High Road to China Review
Take a large slice of Tom Selleck and season with “glum face” from not getting the Raiders of the Lost Ark; chop up a fat-free helping of perky-flavoured Bess Armstrong; grind several pounds of volcanic Brian Blessed; mix together with biplanes and miserable overcast skies, and slowly simmer in a large Mongolian cauldron for a hundred or so minutes. The result is a tasteless broth that turns very swiftly to unpalatable sludge.
It is the Roaring Twenties and spoilt rich-girl, Eve Tozer (Bess Armstrong), realises that if she wants to hang on to her wealth then she is going to have to locate her inventor father (Wiford Brimley) who has gone missing somewhere in the huge expanse of Asia. If she doesn’t get him to London in twelve days time (or something) then his caddish business partner, Bentik (a clearly foundering Robert Morley) is going to declare him dead and gain control of the company and all of its finances. To aid her in this seemingly impossible task, she enlists drunken, washed-up aviator war-hero, Patrick O’Malley (Tom Selleck) and his mechanic, Struts (Jack Weston), to fly across several war-zones in the search for him. All the way, they will be beset with traumas and dilemmas, and even their downtime will be testing as neither Eve nor O’Malley see eye-to-eye. To him, she is a stubborn socialite who just wants to retain her status. To her, he is a cantankerous has-been who is only in it for the cash reward she has promised him.
Nobody, least of all us, will be surprised when their hostilities turn to affection over the course of the ramshackle expedition.
In a way, this is like an updated True Grit. Resourceful and determined young woman hires a weather-beaten, roguish drunkard on a matter of important family business revolving around the apparent loss of a father, and the pair will eventually be forced to put aside their differences for the common good, discover the inner warmth that each of them pretends not to have, and form a deep bond of lasting affection for one another. Dogged determination provides the crux and heartfelt redemption the reward.
High Road to China, based upon the novel by John Cleary and directed by Brian G. Hutton, was never properly appreciated back when it was released in 1983. And possibly with very good reason. It’s rubbish. It wanted to be a riotous and comedic action flick in the tradition of the full-throttle 30’s romantic cliffhanger. The rip-roaring success of Indiana Jones’ first adventure obviously fuelled Selleck’s desire to attain a similar degree of old-fashioned rugged heroism, but the fact that his alcoholic aviator is such a taciturn curmudgeon only helps to strengthen the idea that he was still resoundingly bitter about not being able to crack that famous whip and doff that equally famous fedora. Playing O’Malley, he is such a grumpy maverick that it is hard to warm to him – which is odd considering how downright charismatic and likeable Selleck is. There was a partial return to such a skilled outsider with designs on a life far away from a society that he wants no part in with the great Outback Western, Quigley Down Under, which showcases Selleck at his redoubtable best. But alongside the unbelievably boring Lassiter, which was another period caper in which he played the rakish jewel-thief of the title – doesn’t it seem as though parts were written for Selleck solely to cater for his ‘tache – High Road failed to find the right audience. People wanted to see him more akin to the wisecracking man-child found in TV’s Magnum PI, and not as some growly old sourpuss. This sort of thing had worked well for Humphrey Bogart back in the day when it was cool to be a sexist hangdog with a chip on the shoulder, but people wanted froth and frivolity from their hair-trigger escapades.
Actually, I really like his SF actioner, Runaway (Blu-ray release puh-leeze!) but he was serious in that and not merely a slovenly grouch.
