The Escape Artist (1982)
This relatively unknown 80’s movie, the directorial debut of renowned cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, starts off with great promise and packs a seemingly intriguing central concept. As the film gets going however, it becomes disappointingly clear that it’s a definite missed opportunity as it delivers flat drama, contains numerous loose ends and most fatefully, it’s just plain dull.
The plot revolves around young magician Danny Masters, son of the late Harry Masters who was, we are told, considered the greatest escape artist since Houdini. Danny is determined to be as great as his father and so leaves the mundane surroundings of his Grandma’s house and runs away to join his Aunt and Uncle’s magic show. Once there, Danny appears to spend most of his time out roaming the city streets. On one such excursion to the local magic shop he bumps into Stu (Raul Julia) the son of the town Mayor (I won’t even try to explain why the son of the Mayor was in there in the first place). Danny picks his pocket and in doing so sets in motion a chain of events involving the corrupt town Mayor, illegal payments and the psychotic Stu.
As the film goes on, we also learnt that there was perhaps more to Danny’s father’s death than he may have been told. He was under the impression that Harry died trying a dangerous escape attempt from a locked water-filled cabinet. It is rather clumsily revealed later on however that Harry was actually shot trying to escape from prison after he had been caught up in illicit underworld activities. Though we are never told what these connections are or even why a policeman shot him rather than simply re-arresting him like one would imagine. These are just two of many plot threads left unexplained or abandoned all together in the movie. Another example sees Danny meet a young girl who he appears to have a blossoming relationship with but then she never reappears. What was the point in this character at all? It’s entirely irrelevant to the plot. Also, it’s never really explained why Danny starts working for Stu at one point when he knows full well the guy is a nutcase. Suddenly Danny just decides to start working for a known psychopath who wants him to break into safes for him. Why?
Then of course there is the abysmal ending. SPOILER ALERT (of sorts). I add that extra bit in brackets because there really isn’t anything here to spoil. The film just ends abruptly with no particular resolution and no real lessons learned. Stu gets taken away by police, Danny walks off into the neon-lit night, alone in the big city, still in relative darkness over who his father really was. THAT’S IT. Throughout the film there are allusions to the idea that Danny lives in his father’s shadow and just wants to be as good of a magician as his pop. Unfortunately, this whole plot line is just woefully under cooked and we are never really clear what Danny really thinks of his dad, what his dad was killed for and even more crucially what exactly Danny is trying to achieve over all. When the movie ends with a clunking thud, we really are none the wiser on any of these matters. It’s literally like the scriptwriter and director both just got bored and wandered off after 90 minutes leaving the film as it is.
The only redeeming feature is Raul Julia who puts in an enjoyably off the wall performance as Stu, but even he gets lost under the sheer volume of the insipidness he is surrounded by. Consider for a moment the film’s basic premise, a young magician uses his tricks to outwit corrupt officials and save the day. If I was a kid upon this film’s release that would sound perfect to me. It has adventure, spectacle, cool tricks and a young hero getting one over on the adults. What could possibly go wrong? Yet somehow, Deschanel turns this into a convoluted, half-arsed and unengaging story that fails completely to either entertain or pack an emotional impact.
Director: Caleb Deschanel
Stars: Raul Julia, Griffin O’Neal, Desi Arnaz
Runtime: 94 min