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Hipster Holy Grail: Fifty/Fifty (1992)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Fifty/Fifty is neither as outrageous or as funny as it wants to be, but it still goes a long way to scratch the action/comedy itch, with strong leads and enjoyable enough banter to keep you invested from start to finish.  This is the cinematic equivalent of McDonald's, but it's at least a value meal instead of a half-eaten four pack of nuggets.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Plot Summary

The movie opens with Sam French (Robert Hays), a former American soldier and current mercenary, helping a small group of rebels to plot a bayside invasion of a southeast Asian country called Tengara.  He leads the troops onto a beach and is about to commence phase two of their plan when a squad of Tengaran soldiers crashes down on them and kills everyone - except French, naturally.

He tries to escape in one of the only boats that wasn't destroyed by the surprise counter-attack, but the motor fails and the boat starts sinking.  The commander of the soldiers tells them to cease fire and everybody watches as French slowly - and crankily - sinks.  He gives them the finger and plunges.

French passes out and wakes up as a POW in a military hospital. The commander of the soldiers who spared his life is Jake Wyer (Peter Weller), another American mercenary who has worked with French many times in the past.  He was recently hired by General Bosavi (Dom Magwili), dictator of Tengara, as his Director of Security, and spared French's life because they're such good buds.  Then Wyer and French start to bicker for the first of many, many times.

This is when you realize that the movie is playing off the classic buddy comedy formula of having two dudes who can screw each other over as much or as deeply as they want and they'll always be forgiven, even if they'll bitch about it.  Neither one is really a straight man or a wild card - as we'll eventually see, they're both bloodthirsty psychopaths - but if you had to pigeonhole them into the standards categories, Wyer would be the cleaner, straight-laced guy who over-prepares and French would be the rough-around-the-edges guy who charges dick-first into everything and leaves a mess behind.

Wyer tells French to confess any knowledge he has of the rebels who tried to overthrow Bosavi, and in exchange, he'll try to get French onto Bosavi's payroll as another hired gun.  French tentatively agrees.  When they are summoned to meet Bosavi in person, they pretend not to know each other and act the parts of interrogator / prisoner, with Wyer making good on his promise and suggesting that they hire French.

But then Bosavi refuses and demands that Wyer shoot French in the head.  Wyer tries to weasel out of it by coming up with a bunch of excuses, but each time, Bosavi finds a way to circumvent it.  It's a pretty funny scene because it's the exact opposite of the cliche Bond villain scene where the antagonist refuses to kill the good guy:

"Ah, I can't shoot him - my gun's broken."
"That's okay, use mine."
"Okay, I'll do it outside so it's not messy."
"Nah, don't worry about it. We've got a good cleaning crew."
"You sure you don't want me to get more info out of him?"
"I'm good.  Let's just kill him now."

And so on.  Realizing there's no way to talk out of it, Wyer and French team up and fight their way out of Bosavi's office and, eventually, out of the country.  They continue to bicker at each other about how they each messed up the other's plans and now neither of them knows what to do next.  Somewhere around here is also where the movie introduces the plot device that ends up being its namesake: whenever they're pushed into a tough decision, French will flip a coin.

One of these coin flips leads them to settle in Singapore, where they're going to lay low and look for another job until they are accosted by Sprue (Charles Martin Smith, who also directed), a CIA operative who's been posted in the area.  Sprue heard that the two of them recently tangled with General Bosavi and wants to hire them to train a different group of Tengaran insurgents to remove Bosavi from power.

(Quick detail here - I hate that the movie named him "Sprue."  This is because it sounds too much like "screw," which is what I thought they were calling him the whole time.  Wyer and French are surly with Sprue, anyway, so hearing them constantly dismiss him as a "screw" made me think they were even bigger assholes than they actually are.)

Our heroes are reluctant to make any agreements with the CIA because they got into a crappy situation like this before.  Apparently, many years before Fifty/Fifty started, Wyer and French tried to train a different group of rebels that ended up getting completely wiped out when the CIA stopped backing them.  Neither Wyer nor French seems terribly broken up about it, but they talk as though they still have PTSD ever since watching the civilians die.

They change their tune immediately when Sprue offers them $250,000 apiece, and soon we are whisked away to a small village in the Tengaran countryside where a group of civilians are being led into rebellion by Suleta (Ramona Rahman), an idealist who suffers under Bosavi's regime and a probable love interest for one or both of our heroes.  Suleta doesn't trust Wyer and French at first, but realizing she needs all the help she can get, she accepts their aid.

