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Black Moon Rising
(1986)

Director: Harley Cokliss
Cast:
Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Hamilton, Robert Vaughn


Since you've probably guessed by now that I am a big movie buff, you have probably concluded that I like all sorts of movies. And that would be true. While there are a few certain movie genres that I have no desire to watch samplings of (like hard core pornography movies), for the most part I am open to just about any movie genre. But this certainly doesn't mean that I am open to and subsequently like every movie from one of those film genres that I am open with. Every film genre has with it a number of badly made examples, and I've certainly seen just as many good examples of a certain film genre as bad examples. And having seen the good and the bad (and the ugly) of every film genre you can think of, I have managed to get a good idea of what filmmakers should strive for if they want to make a good example of the particular film genre they decide to tackle. For example, I've seen that slasher movies should have characters that are likable to the audience. True, there is some pleasure seeing brain dead and sex obsessed youths get the chop, but I've seen that when the protagonists in these movies are likable, it can really amp up the suspense level because we in the audience don't want to see nice and likable people get knocked off. Another example is with martial arts movies. Having seen my fair share of these movies, I have seen that when the protagonist can again and again knock off his opponents without breaking a sweat (like in Steven Seagal movies), the results are usually not as good as those martial arts movies when we see the protagonist struggle for his life.

As you could probably see from those examples, every film genre has its own unique challenges to filmmakers who want to make their examples palatable to an audience. Some film genres, of course, need a lot more care than some others. There is one particular film genre that I believe needs somewhat more care than some others, and that is the caper film genre. Although I have certainly found some caper movies over the years to be enjoyable, I have seen more than my share of duds. Many of these duds I have found have been doomed from the start, because they were unable to handle one instantaneous challenge found with these movies, that being that the central figures in these movies are criminals. More often than not, when I see a thief in a movie stealing from someone, it doesn't sit well with me. Quite often, even if the robbed party is rich and has insurance, I don't like idea of a thief stealing from someone who does not deserve to be robbed. Of course, with what I have just said, filmmakers can make their caper movie palatable by making the robbed party not sympathetic for one reason or another. For example, the 2011 movie Tower Heist made the idea of stealing from millionaire Alan Alda acceptable by making the character someone who had wiped out the retirement savings of a number of innocent people. But it's not just enough to make the robbed party of a caper movie no good - you also have to make the robber or robbers likable. Take the 1963 movie The Pink Panther, for example. The jewel thief character in the movie (played by David Niven) was having an affair with the wife of the innocent Inspector Clouseau. Although the movie was a comedy, Niven's behavior quite frankly soured the movie for me.

Of course, a successful caper movie does not just depend on making the thieves sympathetic and the robbed party deserving to some degree of being robbed. There are other things that contribute heavily towards a caper movie ultimately working or not working. One of these key aspects Black Moon Risingis the actual caper itself - is it suspenseful enough? You've got to have enough tension to make the audience wonder through the caper if the thieves will actually succeed in their plans. And there are other details, from the production values to the musical score that need competence as well. As you can see, making a good caper movie is no easy task. So when I came across Black Moon Rising, I didn't think automatically that I would be getting a good movie. But I did think it might be a different than usual caper movie, because of who was behind the movie's story. Before I reveal who that was, a plot description. Every caper movie needs an expert thief, and in this movie it is a man named Sam Quint (Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive). At the start of the movie, Quint has been hired by the FBI, lead by one agent Johnson (Bubba Smith, Police Academy), to steal incriminating evidence from a certain Las Vegas company that the FBI believes is up to no good. Quint breaks into the company and gets the evidence, but before he can make a clean exit, he is spotted by company guard Marvin Ringer (Lee Ving, Get Crazy). Fleeing from the scene, Quint comes across Earl Windom (Richard Jaeckel, King Of The Kickboxers) and his new invention, a high tech car called "Black Moon". Quint secretly hides the evidence in the car so he won't be caught with it, intending to retrieve the evidence later. Before Quint can retrieve the evidence, the Black Moon is stolen under Windom's nose by car thief Nina (Linda Hamilton, The Terminator) and taken into an office tower owned by business bigwig Ed Ryland (Robert Vaughn, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). Quint realizes that if he wants to get the FBI and Ringer off his back, he'll have to against all odds break into Nyland's fortified tower.