Bess Armstrong is cute and gusty as Eve. And annoying. There’s no getting around that. She was just the same in the lamentable Jaws 3D. A whiny hanger-on who pretended to have courage and resilience and determination, her wealthy socialite is one of those caricature heroines who pretends not be the damsel-in-distress, yet normally ends up being precisely that. There was a turning point in action cinema which Star Wars kickstarted with Princess Leia, but was cemented by Marion Ravenwood in Raiders that wanted to give their leading ladies a little bit more to do than simply stand around looking beautiful and be in need of rescuing every ten minutes. Suddenly, they were expected to hold their own against the sexist macho heroes they had either employed to get the job done, or found themselves reluctantly in-tow with. They needed to be able to trade sarcastic barbs with the tough guys, go off on their own into the badlands in a show of defiance, and to handle weapons and engage in fights. Actually, these last two skills were employed more for clownish value as most ladies in these breakneck yarns of on-the-hoof bravado tended to panic when they squeezed the trigger, fall over with the recoil and then be amazed with themselves when they actually managed to down a baddie. To wit, Kathleen Turner in Romancing The Stone, Cate Capshaw in The Temple of Doom and Sharon Stone in King Solomon’s Mines. But, against the odds, Armstrong does make Eve a whole lot feistier than the usual slew of ladies in peril.
For a kick-off, she can fly a plane and probably much more skillfully than Selleck’s inebriated O’Malley. Plus, she can hold her own in a tight spot and proves herself to be a darn sight more tenacious, courageous and resourceful than the very bloke she hired to get the job done. Plus, she is the one who proves that she has the wherewithal to save the day. Her dialogue is still terrible and the character still aggravates though … so we can’t have it all.
Fans of the film love to cite the chemistry that exists between Selleck and Armstrong as being a winning formula. I’m guessing that I must be immune to its alchemy then, for I don’t see anything there other than a relationship that is a tired cliché which continually fails to spark.
So, we have a pair of disappointing lead characters. But at least we are off on a rollicking high adventure, eh, so that should compensate?
Well, no. Not quite.
Despite the series of obstacles that O’Malley and Eve face – rebel uprisings and warring factions, a rival German fighter-ace, some inept assassins – there is zero sense of actual jeopardy. Okay, there is machine-gunfire aplenty, a couple of plane-crashes, more than a few bombs going off and a dose of localised warfare to contend with, but at no point do you feel that our main characters are in any actual danger. We all knew that Indiana Jones was going to prevail – but, man, that guy got battered and bruised for his troubles and he faced some seriously nasty predicaments that only luck helped him out of. O’Malley merely scratches his noggin, strokes his stubble, gets drunk and grumbles, grumbles, grumbles. Exciting? Not a bit of it. There was infinitely more menace and suspense in an episode of Boon.
And we get absolutely no sense of the journey being made. After being informed that Afghanistan is over 1200 miles away, we are there in the blink of an eye. A refuelling stop in a British fort allows for some admittedly justifiable exposition and personal backstory to take place during another booze-fuelled session, but then our trio take to the skies once more and then land almost immediately just over the hill in Brian Blessed’s warrior encampment, whereupon they are summarily captured and threatened and blackmailed into aiding his campaign against the white infidel who have invaded his land. Erm … just why did they land there in the first place? What was the point? Oh, it is all part of the screenplay, I know, I know, and it certainly helps to join the dots in the narrative. But it makes absolutely no sense at all. One minute, British camp. The next, bad guys’ camp. There was no hint of a plan discussed and Eve wasn’t warned in the least about the situation she would find herself in once they landed amongst the hairy, rug-wearing, women-slapping barbarians. I’m sorry, but this is just stupid and symptomatic of a plot that has had no thought put into its structure. Next stop – Nepal. Again, we are there in the blink of an eye. I’m not asking for an Indy-style “travel-by-map” montage, but some semblance of the distance being covered and the time spent on this expedition would actually help to provide it with some credibility and a tangible sense of the impending deadline. And then there is the rather glaring fact that every single location looks exactly like the last one in terms of climate, terrain and natural environment. And just why might that be? Well, because the shoot took place mainly within the wilderness of Yugoslavia, which stood in for virtually everywhere that these three bores travel to. Just placing a couple of junks on a river does not make us suddenly feel that we are in China when the surroundings are identical to those we had back in what passed for Afghanistan. The pitch is a relentless cross-continent race against time, and yet the result is clearly a leisurely gamble around the same European hillsides and valleys from start to finish.
