Directed by Richard Donner
Starring John Savage, David Morse, Diana Scarwid, Amy Wright
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Release Date: February 3, 2009
Richard Donner has never been known as a director of quiet and subtle dramas. Even though the former actor got his start as a director in television during the 1960’s, Donner’s feature directorial career has consisted of big studio blockbusters like The Omen, Superman, and the Lethal Weapon franchise.
Between Superman and his Richard Pryor/Jackie Gleason comedy The Toy , Donner decided to make his new film an adaptation of Todd Walton‘s novel Inside Moves. Coming from a director primarily known for large-scale cinematic adventures exploding with emotional excesses, stylistic flourishes, and innovative visual effects, the intimate, character-driven drama would be a drastic change of pace for the veteran filmmaker. The finished film was released in late 1980 to critical raves and non-existent audiences so it had to reach movie buffs the hard way, through cable and video exposure. Now the movie has finally been released on DVD from the Lionsgate and although an intervention was necessary to make sure the DVD contained a remastered widescreen picture and not a low-rent full frame transfer, this wonderfully eccentric drama has finally earned its chance to reach the widest possible audience, an opportunity that bad timing and a mediocre marketing strategy deprived Inside Moves of the first time.
After a attempt to commit suicide by throwing himself out a window on the tenth floor of an office building failed, Roary (John Savage) is left moderately handicapped both physically and mentally. One day after moving into a room at a halfway house he wanders down to Max’s, a local bar frequented mostly by colorful eccentrics. During his first visit Roary immediately strikes up a friendship with jovial bartender Jerry (David Morse) and the regulars — blind man Stinky (Bert Remsen), wheelchair-confined Blue Louis (Bill Henderson), and Wings (Harold Russell), who had his hands replaced with hooks. Aspiring basketball player Jerry takes Roary to a game one night and a confrontation with player Alvin Martin (Harold Sylvester) leads to a game of one-on-one that Jerry narrowly loses.
When the word comes down that Max’s is in danger of being shut down, Roary decides to pool his money with Jerry and save the bar from foreclosure, although Jerry would rather use the money to get the surgery needed to fix his knee and re-energize his dreams of playing for the pros. Jerry’s continued descent into depression is compounded by his tumultuous romance with junkie prostitute Anne (Amy Wright) and an intense encounter with her vicious pimp Lucius (Tony Burton). Roary appeals to Alvin Martin for help and the basketball player, recognizing Jerry’s talent on the court, agrees to finance the sad sack bartender’s needed surgery so he can finally realize his dream. Meanwhile, Roary begins a romance with Louise (Diana Scarwid), a waitress at Max’s. As life goes on, this group of lost souls attempts to pick up the pieces of their broken lives as they grow to become an unlikely family and, for them, even the smallest victory can be a monumental achievement.
Watching Inside Moves is like reading a great novel. Here is a movie in which the characters do not perform at the service of the plot but are given the chance to grow before our very eyes. These are people like you and me possessing the same flaws, emotions, dreams, and shattered hopes as any normal human being. Even in its happier scenes there is a suffocating veil of darkness that hangs over Inside Moves. Just like reality the moments when we are at our happiest can immediately be followed by moments that feel like getting punched in the stomach. Once you are invested in the plights of Roary, Jerry, Louise, and the many eclectic personalities that orbit around the smokey interiors of Max’s, you begin to identify with them and feel their joy and their pain. You can see how this disparate group of lost souls would gravitate to one another when the rest of the world has written them off as freaks and losers.
Despite the darker moments Inside Moves is still a very uplifting film that never goes for cheap emotional manipulation when a lesser film would do nothing but. Richard Donner is without comparison one of the best directors of popular entertainment to emerge since the beginning of the blockbuster era and his dedication to verisimilitude, the appearance of truth, has distinguished his films from most of the other major studio moneymakers released in the last three decades. So a novel like Inside Moves where the characters provide the engine that powers the narrative would seem a ideal fit for his particular directorial voice. Working from a screenplay by Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson, Donner made a few changes from Todd Walton’s original novel that don’t damage the integrity of the characters and the story. In the novel Roary was a Vietnam veteran who was crippled during the war. Changing the character to a man who attempts suicide for no clear reason (although Roary suggests near the end of the movie that he did it because….well you’ll have to check it out for yourself) doesn’t disrupt Roary’s arc. The story is all about how he rebuilds his life and the lives of those around him, and that is ultimately the most important thing. Besides with John Savage cast in the role of Roary the movie would have risked existing in the shadow of Micheal Cimino’s Oscar-winning epic The Deer Hunter, which featured Savage in the role of…. a handicapped Vietnam veteran.
The movie is a joy to watch but some of its more harsher moments definitely hit home. Jerry’s complicated affair with Anne is sadly driven by unrequited love. Maybe the woman loves him, but she’s too fucked up to know what she wants and the only way she can return his affection is by taking money from him and getting him beaten by her less savory associates. I think a lot of us have been in that same position and it sucks. Roary’s suicide attempt at the beginning has a strange beauty to it, like we’re watching time brought to a halt. Something I noticed during the scene was its resemblance to the building jump scene from the original Lethal Weapon. There are moments of pure magic in Inside Moves, and best of all these moments feel earned. The Christmas dance at Max’s, Jerry’s one-on-one game with Alvin Martin, Roary and Louise’s first kiss, and especially the final scene that eschews the downbeat attitude of the Vietnam/Watergate era and leaves us with a laugh and a cheer that never feels false.
