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Hipster Holy Grail: Pursuit (1972)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

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

Pursuit = nap time.

My Rating: 1 / 5

The Plot Summary

In response to a friend's suggestion, I've decided to make September a Michael Crichton-themed month.  No real significance to the timing - it just worked out that way.  So to kick us off, this week I watched Crichton's 1972 directorial debut, Pursuit.

And, uh... there sure was a pursuit.

Look, I know I should try to be somewhat objective at the outset and give some semblance of a plot recap before I start complaining, but holy SHIT this movie is boring.  I haven't been this bored with a movie since The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver.   Shockingly, it's only 74 minutes long - you coulda fooled me.

It opens with an Army truck being robbed of some heavy, ominous-looking, missile-like things. Then we get introduced to our main character, Steven Graves (Ben Gazzara), a law enforcement officer of some importance.  Pretty sure he's an FBI agent, but honestly, it really doesn't matter.

There's a board room scene where Graves and some other FBI-ish folks debrief on the robbery, and they go into excruciating detail about how somebody hacked the Army's computers and found out about the weapons that they then stole.  I guess since this was made in 1972 and the very notion of a "computer" was still kinda new, they felt they had to tread carefully with throwing out concepts like "hacking."

And then Graves starts investigating.  For like an hour.

Pursuit is basically what you would get if you took a police procedural like Law & Order,  but instead of showing us the exciting parts where the cops discover clues or chase bad guys, you just showed the boring interstitial stuff instead.  It's like a thriller made of floor scraps from the editing room of a much more competent movie.

You do get to see Graves deduce a bit of stuff now and again, so there is a clear progression from beginning to end that walks you through how he manages to track down the bad guys.  But most of it is just lowkey mumbling between a bunch of chain-smoking hard-asses sitting at their desks, and then you get a tight shot of Ben Gazzara making his best "Yeah, I totally went there" smug face, usually right after he's said something incredibly tame and/or corny.  It's so miserably dull.  I'm having a hard time talking about the tone of the movie without passing out, let alone describing the specifics of how one scene connects with another.

Long, long story made mercifully short: some asshole who hates the president stole a binary nerve gas that he's planning to deploy when said president comes to visit the GOP National Convention.  You never see the president, you barely get a concept of the asshole's motives, and even the convention is only seen via stock footage that comes to nothing.

Virtually all of the scenes of Grave's titular pursuit take place in generic lobbies of various buildings or in dark, wood-panelled offices where they talk about which generic set they're about to go to next.  Eventually, they track the bad guy down to a hotel where he's rigging a complicated system of sensors and timers to release the two canisters needed to mix up the deadly gas.  Through-window surveillance yields a surprising amount of information, from which Graves is able to deduce that the room is fitted with all kinds of booby traps and other crap that make it impossible to just walk right in and deactivate the gas-release apparatus.

They apprehend the bad guy and take him to another generic office to interrogate him, but virtually nothing of dramatic value is communicated to the audience.  Then the bad guy casually gets up and leaves, and it isn't until he's out the door that anybody reacts, like, "Oh, wait, should we have handcuffed him?  Sorry, we probably should've handcuffed him, my bad."  The bad guy steals a cop car that's just lying around with the keys in the ignition, then immediately crashes into another car and dies.

Graves and his men go back to the hotel and head up to the roof.  A doctor doses him up with some stuff that should protect him from the gas's effects, and then he lowers himself over the side of the building with a rope and gets into the hotel room via the window.  He deactivates both canisters and the miscellaneous traps.  Then his men come in to start clearing everything out.

Shortly thereafter, he realizes that the bad guy had one last trick up his sleeve - turns out there's a time bomb built into one of the gas canisters.  Apparently the goal behind the bad guy's overcomplicated system of pulleys and levers wasn't so much to deploy the nerve gas as it was to give the FBI a red herring; he figured that once they disarmed all that crap, they'd relax and think they were done for the day.  Then his bomb would go off and release the gas once and for all.

Graves figures this out via an incredibly stupid flashback that I'll get into later, and then he has his guys chuck the bomb-rigged canister out the window.  They do, and it explodes.  But since the other canister is intact - remember, this is a binary system, meaning both gases must be deployed, and the movie only uses and explains the term "binary" like seventy or eighty times to make sure you remember - nothing bad happens after all.

While cleaning up, one of the guys says, word-for-word, "It's hard to believe that a private citizen could steal such a deadly weapon and threaten to use it on the public."  And then Graves goes on to add, "And not just nerve gas - the same thing could happen with a nuclear weapon."  Then somebody asks what they should do, and he says, "Worry."  Like, why even bother, dude - at this point, why don't you just look straight at the camera and go, "Didya get it?"