Actor-turned-director-turned-plumber Hutton was the man behind the great Kelly’s Heroes and the perennial cult favourite (though, in my opinion, vastly overrated) Where Eagles Dare (see BD reviews of both) so he knew a thing or two about staging action scenes and colourful exchanges between sardonic anti-heroes. But there’s hardly any evidence of such wily establishment-bucking and derring-do in this dreary yawnfest. Hutton had filmed extensively in Yugoslavia for Kelly’s Heroes, which is clearly why he felt so at-home with the territory, but this was to be his final movie.
There’s a few decent aerial sequences, but even the dog-fight with a German ace-cum-mercenary is over before you know it. Baron Von Hess is played by Wolf Kahler, who also cropped up as the Kraut officer in Raiders who got his face melted off when he peered into the Ark, and has just been in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, but his character is so badly handled that if we were meant to feel anything other than mild interest when we realise that this Red Baron-riff is about to be unleashed upon our heroes, then the film severely dropped the ball. Again. The big battle at the end, which does sport a good number of extras and more explosions than you can shake a stick at, has possibly one good shot amidst the TV-movie-style execution of the action. Reminiscent of Robert Duvall’s surfin’ Col. Kilgore blithely ignoring a massive shell-blast chewing-up the beach just behind him, we have a debris-scattering canon-shell tearing a hole in the wall over Selleck’s shoulder. Selleck may actually react to the blast, but he is very, very close to the swirling shrapnel and his attitude is one of tough disdain. Hutton hurls troops into the fray and even has Selleck manfully carrying a Lewis gun in a spot of escape-and-evasion, but somehow these heroics fail to set the pulse racing when the final set-piece is akin in pace and style to a typical conclusion to The A-Team.
The script from S. Lee Pogostin and Sandra Weintraub Roland is a mess of repetition. If the characters aren’t shouting “O’Malley!” in every sentence – sweet Jesus, it’s almost as bad as the entire cast of Lethal Weapon 3 cursing “Sonofabitch!” every other bloody word or simply yelling “Riggs!” – then we are faced with Selleck telling Armstrong that she’s “not going any further!” as they are about to leave each new location, and Armstrong arguing back that she is! Oh, and watch for the moment when O’Malley lands his bullet-riddled plane back on the ground after an aerial skirmish and Eve says to Struts, who is standing right beside her, both some distance away from their hero, “Is he alright?” How the hell should he know, he can only see as much as she can! It’s just tripe.
So how does the supporting cast fare in this cack-handed sea of blandness?
Well, despite a bizarre number of reviewers claiming that Jack Weston is “hilarious” and “at his best” as O’Malley’s loyal buddy/engineer, I found him to be merely okay in what is an exceptionally clichéd role. Looking for the most part like a cross between Benny Hill and Roy Kinnear, he has very few comedic lines and the situations in which he finds himself are utterly forgettable. Actually, this is how it should be. There are few things worse than the comedy sidekick, so I believe that credit should be given to Weston for being easily dismissed and for not being very amusing at all.
After playing the Hawkman, Vultan, in Flash Gordon brought him to the attention of a new audience, Brian Blessed was a sought-after ogre in all types of adventure flicks. His mighty beard, booming voice, impressive stature and larger-than-life persona ensured that if you wanted a king, a pirate, a gypsy, a duke or a general, or a Mongolian warlord, then he was your man. As Suleman Khan, the scourge of the British, he is nothing more than a caricature, but at least he is a colourful, intimidating and memorable one. Roaring when Eve has the insulting tenacity to speak in his company, or even to make eye-contact with him, cackling with animalistic relish when his dancers do their thing and when he thinks he has his “guests” by the short ‘n’ curlies, and gruffly seizing a passing female, throwing her over his yak-furred shoulder and carrying her into a convenient tent, he is the bellicose Blessed that we know and love.
And there’s the sporadically great Wilford Brimley as Eve’s long-lost father. Forever Blair in John Carpenter’s The Thing, Brimley brought pathos, comedy and humanity to his rejuvenated OAP in Cocoon and a rascally cunning to his Cajun grandpa in John Woo’s Hard Target. Here, as the object of Eve’s quest, he is just as completely forgettable as Weston. We meet him in a completely unsurprising “revelation” and his character and emotions are summed-up in one simple scene. Brimley is economical and warm in his characterisation and about the only person, other than Blessed, who seems to be enjoying himself, but he’s still playing a thankless stereotype who matters little at the end of the day.
