SUMMARY: Michael Biehn is a young con artist drawn into a web of deceit and old family secrets. Then Nicolas Cage shows up and turns the movie into the most wonderful piece of strangeness I’ve ever seen.
Deadfall belongs to a category of films I like to call “2 AM movies”. These are generally low budget dramas, usually with a few name stars (or in this case, a lot of name stars), and a seedy, sordid plotline that takes every single film noir cliché in the book and uses it to the best of whatever meager abilities the filmmakers possessed. You tend to find these on the late night schedules of both HBO and Cinemax, as well as in the late night and weekend afternoon rotations on local broadcast stations.
However, a few things set this particular film apart from its low budget brethren. First off, it comes from a rather high pedigree, due to the involvement of some top-shelf actors, including James Coburn and Nicolas Cage, with Charlie Sheen and Peter Fonda in small cameos.
Adding to this is how the movie has the highest Coppola to non-Coppola ratio seen since the Godfather films, with the presence of director Christopher Coppola (Francis Ford’s nephew), Talia Shire (Francis’s sister and Christopher’s aunt), Nicolas Cage (Christopher’s brother), and Marc Coppola (Chris and Nicolas’s brother). Deadfall proves why sometimes it’s best for showbiz families to stay the hell away from each other when it comes to actually making movies.
Put simply, if the Godfather films showed nepotism at its finest*, this film shows it at its worst. Deadfall is a perfect storm of bat-shit insanity, and one of my all time favorite bad movies. Let’s check it out.
[*Sofia Coppola notwithstanding.]
The recap continues after this advertisement...
We open with the Trimark Pictures logo, always a good sign... if you like the Leprechaun films, or Dead-Alive, but not such a good sign in this case. “Suspenseful” music that sounds like it came from an early ‘80s slasher film plays under the opening titles. The film proper then opens in a badly lit industrial area, as a car rolls into view.
And by badly lit, I mean the DP and lighting crew must not have been on speaking terms, because the night shooting in this movie is just awful. They were going for atmosphere, I would imagine, but they completely failed.
“All the towns we can stop in for gas, you have to pick the one that didn’t pay the electric bill!”
During this, we learn the music is by a guy named Jim Fox, who I can safely say two things about. First off, I’d bet vital parts of my anatomy that he’s related to producer Ted Fox and executive producer Gertrude Fox. Second, the man really needs to stop listening to the Psycho soundtrack before recording sessions, if any of his other scores are like this one. Seriously, imagine if Alfred Hitchcock had hired some asshole who was related to the producer instead of Bernard Hermann.
We hear some typical hard-boiled narration about how being a con artist eats away at your soul, and here we meet Joe Donan, our narrator and hero, played by Michael Biehn. Get used to the voiceover; this movie seems to think that a good noir movie needs constant, unending narration. Trust me, it doesn’t.
Joe is driving a mark to a setup, and we get even more narration as they head to a dingy looking warehouse in the middle of nowhere. Well, to be more accurate, we get an excessively long shot of the warehouse while the car is heard creeping into the frame, before it finally comes into view.
They get out and enter the warehouse, and I have to say, you know a film is low budget when they can’t even afford a car with working interior lights. Either that, or the DP knew some French and took the term “film noir” literally.
Joe and the mark sneak around the warehouse for a bit, until a car parked in the darkness flashes its lights, and a shadowy figure gets out. Turns out this con involves a drug deal, and the mark wants to sample the goods first. So he takes the sample Joe gives him and greedily shoves it in his mouth like he’s Mitchell.
The mark approves, noting that he’s “seeing angels”, and Joe moves forward to seal the deal. Suddenly, he shouts that the shadowy figure is wired. As he pulls a gun, it’s revealed that the shadowy figure is played by James Coburn. Joe shoots at Coburn, and then some other guys enter, identifying themselves as cops, and they shoot at Joe.
James realizes too late that all the money in the world won’t get his name off Hudson Hawk.
The mark runs for it, and more cops show up, and the guy gets away in the car. Inside the warehouse, the con is revealed, and all the men laugh it up, and one of the cops turns out to be played by Peter Fonda.
Actually, everyone is yukking it up except for Mike (James Coburn), who’s been shot with live rounds, and not the blanks that Joe thought he was using. To make matters even worse, Mike turns out to be Joe’s dad.
Mike’s dying words are about his brother, and something he’s taken, which Mike refers to as “the cake”. Coburn gives us a rather cheesy dying moment, as he sputters a bit before spurting blood out of his mouth. Naturally, Joe is absolutely shattered. The fake cops pull him away, while sirens are heard and the real cops close in.
Cut to daytime at Joe’s apartment. He’s drinking and crying, while also narrating about his relationship with his father.
Peter Fonda is here too, playing a guy named Pete, which really makes things easier for me. Pete tells Joe they’re going to bury his father out in some place called Potter’s Field. Evidently, this crew is so good that they were able to get the body out before the real cops showed up. And yet, they weren’t good enough to distinguish between live rounds and blanks, so what the hell?
Joe is adamant that he checked the gun beforehand, but Pete shows him the gun that actually had the blanks. Cut to later at Potter’s Field, which turns out to be a cemetery where the crew buries Mike. Yep, evidently in the world of this movie, there are cemeteries that just let the bereaved come in and do a quickie DIY funeral.
Be glad we don’t see how this place handles the embalming.
Pete gives Joe his cut from the scam, and advises him to leave town and get set up someplace else, because that’s what the rest of the crew are doing. Joe takes this all in silently, and walks away from the tombstone, only to turn just as a redheaded woman in a black dress places a rose on the gravestone.
Joe rushes to Pete’s car to ask about the woman, but by the time he gets there, she’s vanished into thin air. In response, Pete gives Joe a wallet and a key to a locker, and drives off.
There are a few things about this scene that amuse me. First off, as I already pointed out, the rather absurdly quick burial. I mean, how did they get a tombstone engraved that fast? Second is the stubborn reluctance of Peter Fonda to put on anything resembling a performance. There are a few other cameos from notable stars in the movie, and they pretty much all go through their scenes like they can’t wait to get off the set and go do something interesting. In Fonda’s case, you get the feeling he’s just dying to get the scene over with so he can go home and get back to reminiscing about the ‘70s and having a better career.
“Tell the director not to call me for reshoots, I’ll be busy getting high with Nicholson.”
Cut to another badly lit night shot (not often you see such a big name cast in a film with the lighting budget of a 1950s Roger Corman film) as Joe enters a bus terminal. He approaches a row of lockers in a room that helpfully has a spotlight on, so people can see where they’re going. He finds the locker the key belongs to, and pulls out a yellow satchel.
While this happens, Biehn is delivering more narration about his father, and sounding just as bored by what he’s reading as the viewer is listening to it. Remember the version of Blade Runner with the narration? Well, while Biehn is a pretty good actor, he’s nowhere near as good as Harrison Ford when it comes to making his total boredom with the narration sound entertaining.