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Listen, I'm sure there's some folks out there who found Pursuit to be riveting, both then and now.  And to those people, I'm sure that my casual dismissal of virtually the entire movie probably seems superficial and moronic.  I'm sure there are people who would call it a "thinking man's thriller" or something like that.  But that's bullshit - this is just not a well-executed movie, plain and simple.

There's basically two ways you can make a movie like this: character-centric or investigation-centric.  If you go the character route, then you need to keep everything simplified down to a personal level and filter it through the eyes of your protagonists - like Die Hard or Dog Day Afternoon.  If you go the investigation route, then you need to go much bigger and take a nearly-documentarian view, in which you give us fly-on-the-wall scenes with a bunch of different groups and people who all work together to uncover pieces of information that add up to a greater whole - like Zero Dark Thirty or The Martian.  The aim of either approach is to dissect a shitty situation and show you how the protagonists make it through alive (or at least come close).  The character route is thrilling and exciting.  The investigation route is brainy and inspiring.  Either one works if you commit to it.

Pursuit tries to do it some bizarre third way, which is to have a single character without any personality fill all the roles of a dozen or more investigative groups and figure it out on his own.  Graves is like all the bland supporting roles you've ever seen rolled into one guy.  You know those background characters in Apollo 13 that would run up to Ed Harris and say, "I have an idea, sir"?  All of those people in the world, every single schmo whose only contribution to film was a single "ah ha!" moment that came just in the nick of time, are trapped in the guts of Steve Graves' ego.  He farts them out every two minutes while he passively solves shit and goes for a walk.

I mean, look, if the goal was just to create some alpha male dickhead who's The Best, then fine, so be it.  That type of character's an archetype.  But at least make him a fun dickhead.  You know why people like Sherlock Holmes?  Because he's the butt of Watson's jokes.  He's a super genius who can solve any crime, but he's incapable of normal human interactions, and that's why Watson is the one who tells the stories.

But it's worse than that.  It's not just that Graves is a never-fail perfect specimen of crime-solving.  It's that he is literally nothing else.  He's not a father, a husband, a brother, or a son.  He's not a racist or an alcoholic or an ex-soldier or secretly depressed or schizophrenic.  He's barely even annoyed.  There is nothing about him whatsoever that registers as a conflict or identity.

His characterization is so bad that one point, he's having lunch with a guy who actually has to describe to the camera what Graves's personality is like (in context, he's explaining how he described Graves to somebody else).  Pursuit thinks that this is good enough and never asks Ben Gazzara to actually perform accordingly - why bother?  The guy just said what Steve's character is supposed to be.  That's good enough, isn't it?

And to top it off, that conversation is in fact what Steve flashes back to in the final sequence where he realizes there's a time bomb.  He actually has to stop and consult his notes on what his personality is supposed to be like in order to realize that he's the type of person that would figure out there's a bomb.  If that isn't lazy writing, then my god, I've been doing it wrong for twenty years.

Speaking of lazy - you know how Pursuit tries to build tension?  By putting a literal clock on the screen.  Long before any of the characters even know that they're on a timer, the movie shoves one in your face at the bottom of the screen, and occasionally just calls it back up out of nowhere to remind you that a plot is supposed to be happening.  That's your excitement, guys.  It's all the fun of checking to see how much time is left in the movie.

And sure, sure, I can see the argument that this movie was made with no budget and that they tried hard with what resources they had - but that's still no excuse.  You could easily have told the same story way more interestingly and with the same budget by just framing it differently.  For example: set it entirely within the convention hall.  Use stock footage to build a sense of crowds, then cut to smaller shots off to the side with your actors so it looks like you're just focusing on a quieter hallway.  Have your main character be somebody much less impressive, maybe just some random intern, who stumbles across the bad guys doing nefarious shit in a broom closet.  He learns that nerve gas is going to go off in two hours, and suddenly he's the only one who can stop it.  Boom.  You're off and running and you don't even have to move your cameramen very far because you can film everything in the same goddamn hotel and it's fine.

I can forgive Crichton a little bit since this was his film debut.  I've directed half a dozen shorts before, and they're all categorically terrible - I know that it's way harder than it looks to produce a watchable and enjoyable film when you have no experience.  Still.  This movie is atrocious.  I hope I never have to watch it again.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Let's just go with 45 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  I don't feel like getting into the reasons why.  It's not the kind of cred you really want to go for though - the payoff isn't worth the work.

Where You Can Watch

There's plenty of options for you.  Pursuit was released on DVD and is readily available.  I rented it from Netflix and found at least one copy floating around on DailyMotion.