Add to this the simply risible interjections with Robert Morley and his Lee Evans-like servant, that are played for laughs back at the stuffy laird’s mansion house in Blighty but are actually highly excruciating to watch, and you’ve got a story that crashes and burns before it has even gotten off the ground, and characters that you couldn’t care less about as they stagger about the wreckage of the script. Hardly the makings of a grand adventure.
Michael Sheard (Admiral Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back and Adolf Hitler in IndianaJones and the Last Crusade) begins the film with some dignity, and has the savvy to bow out nice and early. There’s also a brief cameo from Lynda La Plante (yes, that one) as a naughty flapper and a glamorous Tibetan turn from Cassandra Gava, who was the sultry wolf-witch that seduced Arnie in Conan The Barbarian, but there’s very little backbone or charisma to carry the movie for much more than a throwaway scene or two by anybody.
But perhaps the most damning element of the film is also the very component that its makers had the most confidence in – and this was the score from John Barry.
I’ve written very comprehensively about the Bondian maestro in reviews for his stupendous work on the likes of King Kong and The Black Hole, as well as lavishing praise for his music in many a film write-up, but I have always maintained that his unique and unmistakable sound, post 1977’s Kong remake, was all-too-often dominated by a very similar tragic theme, and was frequently just too heavy and plain wrong for the movie in question. For some reason, he lost the ability to capture the on-screen action and the character of the film, and simply wallowed in deep, slow chords of earnest, wistful melancholia. Good God, did you hear his score for the Stallone thriller The Specialist? If the film, itself, wasn’t bad enough, it was made all the more bloody awful and depressing because of Barry’s totally misplaced music. Many other films suffered from this laboriously swooning style … and I’m afraid that High Road to China is another such victim. Whereas Barry found the soul of 007, and kitted-out his missions with powerful action, a sense of dark foreboding and villainy, superb central themes and lush romance, he makes this travelogue a slow, turgid affair thanks to such downbeat motifs, doom-laden chords and action-scoring that simply doesn’t fit the antics seen on-screen. Sometimes it is as if his music is moving at an altogether different pace than the film, and should be sped up a bit. This score boasts a main theme that is very reminiscent of how he tackled Out of Africa, which is very reminiscent of how he would tackle Dances of Wolves. It is massively overwrought and tinged through and through with melodrama and a lushness that is apt when admiring the beauty of epic landscapes and examining the emotional arc of the characters, but horribly misplaced and overcooked when bumbling along with a trio of oddball heroes on a haphazard and episodic quest.
Another bum note, then, in a film that is like a symphony played by a lazy, disinterested orchestra.
High Road to China may seem like a valiant attempt to create a more downtrodden Indy-vibe. It’s got the reluctant protagonists-cum-lovers, the intrigue (well, some) and a sense of the exotic (well, a touch), the set-pieces that trade on either humour or thrills, and the large-scale final battle that delivers plenty of tumbling bodies and explosions. Plus it has some aerial dog-fighting. But it all seems so lacklustre and redundant and just so interminably humdrum. It is very hard to give a damn about Eve and O’Malley, and the ridiculous plot of Bentik wanting to take over the company is so … well, resoundingly hollow and insipid. The hook is simply terrible and the slapdash manner in which the adventure is delivered just ends up grating.
Tired and unhappily old-fashioned rather than gloriously nostalgic, Hutton’s film is a weirdly depressing adventure that trundles when it should be running, rolls about lethargically in the dirt when it should be soaring, and never fails to droop the eyelids. Fans for it definitely exist out there and I wouldn’t doubt for a moment that they would be fiercely defensive over it, but this doesn’t alter the fact that, in my opinion, this is one of the most boring romantic adventures ever filmed. Glimpses of the white stockings under Armstrong’s flapper dress in the first act notwithstanding, High Road to China was more like a Slow Boat to China, and an absolute chore to sit through.