Against All Odds

Against All Odds (dir. Taylor Hackford, 1984)

“If you’re playing a king in a movie and nobody treats you like a king, well, then you ain’t a king. Same goes for being an alien in a movie too.” – Jeff Bridges on acting

“A righteously generically American film movement that exposited one great theme, and that theme is: you’re fucked.” – James Ellroy on Film Noir

“You got problems now, Terry. You want trouble too?” – Dorian Harewood as Tommy

In the pantheon of film noir leading men, Jeff Bridges never gets his rightful due. He’s not quite a tough guy like Mitchum or Hackman, he’s not an iconic face like Bogart or Graham, and he doesn’t have a singular stone-cold classic under his belt. Not to mention, his most iconic roles tend to obscure his noir bona fides (Big Lebowski will always lead off the obituary). But between Cutter’s Way (RIP John Heard), The Morning After (RIP Raul Julia), and 8 Million Ways to die (RIP Hal Ashby) — you could argue Bridges is one of the cornerstones of neo-noir in the 1980s.

Case in point, the 1984 film Against All Odds, a peak 80s crime film co-starring James Woods and Rachel Ward. It’s the story of an L.A. football player, Terry Brogan (Jeff Bridges), who gets recruited by a gangster (James Woods) to track down his girlfriend Jessie Wyler (Rachel Ward) in Mexico. Having been cut by his pro team because of an injury, Brogan reluctantly agrees to the mission, and quickly finds himself not only in love with Wyler, but also caught up in a shady land deal being orchestrated by her family. And while the plot is loosely based on the 1947 film Out Of The Past (one of the greatest film noirs of all time), the pleasures of the story are secondary to the pleasures of watching beautiful people doing dangerous things in faraway places.

The film was directed by journeyman and Doobie Brothers look-alike Taylor Hackford (Ray, An Officer and a Gentleman, inexplicably married to Helen Mirren). Not only does he bring a brisk efficiency to the direction, but to his credit, he shoots a lot of the scenes with sweeping wide shots that douse you in scenery. In fact, because there’s so much attention paid to the exotic locales, the film almost feels like it belongs to a subgenre within neo-noir — you could call it “daylight noir” (Does that exist already? I know we have daylight horror). Instead of long, dark shadows, you get extreme sunlight. Abandoned alleys have been replaced by palm-lined streets. Smoky backrooms substituted with towering high-rises. And all shot under a hypnotic light and heat that turn Brogan’s journey into a stumbling, humid fever dream.

Moving the camera back also lets the actors use their entire bodies. The way they lean back in a chair, hold their drinks, hesitate before crossing a threshold — Hackford wants their body language to do as much of the talking as their mouths. Including in one of the all-time, absurd HOLLYWOOD sex scenes (right up there with Angel Heart). About halfway through the film, as Brogan and Wyler are exploring some ancient ruins, they decide to sneak off into a desserted temple, lay down on a stone altar, and do the deed. What follows is a potent mix of sweaty, leggy closeups intercut with stone carvings of Mayan gods. [Disrespect to ancient cultures aside, not sure a temple would be my first choice….feels like it would be hard on the knees.] It’s the kind of scene you wish would show up more in modern movies, if only for the sheer memorability.

And while we’re on acting, one more quick word about why Bridges is especially potent in these noir roles: he has great “in-over-my-head”-face. Nobody is better at giving a look that says “What the hell is going on here?”. Throughout Against All Odds, you can see the gears turning as he unravels pieces of the mystery. The crinkling brow, mouth slightly agape — even with visible abs and a beard, he’s still doltish in the best way. He’s not the one-step-ahead protagonist. If anything, he’s the guy running behind the bus waving his arms.

Also worth mentioning is the unapologetic soundtrack. Throughout the film, every meaningful action is punctuated by a long guitar riff. A car leaves the driveway, bwaaaa-waaa. Brogdan gets a beer, beeeaaa—waaaa. Like giving Ennio Morricone a whammy pedal. In some ways, the music totally works. The riffs immediately set you in a time and place. They telegraph a certain chic, crime movie atmosphere. In fact, the theme song for the film, written and performed by Phil Collins (perhaps our greatest bald pop star?) won the Oscar. Yet at the same time, the music is so tied to the era, so specific, that you’re constantly pulled out of the action and aware of its artifice.

[Side note: I wonder if this is how we’ll feel about someone like Johnny Greenwood in a couple of decades? Will his discordant, tense scores for films like There Will Be Blood still feel eerie and fresh? Or will they feel helplessly dated to the early 2000s?]

Ultimately, all the elements come together to create a good…not quite great…film. Like I said at the outset, the mechanics of the plot take a back seat to watching two gorgeous people connive and swoon, only to end on a note of resigned cynicism (like all noirs should). The violence was for nothing. Corruption wins out. And despite Brogan and Wyler’s love, they’re doomed to be apart. The fix was in from frame 1, might as well try and enjoy those temples.


Random Notes:

  • Nothing says sleepy fishing town like a rusted out boat, stranded on a beach by low tide. Do people own these boats? They always appear when a character finds themselves south of the border. Feels like somebody could make a pretty good living salvaging them? Kinda like those flyers you see around for guys who buy junk cars.
  • Despite all the random ephemera available online, there are still so few clips related to old movies. I’m constantly looking for old interviews…and I’m constantly disappointed. Luckily, every so often a retired TV host will upload their tapes to a YouTube channel. Hence why one of the only available clips of Hackford talking about Against All Odds is from a Dallas morning show in 1984.
  • Mexico has always been a go-to spot for lovers on the lam. Is this still the case? Could you still disappear to a beach in Cozumel? Or have all the hidden beaches been overrun by influencers? The ultimate disappointment would be to flee to a tropical paradise, only to end up in the background of some yogi’s selfie.

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