This Month In… March (1990)

Bringing you all the box office news from February 1987

March 2nd

For longtime gamers, the name Tom Clancy probably evokes memories of the hugely popular Splinter Cell series, or, if you’re a little older, Rainbow Six for the original Playstation, but the name first came to my attention way back in 1990 following the release of John McTiernan’s Cold War spy thriller The Hunt for the Red October, which was something of a digression for a director most famous for muscles-to-burn Arnie vehicle Predator and action genre high-point Die Hard.

It was a tricky movie to get made too, the tale of rogue Russian submarine Captain, Marko Ramius (Connery), proving a little too sensitive at the height of East/West tensions. Producer Mace Neufeld optioned Clancy’s novel as early as 1985, but Hollywood just wasn’t interested, despite its best seller status. So on the money was Clancy’s taut espionage thriller that screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart would even contact the U.S. Navy for fear of leaking top secret information before going ahead as planned. The story was also deemed too complex for mainstream audiences, but a few tweaks to the script, most of which reflecting more positively on the U.S. Navy, would make the movie more suitable for adaptation.

Connery, who had served in the real-life British Royal Navy prior to a career in acting, is rather convincing in the role, even if his undeniably Scottish accent does creep in just a little on occasion. Well, quite often to be accurate. The actor had similar problems in Brian De Palma’s based on true events gangster epic The Untouchables, but he was so magnetic it was forgivable, and the same kind of leniency can certainly be applied here. The movie’s protagonist, Jack Ryan, is the man in the know who no one believes who we fully get behind, thanks in no small part to the equally impressive Alec Baldwin. There is also typically solid support from the likes of Sam Neill and James Earl Jones, making The Hunt for the Red October a must see for espionage fans, or anyone else for that matter.

Described by Roger Ebert as “a skilful, efficient film that involves us in the clever and deceptive game being played,” the movie would storm the box office with an opening weekend of $17,000,000, making it the biggest non-summer/Thanksgiving opening to date, though not everyone was so positive. Newsweek’s David Ansen would describe the film “as an overfilled kettle,” that “takes far too long to come to a boil”. Meow! The Hunt for the Red October would rake-in an incredible $122,012,643 at the US box office alone, with a worldwide gross of $200,512,643. VHS Revival salutes you.

March 9th

Curtis Hanson’s psychological thriller Bad Influence is a film many of you had probably forgotten about ― I know I had ―  but there’s an interesting story tied to it, one shamefully exploited in a scene in which Rob Lowe’s mysterious psychopath Alex shows a videotape of James Spader’s Michael Boll having sex with another woman at an engagement party thrown by his unwanted spouse’s future in-laws, thereby ending their scheduled marriage. Two years prior, Lowe was involved in a similar videotape scandal involving two women, one of whom was only 16. Lowe would be sentenced to 20 hours for the crime of sex with a minor. Boy, how times have changed!

Lowe plays a mysterious stranger who is fond of changing identities. One day he steps in after Spader’s Boll is assaulted in a bar and the two become friends in what is a transparent riff on Hitchcock’s devil’s advocate classic Strangers on a Train. Boll is the kind of person who lets people walk all over him until Alex’s renegade tactics teach him how to stand up for himself, though his new friend’s training grows increasingly unconscionable, leading Boll right back to where he started, only worse. The movie also stars Lisa Zane as the sexual conquest who has a hand in altering Boll’s trajectory.

Lowe’s real-life indiscretions came to light during rehearsals, plunging the actor’s involvement into jeopardy. Of the incident, director Hanson would say, “I don’t believe in the theory that any publicity is good. For Rob’s sake and the picture’s sake, I wish it had never happened. The story broke shortly before rehearsals and my reaction was completely selfish. I kept wondering, ‘How does this affect the movie? How does it affect his performance?’ It was like a carnival atmosphere around him.” Hanson would later admit to being fond of the film, though felt Lowe’s performance was overshadowed by events, which may go some way to explaining the movie’s modern-day anonymity.

Whether the scandal had a positive or negative effect at the box office is hard to gauge since the movie was hardly blockbuster material. Bad Influence would manage a rather meek $12,626,043 on an estimated $7,000,000 budget.

