep his eyes open for good scripts. They do exist in the direct to video world. I'd remind him that such an opportunity for him happened once several years ago, with the movie Wrong Turn At Tahoe. I first saw it when it originally came out on DVD, and I remembered being very impressed by it, enough that it stuck with me for subsequent years until I decided recently to review it in order to bring attention to it. The first scene of the movie introduces us to mob boss Vincent (Ferrer, The Night Flier) and his loyal henchman Joshua (Gooding, The Devil's Tomb) driving one night from what seems to have been a recent violent incident, since both men are wounded. We then get a flashback that lasts for almost all of the rest of the movie. The "Tahoe" of the title turns out to not a reference to Lake Tahoe, but to a drug pusher named Frankie Tahoe (Noel Gugliemi, Furious 7). He crosses the paths of Vincent and Joshua when an informant tells Joshua and his partner Mickey (Johnny Messner, Tears Of The Sun) that Tahoe wants to kill Vincent. After Joshua and Mickey tell Vincent this, Vincent is angry enough that he joins Joshua and Mickey with tracking down Tahoe. When the three men find Tahoe, Vincent kills him, and shortly after Vincent kills Mickey because Mickey slept with Vincent's wife. That should be the end, but it isn't - it turns out that Tahoe had a connection to another mob boss named Nino (Keitel, Bad Lieutenant), and Nino is not pleased when he finds out Tahoe was killed. Joshua quickly realizes that he's not only in danger of getting killed by Nino and his men, but realizes that Vincent has a side to him that's becoming even darker with every new twist in their story...

Since I brought up the issue of Cuba Gooding Jr.'s career earlier in this review, it seems logical that the first thing about Wrong Turn At Tahoe I should discuss is Gooding himself. But first, I have to make a confession as to how I normally view Gooding. I do think he has talent as an actor (he won an Oscar, after all), but I do think he has given inadequate performances in some of his movies. As I suggested in my review of The Devil's Tomb, Gooding more often than not comes across as "nice" in front of the camera. And more often than not when he plays darker roles, this "nice" feeling coming from him can be still felt, which is very inappropriate. But the good news is that in Wrong Turn At Tahoe, Gooding manages to make his character quite dark, showing little that could be considered "nice". The character of Joshua comes across as someone who has been in dark territory for a long time, so long that he is almost casual in dealing out brutality. There's little joy or humor in him; while he makes a sarcastic comment while he's shaking down a client in one scene, you can all the same sense that he's prepared to inflict pain and suffering on the poor slob in order to get what he wants. When his partner Mickey is about to be killed by Vincent and pleads for his life, Joshua abruptly utters, "Shut up, Mickey," in a tone of voice that sounds almost bored. As it turns out, Joshua comes across as a dangerous person saying little more in other scenes in the movie. He silently broods a lot, and in this case that says a lot more than a lot of dialogue could accomplish. I don't know if Gooding got help from director Franck Khalfoun (P2) with this performance, or some other force got Gooding to try harder with this particular dark character, but whatever happened behind the scenes, it got Gooding to deliver a convincing and excellent performance. Viewers who are accustomed to a "nice" Gooding will be surprised to see him act so dark, and effectively at that.

But the good performances in the movie don't end just with Gooding - the rest of the cast proves to be capable as well. The other performance I really want to get into is that by Miguel Ferrer. While he is second billed to Gooding, he manages quite often to be up front and center in the story, and he actually gets to steal the show from Gooding. He takes the various quirks of his character, like his request at one point for Joshua and Mickey to take off their shoes when they enter his home, and makes them come across in a very believable manner; you can believe that this same man is deep down a thug that will have someone killed at a whim. Like Gooding, Ferrer acts almost bored, like he has seen it all and that there are no surprises anymore. But that doesn't mean he's any less scary - Ferrer puts enough energy into his character's bursts of rage and violence so that we in the audience are made uneasy about this clearly unstable guy. As it turns out, it's a good thing that Gooding and Ferrer are so good in their roles, because there is not too much time for the rest of the cast. Keitel, believe it or not, only has two extended scenes in the entire ninety minute running time. But despite this project being a quick paycheck, Keitel gives a professional performance, managing to give a sense that his mob boss may have seen and done much more than Joshua and Vincent, and that he's a real threat. Other performers in the cast also deserve some kudos. Alex Meneses (Selena) has just a few short scenes as Vincent's long-suffering wife, but manages to show some effective bitterness in her limited footage. And Michael Tighe (Lakeview Terrace) does well as a crazy druggie who believes that he was once the victim of abduction by aliens.

The scene where Tighe's character talks to Joshua and Mickey about the subject of aliens does bring up some lightly amusing dialogue. Elsewhere in the movie there are more instances of playful banter, such as when Vincent talks about when his father lost a lung to cancer. The dialogue in instances like these does seem to have gotten a little inspiration from Tarantino movies, but screenwriter Eddie Nickerson doesn't hammer it down like Tarantino, keeping the instances of colorful dialogue brief before getting back to how he imagines how real criminals talk. Tough talk, yes, but not long-winded - which I think is accurate. Nickerson's script generally is well written, with the exception of a few details like Joshua's home life (he apparently has a son), which is brought up a couple of times but ultimately to no real purpose. But despite a few minor script flaws such as that one, the enterprise moves along well from start to finish, not just because of the capable cast. Behind the camera, director Khalfoun adds some touches of his own to make Wrong Turn At Tahoe an enjoyable crime drama. Despite a budget of only six million dollars, the movie looks great. The movie looks quite slick, and the dead of winter setting gets into your bones and chills you even during the scenes that take place indoors. The scenes involving violence are very effective, with plenty of blood and pain that accurately portrays violence as not the least bit of fun. Also, Khalfoun puts in some interesting touches like no background extras for almost the entire movie; you just see the main characters and the downbeat world that they have made for themselves. And it's an interesting world, though you probably already guessed it when early in this review I indicated that Wrong Turn At Tahoe was a Cuba Gooding Jr. direct to DVD movie that was actually good.

(Posted December 6, 2019)

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See also: The Black Godfather, The Devil's Tomb, Ulterior Motives