Donner found the best cast possible to help bring the characters of Walton’s novel to life on the big screen. It’s sad to see John Savage doing a lot of crappy B-movies and direct-to-video flicks that are miles beneath his talent because back in the day the man was a great actor in the making. He doesn’t just play Roary, he becomes Roary. Savage perfectly captures the character’s damaged body and soul and truly invests the audience in his recovery. David Morse scored his first major film role here as the troubled, lovelorn bartender Jerry and it remains one of the best performances of his career. Lately Morse has become a reliable go-to guy for playing intense characters and morally bankrupt heavies. Watching his performance in Inside Moves serves as a reminder that the man is a great versatile actor who has always been underrated. Chemistry is a word that tends to get overused but it’s definitely there between Savage and Morse as they create an honest on-screen relationship. These guys are so cool and friendly that anybody would be lucky to be there friends in reality, and they never shy away from wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
But it’s a genuine pleasure to watch the ensemble cast, carefully assembled by veteran casting directors Jane Feinberg and Mike Fenton, that surrounds the central performances of Savage and Morse. Like the two male leads Diana Scarwid is a fine actress who scored some excellent roles in the early days of his career but was denied the opportunity to fulfill her promise. Her performance as the haunted waitress Louise earned Scarwid her only Oscar nomination to date (for Best Supporting Actress). It’s a damn shame she didn’t win because in the character of Louise Scarwid crafts a masterful acting showcase that wonderfully compliments the acting of Savage and Morse. Together the three actors make an ideal team that comprises the emotional core of Inside Moves. Another fantastic team is the one consisting of Bert Remsen, Harold Russell, and Bill Henderson, great character actors all, as the three handicapped gentlemen who act as a Greek chorus for the events in the film and bring a healthy dose of humor, heart and soul to their scenes. Amy Wright plays the only other female character in the movie and her performance as the hopeless but not heartless Anne is a serious heartbreaker. She’s the only one of Inside Moves‘s lost souls who is destined to remain lost forever, but you can see in her eyes the character’s desire to give up her bad habits and find love and happiness. It’s a soulful acting job that has gone sadly overlooked as has the rest of the performances in the film. Tony Burton’s brutal pimp Lucius is the closest the movie has to a villain and the actor definitely makes Lucius worthy of our distaste. I best remember Burton from his role as Apollo Creed’s trainer Duke in the Rocky movies (the only actor besides Sylvester Stallone and Burt Young to appear in all six movies) and as the crafty convict Wells in John Carpenter’s classic 1976 actioner Assault on Precinct 13. Funny enough I was familiar with Harold Sylvester as an actor before he landed his longest-running gig playing Al Bundy’s fellow shoe salesman Griff during the last four seasons of the popular Fox sitcom Married….with Children. As basketball player Alvin Martin Sylvester’s hangdog looks plays off the character’s innate cockiness to create a complex portrait of a young athlete trying to carve out his own successful career. Alvin and Jerry develop their own relationship that develops mostly in the scenes between the scenes and it succeeds thanks to a fine piece of acting from Sylvester, another of the many talented and overlooked actors that form the Inside Moves ensemble. Acting further texture and personality to the bustling Max’s Bar are Steve Kahan, a veteran of many Donner films, Pepe Serna, and Jack O’Leary as Max himself.
The cinematography by the great Laszlo Kovacs gives Inside Moves a distinct, dream-like look like we could be one of the regulars at Max’s viewing the proceedings through an empty beer glass. This look serves the film well during both its day and night scenes. Best known for his James Bond movie scores composer John Barry really surprises with his music here which has the grace and soul of a drunken poet armed with a harmonica and a hurting heart. The production design by Charles Rosen is perfectly understated, much suited to the film and the performances, and filled with wondrous detail and picturesque ordinariness. Frank Morriss does a stand-out job on the editing, keeping the story moving briskly along almost like we’re reading the book on screen.
Lionsgate Home Entertainment has released Inside Moves in a new DVD that does this underrated cinematic treasure justice. The technical presentation on the disc is fine but the film is presented in a widescreen picture with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 instead of the 2.35:1 ratio it was originally shot in. It’s a serviceable picture that at least gives the characters in the film some breathing room. The picture is accompanied by a decent 2.0 Dolby Surround audio track and there are English and Spanish subtitles provided.
The extra features are not plentiful but they are worthwhile. The stand-out is a newly recorded commentary track with director Donner joined by his Conspiracy Theory scribe Brian Helgeland. Donner is loaded with great stories and valuable information about the production and with Helgeland present the commentary takes on a warm, conversational tone that is well-suited to the quiet nature of the film they’re watching. This is a wonderful commentary track.
Next up is the brand new featurette “From the Inside Out: Moving from Manuscript to Motion Picture” which runs sixteen minutes and consists of fresh interviews with Donner and author Walton. This feature does a pretty basic job in covering the genesis of both the novel and film of Inside Moves and is worth at least one watch.
Donner’s original shooting script for Inside Moves with his handwritten notes is included as a DVD-ROM file. Wrapping up the extra features are trailers for other Lionsgate releases: My Bloody Valentine 3-D, The Spirit, Bangkok Dangerous, Mondays in the Sun, and O. These trailers also play upfront when you first load the DVD.
Inside Moves was a real pleasure to watch for the first time and I look forward to watching it again. This movie is a find for film fans who appreciate the power of quality acting and realistic storytelling. It would take a heart of stone to not be moved by this film by the time it’s over. Seek this film out.
BAADASSSSS will return.