Rap music would explode in popularity in 1990, thanks in no small part to the mainstream appeal of whitemeat corporate MC Robert ‘Vanilla Ice’ Van Winkel’s debut album To the Extreme, which would spend an incredible 16 weeks at the top of the Billboard 200, selling over seven million copies in the US alone during the fall and winter of 1990. This would culminate in 1991‘s cinematic abomination Cool As Ice, but the less said about that the better. Vanilla’s unprecedented success would not sit well with the rap community, taking the shine off the genre’s Golden Age just prior to the infamous Rodney King beating, an incident of police brutality captured on film that saw a black man savagely beaten by a group of white cops, leading to an unprecedented act of civil disobedience dubbed the LA Riots. At the time, political rap groups N.W.A and Public Enemy were emerging as the voice of the people, their ruthless brand of social commentary highlighting inner city police corruption, giving birth to a musical sub-genre known as gangsta rap.

Not all rap was motivated by violence. ‘Daisy Age’ groups such as Del La Soul would sing a different song, and just as John Singleton’s immensely powerful social drama Boyz N the Hood would cast gangsta rapper Ice Cube as a way to communicate the day-to-day violence of LA’s suburban wild west, Reginald Hudlin’s American comedy House Party would cast the immensely popular Kid ‘n Play for a more lighthearted and communal depiction of ‘the hood’, delivering a film more in-tune with the teenage hi-jinks comedies of the previous decade.

Based on Hudlin’s award-winning Harvard University student film of the same name, House Party was initially set to star rising Fresh Prince of Bel Air heartthrob Will Smith and long-time collaborator and music production maestro Jeffrey “Jazzy Jeff” Townes, until their unlicensed sampling of the A Nightmare on Elm Street theme for their song “A Nightmare on My Street” threw a spanner in the works. This opened the door for Kid ‘n Play — real names Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin —  a popular 90s duo who would star in their very own animated TV series ― at least for one season.

Also featuring a cameo from P-Funk innovator George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic fame, House Party would inspire three sequels, receiving favourable reviews across the boardd. Roger Ebert was particularly impressed with the movie’s fun-loving nature, describing the film as being, “wall-to-wall with exuberant song and dance”. House Party was incredibly successful for such a humble, left-field production, managing $26,400,000 domestically, more than ten times its original outlay.

Tom Hanks. The name will go down in the annals of Hollywood legend. This was an actor who wowed us with his heartbreaking performance in Philadelphia, who headlined Pixar’s greatest creation, who wooed as Forrest Gump and blew us away, quite literally, in the Oscar-winning epic war drama Saving Private Ryan. Tom’s worked with Zemeckis, Darabont, Spielberg, the Coens, and has so many awards and accolades I’d have to hire someone to list them. They just don’t make them like him.

You may not remember, but there was a time when it looked as if Tom Hanks had outstayed his welcome, his lowest ebb coming when Nintendo refused to cast him in Super Mario Bros: The Movie, financial duds Bonfire of the Vanities and Radio Flyer convincing them that he was a star who was very much on the wane (though something tells me that was a bullet best dodged). While his replacement Bob Hoskins floundered in the role instead, Hanks dusted himself off and did what he does best, becoming one of the preeminent talents in all of Hollywood, starring in an eye-watering catalogue of successful movies across multiple genres. He also raised an exceptionally gifted son in Colin, who has worked wonders in his father’s colossal shadow. All-in-all, a fairly decent career.

Joe Versus The Volcano was arguably the film that kicked-off Hanks’ mini slump. It did okay at the box office, managing an ample if not spectacular return of $39,400,000 on an estimated budget of $25,000,000, but, Roger Ebert aside, it didn’t pull up any critical trees, and as a mostly comic actor Hanks was becoming somewhat stale. The movie would co-star Meg Ryan, a pairing that would bare fruit three years later with the wildly successful romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle. Ebert may have praised the offbeat ‘Joe’ a risk taker that achieved a “magnificent goofiness”, but others were less enthused about the tale of a dying man who offers himself up as a human sacrifice by leaping into a volcano in return for 20 days of unabashed fancies.

Vincent Canby of the New York Times would make his opinion of the movie abundantly clear, writing, “Not since Howard the Duck has there been a big-budget comedy with feet as flat as those of Joe Versus the Volcano. Many gifted people contributed to it, but there’s no disbelieving the grim evidence on the screen.” Unfortunately for Tom, audiences agreed, but Tom would be back, and back with a vengeance.

