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Caine's Typically Fine Performance No Shock to 'System'

March 19, 1992|DOUG LIST

In the past few years, many films have taken aim at the growing greed and heartlessness of corporate America ("Wall Street," "Working Girl" and "Baby Boom" among them) but few have hit the mark with such biting humor as "A Shock to the System," a little-seen 1990 film.

What really brings this black comedy to life is a wickedly droll performance by Michael Caine as a longtime executive for a New York firm who is passed over for a promotion. As he's done in more than 50 films since he became a star in the mid-1960s, Caine creates a character the viewer can care about, a man who is believable, no matter what the script has him say or do. "Shock to the System" turns out to be the perfect vehicle for Caine's subtle shadings as his character evolves from a humble and respected (he thinks) citizen to a coldblooded, calculating murderer.

To reveal too much of the plot would ruin the fun of this film, but it's apparent that Caine's character, Graham Marshall, isn't going to take the promotion of a high-living, arrogant yuppie (played by the underrated Peter Riegert) sitting down. And in the wings to further complicate his life are a nagging, Lady Macbeth-like wife (Swoosie Kurtz), a Columbo-clone of a police detective (Will Patton) and a sexy and sympathetic co-worker (Elizabeth McGovern).

One of the more serious sides to "Shock" is its look at the way aging workers are treated when they're no longer wanted. John McMartin gives a heart-wrenching performance as the exiting department chief.

The film also has much to say about the ability of humans to recharge themselves: Caine's Marshall, at the lowest point in his life, convinces himself that magical incantations can protect him from the consequences of his actions and assure his success. Amazingly, and fatally, it works.

Director Jan Egleson and screenwriter Andrew Klavan have ingeniously packed "A Shock to the System" with social commentary without getting preachy about it. Their failing was not being able to smoothly conclude the film--the abrupt ending feels like some studio-ordered trimming was done. But that's a minor flaw when weighted against the film's sly humor and a memorable performance by Caine.

"A Shock to the System" (1990), directed by Jan Egleson. 91 minutes. Rated R.

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