Against All Odds (1984; Taylor Hackford)
By Daniel Barnes
The first few notes of synth-bass on the soundtrack and the fire engine red color of the opening credits unmistakably announce Against All Odds as a product of Reagan/Orwell’s 1984, but the film has its roots in the postwar disillusion of the late 1940s. Although only the skeletal outline of its source material remains, Taylor Hackford’s languorous “modern” noir is based on the 1947 Jacques Tourneur classic Out of the Past, which starred Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer (who also appears here) and Kirk Douglas.
Rather than simply update Out of the Past for the oversized sunglasses and pink polo shirts of the mid-1980s, however, director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Eric Hughes (whose only other significant screen credit was the Hines/Baryshnikov dance thriller White Nights) opt for a more sprawling narrative focused on corruption, class war and kinky sex. Against All Odds posits that you haven’t truly made love to a woman until you’ve made love to her in the sweathouse at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza while the Dad from Webster watches. After viewing the film, I’m only moderately inclined to agree.
Hackford and Hughes sacrifice the clean narrative lines and dreamlike potency of Out of the Past for something less personal and far more epic in scope, and for a while, it works beautifully. Jeff Bridges (in the same year he made John Carpenter’s Starman, no less) is the perfect noir patsy as Terry Brogan, sexy, sex-starved, and self-destructive, equal parts good intentions and flimsy morality. We trust Terry, even when the man proves unworthy of it. He has strong values, but they are always negotiable.
In Out of the Past, the protagonist played by Mitchum was a sharp-tongued, quick-witted, iron-tough detective in a snappy fedora, but Brogan’s detective skills are more in line with Bridges’ signature role as The Dude in The Big Lebowski. As the film opens, he is shuffling around a Mexican beach town, showing a picture of a happy couple to ice vendors and fisherman, mumbling the same phrase over and over again in phonetic Spanish. When the film flashes back to show how Brogan got to the island, we discover that he is a washed-up football player, intentionally injured by his team before getting waived.
The pro football angle gets entirely invented for Against All Odds, and it’s a pleasant shock when it comes, as it updates the story to the unscrupulous world of 1980s high finance and physical perfection without sacrificing the essential genre trappings. It also presages the Los Angeles-based football thriller genre mash of Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout by almost a decade. “It’s a different ball game,” says the team’s trainer, and he’s not referring to the fact that the crackback block Terry gets chewed out for missing would get him penalized and fined in today’s NFL.
Terry is stuck. He can’t play football due to an injury, his agent won’t talk to him. Meanwhile, Terry wasted all of the money he earned as a player, and he is still in debt to a slimy, beach volleyball-obsessed bookie played by James Woods. Note to self: if Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style technology ever gets developed in real life, use it to erase the image of James Woods playing beach volleyball.
Woods’ character has a problem that should sound familiar to anyone who has seen Out of the Past. His girlfriend stole a wad of his money and took off for Mexico, and he needs an ethically flexible, off-the-payroll stooge to fetch her back. The first third of Against All Odds comes close to greatness, creating a world that oozes corruption out of every pore, and where danger and self-immolation are the only forms of integrity left.
Eventually, Terry finds his femme fatale, a lithe and smoldering con woman named Jessie who is played by Rachel Ward. It does not suffice in the least to say that Ward is no Jane Greer – she may not even be Phoebe Cates. Forget the fact that Jessie seems to be the Australian daughter of American parents, and imagine how much this film would improve if Sigourney Weaver, Debra Winger, Nastassja Kinski, Jamie Lee Curtis, or any number of other enticingly androgynous female stars of the 1980s got cast instead. Ward was hot off the huge TV success of The Thorn Birds when this film got made, but her acting career plummeted pretty swiftly afterward, and it’s not hard to see why – the film starts its steep slide downhill the moment she shows up onscreen.
After some token banter, Terry and Jessie become sexually involved, forgoing their responsibilities back in America to frolic on the beach and make goo-goo eyes at each other in absurdly opulent beach huts. This point is where the film is probably most familiar to fans of 1980s pop culture, as these scenes form the bulk of the Phil Collins music video for “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),” a #1 hit that also got nominated for an Academy Award. It lost to “What’s Love Got to Do With It” from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, so no harm no foul there. A steamy music video of the Collins song played in heavy rotation on MTV.
These scenes are silly but still pretty sexy, and they do lead to the aforementioned Mayan ruin canoodle. It’s in the final third where Hackford fumbles the ball, relying on an overwrought electronic score and pretentious jump cuts to convey psychological turmoil, while still reveling in the hoariest of genre cliches. Against All Odds has its moments, but too often the film plays less like an official remake of Out of the Past and more like an unofficial prequel to Tequila Sunrise.