March 16

What do you get if you cross a blind man, a garish sports cap/Walkman ensemble, a snot-nosed kid and a samurai sword? Why Blind Fury, of course. Such a recipe may sound like an elaborate prank, and Phillip Noyce’s martial arts comedy has its tongue so firmly in its cheek it’s practically swollen, but trust me, it works, and those who have had the pleasure of seeing this movie, which I’m assuming is most of you, will know exactly what I mean.

A variation on the Japanese chambara film Zatoichi Challenged, Blind Fury is that age-old tale of a blinded soldier rescued and trained in a remote Vietnamese village, a place where he learns to master feats such as slicing a watermelon in mid-flight by trusting only his instincts. The warrior in question, Nick Parker (Hauer), later returns to Miami armed with a pair of high-tops and a nifty blind stick that doubles up as a samurai sword, which spells danger for a gang of thugs who murder his former comrade’s wife and attempt to kidnap their son in exchange for debts incurred.

Blind Fury would star marital arts legend Sho Kosugi, who would add an element of authenticity to a movie which often thrives on slapstick violence, but the ever willing Hauer was no slouch either. Not only did the veteran thesp indulge in swordplay, he would have to project those skills while maintaining the illusion of being sightless, something Lynn Manning, an actor left blind by a real-life shooting, would ably assist him with. “Lynn taught me how to unfocus my eyes, to react to smells and sounds,” Hauer would explain. “He could pick up the patterns of your breathing if you were upset. Once outside our hotel, Lynn called out my name and I answered. He hit me with a snowball from 50 feet away, just from the sound of my voice.”

Though Blind Fury received mostly positive feedback, audiences were less than impressed, the movie recouping a paltry $2,692,037 domestically from an estimated $10,000,000 outlay. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) managed to stick their nose in regarding the film’s often violent content too, even nixing the dialogue “Gasoline mixed with detergent…” for fear of audience imitation. Words fail me!

Kathryn Bigelow’s finest hour ― at least according to the Academy Awards ― was 2008’s American war thriller The Hurt Locker, which would bag a rather respectable 6 Oscars for its troubles, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, but whenever I hear her name I immediately think of 1987‘s neo-western vampire horror Near Dark or the filmmaker’s queerly philosophical action flick Point Break. Both were unconventional takes on genre films which appealed to audiences while offering something fresh and innovative, and 1990’s sorely underappreciated cop thriller Blue Steel breathes the same air.

The film stars Halloween icon Jamie Lee Curtis as a stranger in a strange land, a female police officer whose newfound role seems to make men uneasy, or in the case of Ron Silva’s gloriously over the top villain absolutely batshit crazy, and there are certainly comparisons to be drawn with John Carpenter’s revolutionary slasher. Much like Laurie Strode, Curtis’ rookie cop is forced to fend for herself against a relentless, seemingly omnipotent stalker simply because there’s nobody else who can. The movie is seeped in action convention precisely to appear unconventional. Curtis’ Megan Turner is a female bad ass in the Ellen Ripley vein, one who’s plight seems tied to notions of homosexuality, at least in terms of subtext.

Speaking to Interview magazine in 2017, Bigelow would explain, “What interests me is treading on familiar territory. With the motorcycles and vampires, it makes the audience comfortable to know that there’s something familiar; i.e., there’s the genre thread through it. Then I try to turn the genre on its head or make an about-face, and just when I make the audience a bit uncomfortable, I go back and reaffirm—’Yes, it’s all right.’ But it isn’t necessarily conscious… the use of cliché is not a conscious approach. It’s just a matter of working within a construct that is familiar and then subverting it in order to reexamine it.”

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah in January 1990, the movie failed to garner much interest and performed miserably at the box office with a US domestic (and worldwide) gross of $8,217,997. As far as I’m aware, no information about the film’s budget currently exists. Bigelow would once again toy with audience expectation in what is essentially a conventional cop thriller in the Fatal Attraction vein, but moviegoers just weren’t buying Curtis’ quasi-masculine headline role. The gender tweaks just didn’t appeal to a mainstream audience with long-established, male-led fantasies.

