In movies, as in life, it's best to keep things in proportion. "Big Shots" (citywide), has a premise that ought to yield pure movie gold: The oddball odyssey of a pair of 12-year-olds--a white suburbanite and a black ghetto kid--triggered when the white boy, Obie (Ricky Busker) has his watch stolen during an impromptu biking adventure on Chicago's South Side.
But, somehow, despite excellent contributions by the cast and crew, the idea gets inflated--ludicrously. By the end, this little male bonding valentine has swelled up to comically monstrous proportions, the equivalent of a huge pink candied heart, five-stories-high, being towed along by revved-up Mack trucks.
It's almost sad to watch it happen. The story--written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Robert ("F/X") Mandel--tries for a Huckleberry Finn comic-epic style in a "Mean Streets" milieu--and, for a while, it seems as if it might succeed: Become a little comic or sentimental gem, like "Stand By Me" or "The Little Kidnappers."
Both boys here are fatherless--Obie's is dead, and Scam's has vanished--and the sense of loss binds them together. Otherwise, they're a study in contrasts. Obie has been sheltered. Scam (Darius McCrary) is old beyond his years: an expert at hot-wiring cars, buddy to the local fence, Johnny Red (Paul Winfield.) After witnessing the theft of Obie's watch, which was a keepsake from Obie's late father, Scam volunteers, for a hefty price, to help him get it back.
At that point, if the film makers had let things develop logically, kept the movie within Scam's neighborhood, let us feel the bite, breath and pulse of the place, this movie might have been memorable, even delightful. But, instead, they succumb almost immediately to that new Hollywood obsession: car chases. Eventually, they give us not one car chase, but several--along with numerous car thefts, a violent smashup and a huge explosion in a used automobile lot somewhere in Louisiana.
You may well be puzzled. How did these ubiquitous '80's auto cliches get shoehorned into a plot about a couple of 12-year-olds wandering around Chicago, trying to find a watch? Eszterhas and Mandel--and perhaps producer Ivan Reitman--seem to be trying to hot-wire the movie just as Scam hot-wires cars.
Midway through, the exaggerations get laughable. The duo steals back Obie's watch at gunpoint, from a crooked pawnbroker (Robert Prosky). Then they steal a police car, take off with more squad cars at their heels, wreck most of them and get away scot-free. Fascinatingly, this incident has few if any repercussions, and is barely mentioned again--though, to be fair, Obie's mother (Brynn Thayer) acts perturbed when he comes home late. An amazingly tolerant mother, she's able to accept everything philosophically--including Obie's theft of the family car.
Either you can accept these preposterous plot twists--non-driving 12-year-olds outmaneuvering Chicago cops on their own turf--or you can't. And, if you can't, now is the time to bail out. "Big Shots" has wilder whoppers yet to come.
Soon, our hell-for-leather pre-teens have stolen a Mercedes--this time with a corpse in the trunk--and are driving cross-country to find Scam's father, with two maniacal gangsters (Jerzy Skolimowski and Robert Joy) at their heels. No one stops or questions them, police ignore them, gas station attendants disinterestedly let them fuel up. And, disturbingly enough, these two clearly under-age drivers never even seem worried that they'll be stopped.
This isn't just movie silliness; it's wacky irresponsibility. To show these kids stealing a car once or twice can be explained as a comic-dramatic collision of suburban and ghetto values. But to show them continuously stealing cars whenever they feel like it, jiving and driving down every street and highway without anybody blinking an eye, approaches a kind of pop-psychopathic wish fulfillment.
Scenes as crazy as this could only work if this movie's humor were as broad and it's reality as dislocated as "Zazie dans le Metro" or Abbott and Costello. But Mandel is a fine director with a humane, expansive touch; he puts the movie into a semi-realistic context that only heightens the absurdity. Even so, the cast--especially Joy, Winfield, Skolimowski, McCrary and Prosky--is so good, you can respond to much of it in spite of yourself.
Right at the end, we get a glimpse at what the movie needs most. That superb actor from "Crossroads," Joe Seneca, comes on, playing a ferryman, and he pumps such passion and conviction into one scene discussing fathers and sons, that the rest of the movie's last half is put instantly to shame. It's sad that the makers of "Big Shots" (MPAA-rated: PG-13) don't realize that it's moments like Seneca's that make this movie memorable--and that the car crashes just make it expensive.
'BIG SHOTS' A Lorimar Motion pictures presentation of an Ivan Reitman production. Producers Joe Medjuck, Michael C. Gross. Director Robert Mandel. Script Joe Eszterhas. Executive producer Ivan Reitman. Camera Miroslav Ondricek. Production design Bill Malley. Editors Sheldon Kahn, William Anderson, Dennis Virkler. Music Bruce Broughton. With Ricky Busker, Darius McCrary, Robert Joy, Robert Prosky, Jerzy Skolimowski, Paul Winfield.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children younger than 13).