Cue montages.  For the next forty or so minutes, the movie is basically just a long training sequence where Wyer and French teach the villagers how to operate like an army instead of an angry mob.  There's some more bickering between the leads and at least one more coin toss.  But nothing terribly interesting happens and unfortunately the movie starts to lag.

Cue fast-forwarding to when the movie resumes again.... and now we can continue.

Sprue has a meeting with another CIA agent who's checking in from headquarters, and it looks like there's been a change in plans.  The US has decided to ally with Bosavi since he has promised to stand up against the spread of communism, so they have to do a total 180 on their "Kill Bosavi" policy.  Before Sprue can get word to Wyer and French that the plans have changed, a military copter sweeps down on the rebels and vanquishes all of them - including Suleta.  (Bosavi also captures a political figurehead who we were briefly introduced to earlier as a voice of the people, but who barely figures into the movie except as a plot device.  Let's call him Bill the Good Guy.  Not important right now, but we'll get to him later.)

Wyer and French go on a killing spree and wipe out the Tengaran soldiers who ambushed them, but with the rebel camp destroyed, there's not much hope left.  Sprue lands in the village with a giant duffel bag of money - he increased their payout to $500,000 apiece as a "sorry I killed your pals and rebel girlfriend" offering - and explains that Bosavi will be giving a speech tomorrow to announce his new alliance with the US.  Wyer and French tell Sprue to get lost.

They bicker a little more about whether they should take the money and go on the run or try to carry out the rebels' initial plan.  Wyer wants to honor Suleta's memory by taking Bosavi out once and for all, and French wants to retire and go to Rome.  They flip a coin and Wyer calls it, but gets it wrong. French, however, showing a change of heart, pretends that Wyer got it right and agrees to help him stage Bosavi's final takedown.

They sneak into Bosavi's mansion that night and get into various shenanigans while trying to build up to the final sequence.  There are a couple of good bits here, including one moment where Wyer gets locked in a closet and has to spend the night there until the next morning.  But all you really need to know is that they're on scene the next day when Bosavi is getting ready to make a big speech.

French accidentally gets control of Bosavi's audio feed and, sensing the opportunity for an epic prank, pretends to speak as Bosavi and says he's stepping down from power.  The people cheer and French throws some gas grenades out to cloud all the action.  He grabs Bill the Good Guy, meets up with Sprue - who is supposed to be here to seal the deal on the alliance with Bosavi, but who is also feeling a change of heart - and gets Sprue to escort Bill to safety, and then starts shooting Bosavi's bodyguards.  Wyer escapes from the closet and rejoins French, but the two are soon pinned down behind a crumbling wall and surrounded by soldiers.

They have one last moment of bickering after which they decide to go out guns blazing, Butch and Sundance style.  Improbably, this plan actually works, and even though both are shot in the ensuing battle, they manage to kill all of Bosavi's guys and blow him up with a rocket launcher.

Cut to Rome a few months later. Sprue is serving himself three glasses of champagne and offers a toast to the sky, telling Wyer and French that he's sorry they didn't make it, but he appreciates what they did.  Oh, but lest you think they died nobly, it's a fake-out!  Actually, Wyer and French are just running late to lunch - they show up just in time to have some banter with Sprue before he has to leave and catch a plane.  They also get to see some new coins that have been minted by the new government of Tengara under the (hopefully democratically elected?) leadership of Bill the Good Guy.  One side has Suleta's face, and the other side has a rough depiction of Wyer and French.

Freeze frame as they smile over a job well done and the prospect of a new coin to use when making important life decisions.

The Things I Liked / Didn't Like

Fifty/Fifty is a buddy movie, so it lives and dies by the strength of its two leads and their chemistry together.  The good news is that Peter Weller and Robert Hays deliver.  Sure, everything about their characters is hackneyed, but they sell each any every one-liner given to them and their back-and-forth is believable even when it isn't totally enjoyable.

And speaking of banter... the dialogue is actually kinda fun sometimes and the story is surprisingly well-crafted.  I feel like a tool saying it, but Fifty/Fifty has one of the better screenplays I've seen in recent weeks.  In the first fifteen minutes you get introduced to the two main characters, their antagonist, their sidekick, and their conflict, and none of it feels shoehorned or forced.  There's a bit of contrivance to make it all work - sure is a hell of a coincidence that these two friends stumbled across each other on a botched mission - but if you forgive that, it's a good first act.