On the subject of genre tweaks, it doesn’t get more peculiar than British fugitive comedy Nuns on the Run, another movie that has seemingly vanished from the mainstream consciousness. Made in the Ealing comedy tradition of the 1950s, the film didn’t go down too well with US audiences and critics due to its reliance on camp, situation humour. Produced by ex-Beatle George Harrison, who had previously run into trouble for his backing of Monty Python’s ‘sacrilegious’ bible spoof The Life of Brian, the movie would star ex-Python Eric Idle and former Comic Strip star Robbie Coltrane as two crooks forced into hiding in a nunnery, because who would think of looking there? This leads to the inevitable cross-dressing hi-jinks and moral resolutions. Fellow Python Michael Palin was also set to be involved until work obligations got in the way.

Nuns on the Run was filmmaker Johnathan Lynn’s first theatrical director’s credit since the equally maligned Clue in 1985, a laborious whodunnit based on the popular family board game of the same name. According to Lynn, he devised the Nuns on the Run concept while out for a simple stroll. “A couple of nuns walked past me in the street and I realized that, in their habits, it was impossible to actually tell if they were men or women,” he would reveal. “The perfect disguise for a couple of criminals on the run.” Idle, who was long-time friends with Lynn, remembers his time onset fondly, though the film’s critical fallout is something he still wishes he could forget.

Influential critic Roger Ebert was not impressed. “The problem here is that very little of the material is intrinsically funny,” he would write. “It’s funny only if you find nuns funny, or if the subject somehow seems daring or forbidden to you.” Idle would blame Ebert and his equally critical co-host Gene Siskel, who were promptly banned from previews for a whole year by the head of 20th Century Fox, for killing the movie. “We were murdered by that fat critic Ebert and Siskel,” he would write. “Publicly and on television before the release. Probably because he is a fat nun. I always hated him and indeed once wrote a line about feeling very cheerful, as you do on the day a critic dies.” Ouch!

Nuns on the Run managed a fairly impressive opening weekend with a limited release and would go on to gross $10,959,015 in the US — not bad for such a low-budget affair — though it paled in comparison to the hugely successful A Fish Called Wanda two years prior, a similar, Python-led production that raked in a whopping $62,500,000, and deservedly so.

March 21

And now for something completely different! Larry Cohen’s The Ambulance. I remember seeing trailers for this movie and being utterly compelled, and not just by the sight of a young Eric Roberts’ hair model mullet. For a young horror fan hungry for the next left-field concept, a film about an evil ambulance that disappears patients was just irresistible, and when I picked up the equally attractive big box VHS (UK version) and finally took the plunge, I wasn’t disappointed. This wasn’t peak Cohen by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a Cohen film, and in my experience that’s generally enough.

Roberts plays an aspiring comic book artist who cries afoul when a girl he meets disappears from a New York hospital, much to the chagrin of James Earl Jones’ typically dismissive lieutenant. I’ve witnessed some seriously contemptuous cops in my time, particularly in the horror genre, but this guy takes the biscuit. I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of fictional crimes he’s responsible for. The Ambulance isn’t really a horror per se, more a comedy thriller, but a grainy aesthetic and murky soundtrack by Star Trek composer Jay Chattaway sure makes it feel like one at times.

The idea of a seemingly benign entity with devilishly destructive properties was a common theme for Cohen, one he had previously explored with the likes of 1985’s consumerism satire The Stuff, and the concept here is just as delicious here. “When you hear or see an ambulance on the street, it’s usually considered to be something that is going to rescue you and take care of you, a vehicle of mercy,” Cohen would declare. “In this story, it’s actually a vehicle of murder. The whole idea of an ambulance that suddenly arrives from nowhere, picks people up, and takes them away to some dark place where they are never seen or heard of again was completely original and creepy.” It certainly won me over.

The Ambulance was almost full of acting royalty, with both fading star John Travolta and future Hollywood alumni Jim Carrey considered for the lead until producers stepped in. Jamie Lee Curtis was also considered for the role of Sandra Malloy, and though producers were no doubt more keen on an actress who was very much in the spotlight back in 1990, unsurprisingly this didn’t materialise either. The Ambulance does have the distinction of being the first movie to star legendary comic book writer Stan Lee, here playing himself, though Cohen was smart enough to edit out a small cameo for future President of the United States and worldwide hate figure Donald Trump. Made on a budget of approximately $4,000,000, the movie would tank catastrophically.

Hey, it’s the Cohen way, and we love him for it.

