Some actor combinations bode well no matter what the material, and putting James Woods and Brian Dennehy together in "Best Seller" (citywide)--as a corporate contract killer about to spill his guts and the policeman-writer about to catch them--practically guarantees an interesting movie.
Woods and Dennehy are excellent actors and a fascinating matchup; Dennehy's burly, smiling, casualness and rock-solid naturalism is a perfect complement to Woods' restless, mercurial, stripped-nerve intensity.
In the movie, Woods plays Cleve, an amoral hit man and would-be ubermensch, with one Achilles' heel: a need to be loved and admired. Dennehy's Dennis Meechum is Cleve's opposite number: a cop-turned-writer in the Joseph Wambaugh mold, a fictional version of the writer who gave Woods three of his best roles ("The Choirboys," "The Onion Field" and "The Black Marble").
Furiously resentful at his dismissal by corporate king David Madlock (Paul Shenar), Cleve decides to rip open Madlock's dirtiest secrets. Meechum, fallen on hard times, desperate for another hit book, is both enticed and repulsed by the offer: the inside scoop on the murder-for-hire bloodshed that built Madlock's empire. And he's enticed and repulsed by Cleve himself--by his cocky, ice-cold cunning, his posturing self-assurance, his glibly philosophic amorality and quasi-existential gun-crazy hipsterism. Cleve has the manners of a young executive who's learned to control all his vices. But he lives in shadows; Meechum is the integral man caught in the trap of celebrity.
Cleve, who keeps insisting cop and killer are two sides of the same coin, represents a dangerous temptation for Meechem--despite his apparent call to a holy crusade against corruption. He's also obviously got a deep need for Meechum's respect.
It's a slightly crazy story, full of shortcuts, calculated coincidences and mad leaps in logic. The portrayal of a writer's travails in the world of publishing is not remotely convincing--though George Coe, conversely, gets in a good, nasty sendup of a crooked lawyer: all cold eyes, suave jabs and unflappable threat.
Since this movie is another of scriptwriter Larry Cohen's coolly mad morality plays, it sometimes seems to need Cohen's off-center directorial style to bring it off. Instead, director John Flynn, shooting almost exclusively on location with the fine naturalistic cinematographer, Fred Murphy, gets something nearer the look of a pseudo-documentary cop thriller.
"Best Seller" has story incongruities that jump out like acetylene torch sparks, but its sense of morality is sharp and its undercurrents daring. Though the story seems insane, the actors ground it in psychological reality: Woods with sullen pouts, cold seductions and bursts of terrifyingly automatic violence; Dennehy with his watchful, steady-backed dependability.
They're cop and psychopath, libido and conscience, wild child and paterfamilias, yoked together in head-butting tandem. These two actors make the interactions crackle, and they help turn "Best Seller" (MPAA rated: R for sex, language and violence) into the kind of thriller that used to commonplace: a craftsmanlike, second-level job by solid pros who stretch the boundaries without transcending them, delivering the goods with warm dispatch, icy skill and lots of extra spin on the ball.
An Orion pictures release of a Hemdale Film Corp. presentation. Producer Carter De Haven. Director John Flynn. Script Larry Cohen. Executive producers John Daly, Derek Gibson. Camera Fred Murphy. Production design Gene Rudolf. Editor David Rosenbloom. Music Jay Ferguson. With James Woods, Brian Dennehy, Victoria Tennant, Allison Balson, Paul Shenar, George Coe.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).