The breezy nonsense that comes with everybody's lackadaisical attitude toward mass murder and covert military operations wins out over the predictability for the most part.  I really want to say that I liked this movie and I'd recommend it as a bronze-level action comedy of yesteryear.  Especially when the third act hits and the heroes manage to kill virtually an entire army on their own.

...but that second act really hurts this movie.

In order to make the first act segue into the third act and really get you pumped for mass carnage, you need scenes that show Wyer and French turning into sympathizers with the villagers rather than simply seeing them as a paycheck.  To the movie's credit, there is a little bit of this - there's one scene where some of Bosavi's men raid the village before the training is complete and leave the rebels' homes tattered and empty. It's almost an effective sequence, especially since Wyer and French are both aghast when they find out that the raid is basically just another Thursday for the village - this shit happens all the time.

It's just not enough, though.  Fifty/Fifty spends so much time building an effective rapport between its leads that it forgets it needs to do the same thing between them and the village.  Suleta as a sorta-almost-kinda love interest isn't nearly enough.

What the movie really needed was a character to act as a villager surrogate so you can see how their relationship changes over time.  Maybe a goofy dad character or something - a friendly, ineffective fighter who wants something better for his kids and who's trying to join the rebels, but he's just hopeless and can't shoot a gun straight no matter how hard he trains.  Wyer and French rag on him, but he's charismatic and determined, so they end up being good buddies.  You get a character like that, a nice, sweet puppy dog of a guy, and then you either have him get killed in the military ambush or die while trying to defend his village, and now you can make the change in the heroes more concrete.

Instead, they start out thinking the villagers are a big joke in the beginning, then they feel kinda bad for them when the raid happens, and then suddenly they want to make this big noble sacrifice by the end.  It's not that I can't believe the heroes might have a conscience - I just don't feel as invested in their mission as much as they clearly are.

It's a shame.  What amazed me about this movie is how legitimately good it is for most of the time.  It's so close to being a hidden gem, but it's just missing that extra connective tissue.  If we had a different second act, it kinda makes you wonder if we'd have seen more adventures from these two through the rest of the '90s.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

This one's tricky. On the one hand, it's not really that hipstery a movie.  It's a paint-by-the-numbers action movie with a lot of cliches and very little irony.  It's a mid-tier Lethal Weapon knockoff (but with mercenaries subbing for cops) that sometimes works - not a treasure trove of bad lines and terrible acting.

On the other hand... it's by Cannon Films, stars hipstery luminaries, and it has the same title as a much better received and more prominent buddy comedy, so it does give you the opportunity to be an asshole and say, "No, I watched the other Fifty/Fifty."  That's got some value even if the movie itself is generic.  Plus, it was originally the feature that Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell were going to make before they both ended up starring in Tango & Cash instead, so it's got that bit of trivia going for it, too.  I'll say this one is worth 30 hipster cred.

But wait!  If you're out to watch something with more hipster cred that is tangentially related to Fifty/Fifty, there's at least two other movies that I'd suggest instead.  And unlike most of the stupid movies I reference in this bit each week, I actually have seen both of them!

One is another of Charles Martin Smith's directorial features from 1992, Boris and Natasha, a live-action adaptation of the characters from the Bullwinkle cartoon that has a handful of jokes that actually hit and strong performances from Dave Thomas and Sally Kellerman.  I daresay it's actually more prominent than Fifty/Fifty (probably due to frequent airings on HBO and/or Showtime back in the day), but since it actually works way better than you'd expect, you can be legitimately entertained in contrast to the Bullwinkle adaptation from 2000 with Robert De Niro.  That gives Boris and Natasha 25 hipster cred.

Another is a much more obscure made-for-TV movie called Running Against Time from 1990, starring Robert Hays as a history professor who finds a way to go back in time and prevent the assassination of JFK.  Shenanigans ensue and Hays becomes implicated in the assassination rather than preventing it, so he has to find a way to set things right again.  I haven't seen it in twenty years, so my kid brain might have artificially elevated it to great status, but for sheer nostalgia I'm going to give Running Against Time 30 hipster cred.

Where You Can Watch?

You're probably better off just getting the disc from Netflix, but if you go now before it gets pulled for copyright violations, you can watch it on Dailymotion.

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