March 23

Remember when everyone was crazy about Julia Roberts? I know I was, and it all began with a little movie known as Pretty Woman. As an 8-year-old, I wasn’t well schooled in prostitution. Nor was I aware of the extent of Hollywood fantasy. And the movie hardly enlightened me on such matters. What I did learn from Pretty Woman, aside from the fact that women seemed to adore Vivian Ward’s ridiculous rags-to-riches tale, was that thigh-high boots rock, Beverly Hills store assistants were unconscionably snooty, and paying women for sex wasn’t immoral if the act ultimately led to true love. That Richard Gere was one smug bastard!

Pretty Woman also introduced me to the crooning charms of Roy Orbison, whose titular song would spend three weeks at the top of the US singles charts back in 1964. Astonishingly, the single was not re-released for the movie, but it did lead to Orbison posthumously winning the 1991 Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for a live recording of Oh, Pretty Woman, performed during an HBO TV special called Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night.

The movie was originally pitched as a much darker study of sex work in 80s Los Angeles, touching on drug addiction and ending with a trip to Disneyland for Vivian and her fellow streetwalker, which I suppose is a fairy tale ending of sorts. Christopher Reeve, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington were all considered for the role of high-flying businessman-come-lovesick-puppy Edward, with Burt Reynolds and even Al Pacino turning down the role. Al’s rejection at least ruled out the inclusion of the line “say hello to my little friend”, which could have been embarrassing for everyone involved.

Principally shot in downtown LA and the affluent Beverly Hills, a rather substantial $14,000,000 budget was required as the script required several additional locations, and costs weren’t helped by the fact that several high-profile companies declined product placement deals for fear of being marred by the sex worker stigma. Producers needn’t have worried. Pretty Woman would become the second highest-grossing movie of 1990, with an astonishing worldwide return of $463,400,000 million, which adjusted for inflation would be just short of $1,000,000,000. Ghost, released that summer would gross a whopping $505,700,000 or $998,132,629. Marvel Studios, eat your heart out!

March 30

Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo or Raphael? That was the question on millions of lips at the turn of the 90s, and I’m not referring to the world’s art students… not unless they were of the finger painting variety. I am of course referring to The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles if you were watching the hugely popular cartoon show on UK shores, which would see its title tweaked thanks to an act of insane censorship that could only have been the brainchild of lousy corporate parenting. What was it about these mutated reptiles and their vermin master that resonated so strongly with a generation. Was it the colourful headbands, the endless discussions about pizza, the beautifully devised corporate buzzwords? For me it was the action figures, the video game and a rather worrying obsession with an animated April O’Neil, but that’s another story…

If you were younger than 10 at the turn of the 90s, chances are you were obsessed with a group of high-kicking shell shockers and their weekly battles with the evil Shredder, so it was only natural that a ruthless cultural marketing regime would attack the yuletide wallets of parents across the globe. For them it was just another fad that would litter their living rooms with cheap and quickly disposable plastic, but the Turtles would stick around for quite some time, their evil rise to power culminating in a slick Hollywood picture…like Bugsy or Working Girl. Mr. Burns would have been proud.

Funnily enough, I remember next to nothing about a movie I spent months fantasising about. According to Roger Ebert, the movie, “supplies, in other words, more or less what Turtle fans will expect: the Ninja Turtles, subways, pizzas, villains, a rudimentary plot and an explanation of how the Turtles met their Zen-master, a wise old rodent.” The script was actually loyal to the early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics, but also retained the popular aspects of the child-friendly cartoon show, turning to Jim Henson’s world famous Creature Shop for costume development, and in those terms the movie certainly excels.

Astonishingly, major studios Walt Disney Pictures, Columbia Pictures, MGM/UA, Orion Pictures, Paramount and Warner Brothers all turned down the project, fearing a box office bomb similar to that of Cannon’s colossal mainstream dud Masters of the Universe, whose marketing ambitions ultimately outweighed the quality of the product. This was great news for then-indie, Freddy Krueger purveyors New Line Cinema, who would reap the rewards for the ninth highest-grossing movie of the year with a worldwide box office gross of $202,000,000. On a more negative note, the film would also face criticism for its racist overtones and “resentment of Japan’s economic strength even while the film is plundering Japan’s popular culture.” This was punctuated by the onscreen disparagement of a foot solider and the infamous line, “What’s the matter, did I fall behind on my Sony payments?” And who was responsible for such a verbal atrocity? Why April O’Neil, of course! Sadly, our relationship would never be the same.

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