The credits for Black Moon Rising list John Carpenter, of Halloween and Escape From New York fame, as having written the movie's story. Carpenter is also listed as having written the actual screenplay... along with two other writers. Even though Carpenter is additionally given an executive producer credit, with those two additional cooks attached to the screenplay, one has to wonder how much of Carpenter's original vision remained in the finished product. One report I uncovered stated that Carpenter had originally written the screenplay as a Charles Bronson vehicle. While it probably would have been interesting to see Bronson in this type of movie, that doesn't mean that Jones doesn't give it a good shot. I'll admit that Jones' performance here isn't one of his best, but it's not really his fault. The finished script doesn't give his character much of a background - about all we really learn about Quint is that he wants to retire after this job and he has a long and hostile history with the character of Ringer. But Jones does manage to give Quint some extra personality with his performance. When he's on top of a building and looks down, we can see genuine fear in his face. Earlier, when on a stakeout, he smiles and waves at some passer-bys so that they won't suspect anything. Most of all, Jones gives his character extreme confidence in many of the other scenes. When Quint approaches a crime scene, he briskly walks under the police's yellow crime scene tape, and his swagger clearly shows that this guy knows what he's doing and can successfully face any obstacle. Jones really commands the screen in this movie despite the script's limitations, and you pay close attention whenever he's on the screen. Though I admit it's also fun to watch a younger pre-superstar Jones, looking less craggy (and grumpy) than what we presently know.

Getting back to the script, it turns out that the weak writing of the characters does not just extend to the main character. In fact, all the other prominent characters in Black Moon Rising are not well constructed. The actors who play these characters seem largely helpless to try and give them some dimension. The only actor who manages to liven up his role is veteran actor Keenan Wynn (Hyper Sapien: People From Another Star) in a cameo. Everyone else seems to be just going through the motions. Hamilton (who has zero chemistry with her co-star Jones, by the way) is saddled with a character whose past is somewhat vague. We learn how she met her boss (played by Vaughn), but we don't know anything else, like how she got in the car stealing business before meeting Vaughn. Vaughn's character, for that matter, is equally bland. He should exude evil with his words and actions, but instead he comes across as someone who just likes to stand back and have his minions do all the dirty work. Lee Ving can't do much with his character, the main reason being that he doesn't make that many appearances, and only for short bursts when he's allowed on the screen. As you can see, the characters needed a lot more work, but the movie also suffers in the story department. While I suppose the first thirty minutes the movie uses to set up the situation I described two paragraphs ago is a reasonable amount of time, what is unreasonable is that the next forty or so minutes, not much of real consequence or importance happens. Quint seems to be taking his sweet time to pull off the biggest heist of his career, even though he's been threatened with dire consequences by the FBI.

It's possible that despite all this plot padding in the midsection of Black Moon Rising, the movie could have still found ways to be entertaining. But as it turns out, director Harvey Cokliss (Malone) almost seems to be working hard to drain out any possible excitement or suspense that could be generated. There isn't a terrible amount of what could be labelled as "action", and what there is isn't for the most part well staged. For example, after Quint hides the evidence he stole just before Ringer catches up to him, Quint speeds away with Ringer in close pursuit in a car behind him... and then we suddenly cut to several hours later. Huh? While the other action sequences aren't as badly handled as that moment, with the exception of a brutal and exciting sequence where Quint is beaten up, the action feels soft and not all that exciting. Even the climactic heist sequence, which should have been a knockout, doesn't manage to get the blood pumping very much, being slow and sporadic in feeling. There's never a feeling that Quint is in over his head or that he could possibly get killed as he lumbers from one boring scene to another, so you simply won't care one way or another about him. It probably will come as no surprise that director Cokliss doesn't manage to give the movie a positive stamp in most other areas. He is aided by some decent night photography, but he was saddled with a relatively low budget that forced him (among other obvious cost-cutting measures) to shoot much of the movie close up to the actors, even with the action sequences. This makes much of the movie feel like a television production instead of a theatrical experience. The end result is that the movie comes across like a real black moon - there is nothing special to see at all.

(Posted July 3, 2022)

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See also: The Five Man Army, Foolproof, Hard Cash

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