I have recently been revisiting the early 1990s. It is an intriguing, mostly despised, ignored period in the history of popular cinema. This is the interim phase after the intriguing little teen and horror movies of the 1980s, but before the mid 90s explosion of, on the one hand, Tarantino & company and, on the other hand, the World Cinema from Iran, Taiwan and elsewhere that finally made a dent on general cinephile consciousness.
To set the scene: we are talking about the mainstream cinema of Joel Schumacher, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker and Phil Joanou; Flatliners, Final Analysis and Oliver Stone's The Doors; the moment when (to some connoisseurs) Scorsese 'sank' to the level of making the thriller Cape Fear. Slick, tricky, contrived movies, 'MTV films'.
Few directors fit this forgotten, maligned period of commercial filmmaking more perfectly than John Badham. One decade after this hi-tech teen movie WarGames (1983), long after his surprise success with Saturday Night Fever in 1977, Badham was assigned to helm Point of No Return (1993). In fact, Badham's big-screen career was soon to wind down; today, like Michael Schultz (also in his late 70s) of Car Wash (1976) fame, and Stephen Surjik (who had his one great cinema moment with Wayne's World 2), Badham guides episodes of the TV sci-fi/fantasy series Constantine and Arrow.
Point of No Return is the type of movie that cinephiles are trained not to like. It is full of grandiloquent stylistic flourishes, 'cool' scenes of violence and death borrowed from John Woo, and a heavy overlay of pop classics on the soundtrack: in other words, the complete early '90s ambience. And, to compound all sins, it is a calculated, American remake of the French hit Nikita (1990) by another director long loathed by Serge Daney-type purists: Luc Besson. To put it politely, a film of little or no value.
Yet Point of No Return — precisely because of, not despite, its plastic, artificial, slick qualities — is a movie I find as poignantly expressive today as in 1993. The lack of a conventionally 'believable' psychology makes its discombobulated parade of situations even more nightmarishly compelling. It's a parable of female selfhood made unstable and unliveable by a very scary, patriarchal world.
Maggie (Bridget Fonda) is a drug-addicted criminal saved from execution by a government agent (Gabriel Byrne) who promptly trains her and puts her to work as a political assassin — but without the alibi of any clear or coherent ideology. Maggie is simultaneously groomed to kill like a machine and smile like a lady. At every turn, all men give her murderously mixed messages, and no woman can be the mother figure she longs for. And every ten minutes, it seems, Maggie is re-invented on screen as a new person: new hair, clothes, mannerisms, mission, lifestyle. Her 'inner self' is a vertiginous void of gestures and appearances on rapid shuffle.
These days, we hear many passionate calls to reinstate a stern regime of value into film criticism. We are tired, it seems, of hearing movies discussed as merely 'interesting' phenomena, symptomatic expressions of one socio-cultural trend or another. What about defining and defending the quality of really good, worthy films?
I have much sympathy for this position, but I suspect the direction in which it inevitably takes us: toward, once more, a hardening of the separation between supposedly high and low culture, between what is assumed to be art and what is cast out as vulgar, spectacular entertainment. A world in which Badham's Point of No Return will be very lucky to rate a mention in anybody's 'canon'.
It's a comment or a rebuke that I, personally, have often received: sure Adrian, you can compare Pasolini's Salò to some grubby Reality TV program... but are they really of the same value? What I truly think is valuable is to resist and unlearn the reflex of asking that very conventionally-minded question.