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Reliving the movies of 1990 – Part 1

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Strapping on the spurs to head back to the old west with “Back to the Future: Part III” and gettin’ my “Top Gun” on with Nicolas Cage in “Fire Birds.”

Last year, I elected to take a trip back in time. Being two lengthy decades since the iconic summer moviegoing bonanza of 1989, I figured it might be a wild experience to trace the weekly releases just as they were scheduled back in the day, spending three months revisiting the pictures of my youth, wondering how they stack up against my corrosive adult perspective. The results were considerably more entertaining than I was expecting, occasionally insightful, and hit most of the gooey notes of nostalgia I was hoping to revive. Besides, any opportunity to rewatch “Uncle Buck” is generally considered a gift in my book.

I had a blast reliving perhaps the last majestic blockbuster summer before the 1990s ruined everything.

While not a barnburner in terms of website hits or personal promotion, the “Reliving the Summer of 1989” diary brought me something more valued than cold numbers or job offers. The diary brought me excited readers. Mail dropped in from around the globe, from lovely film fans eager to express how much of a trip it was to look back on a golden era of multiplex mania. It was positive feedback from kind souls, a rarity in a vocation where the mere appearance of a smashed tomato is cause enough to question my sexual orientation and lob a few death threats my way. Yes, death threats. Sure, there were a few who made the effort to share their thoughts on how I was wasting my time, but for once, a sweet moment indeed, the positive feedback outweighed the negative. I’d be lying if I wrote that I didn’t enjoy the brief blast of sun.

Equally as generous were the folks who requested I return to the series for the summer of 1990. This I wasn’t expecting. Isn’t there some law covering diminishing returns? And I know for a fact that repetition doesn’t always entertain the masses. However, I have an ace up my sleeve for this round of jovial remembrance, something I didn’t have for 1989…

The Brichives.

Cue the choir. Light up a few Black Cats. Plan the parade. The Brichives are making their online debut.

In January of 1990, I made the decision to start keeping a diary detailing every last film I attended (starting with Oliver Stone’s masterpiece, “Born on the Fourth of July” — a film of such uniquely disquieting content, my local theater scribbled a warning in Sharpie to control the flood of refunds), both as a way to gauge my favorites throughout the year and to monitor the severity of my celluloid addiction. It’s a chart I still maintain to this day, but two decades ago, it was an infinitely more rudimentary book of thoughts, numerical scores (leading to best of/worst of lists and the inaugural edition of the now world-famous Orny Awards), and theater memories that could only come from a young, unchallenged, barely teenage mind.

For the “Summer of 1989,” I was squeezing my brain to a point of purple to recall moviegoing habits and film reactions. For 1990, most of it has been hastily scribbled down — my taste at the time solidified on yellowed paper to help tickle my memories and, more often than not, greatly embarrass me.

Sweet mama-jama, I was an easy lay back then.

Armed with golden power of The Brichives (cue choir music, Black Cats, parades), with all of its dangerous secrets and profound shame, why not board the rickety roller coaster of remembrance and zip through the Summer of 1990? I can’t think of a better way to beat the heat.

Back to the Future: Part III

Nutshell: Trapped yet again in 1955, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) learns his best friend and time-traveling DeLorean inventor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is still alive…living in 1885. Zapping back to the origins of Hill Valley, Marty reunites with his beloved pal, while ferocious gunslinger Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) targets the pair for execution. As the countdown to certain doom begins, Marty and Doc race to fix the faulty DeLorean, while a dainty schoolteacher named Clara (Mary Steenburgen) arrives to lure the smitten scientist away from the urgent matters at hand.

1990: Call me captain crazy of the cosmos, but I’m of the opinion that 1989’s “Back to the Future: Part II” absolutely equals the original picture in terms of popcorn thrills and filmmaking creativity. Like most sequels, “Future II” lacks the innocence and electric sense of “will this work?” tip-toed wonder that defined the 1985 classic, but creators Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale took the challenge of a sequel seriously (actually two sequels, as the boys filmed “Future II” and “Future III” back-to-back), constructing a cunning cinematic beast that excitedly reworked the first picture with a fresh angle of time-travel terrorism and futurist spectacle, gleefully molding the space-time continuum into quicksand. “Future II” was a finely tuned instrument of mischief, topped off with a delicious cliffhanger that promised even more delirium as the DeLorean-aided antics zoomed down the rabbit hole.

My initial reaction to “Back to the Future: Part III” was slightly less euphoric in 1990. After seven months of wet-lipped, finger-rubbing anticipation for the next round of the series, “Future III” felt…just a little…off. At the time, “Future II” was a manically assembled Tilt-A-Whirl moviegoing experience that shot Marty to the future and the past, leaving him to frantically patch up holes created by his tomfoolery, lest Biff unleash a fresh round of his gummy wrath. “Future III” was a western, slowing down the franchise to smell the daisies, coming off as a film for the filmmakers, who wanted to make a tribute to the oaters of their youth. The homage is reasonable, but the picture felt less like a breakneck conclusion to a masterful madcap adventure and more like a cool-down lap after an exhaustive marathon.

I wouldn’t label “Future III” a disappointment at the time. That would be unfair to the cheerful screenplay from Bob Gale that retrofits the energy of the first two pictures into the western milieu, trying valiantly to move the franchise into a fresh setting while still tinkering around with callbacks and inside jokes (at the time, I found it to be “the funniest of the three”). Even to a kid expecting a rocket sled of a conclusion, “Future III” remained a merry closer, playful to the end while stoking what would become a modest personal fascination with westerns stretched out over the next two decades. It doesn’t exactly burn rubber, but the second sequel certainly achieved what it set out to do: to bring “Back to the Future” to a calm, peaceful, and hopeful close. I was sad to see it go, but the surprise train finale was an awfully cool exclamation point at the end of a berserk series of time-hopping features. The film leaves you with a righteous kick.

2010: Listen, I like “Future III.” No, I love “Future III.” It’s simply hard to ignore the fact that the film lacks a certain…voltage that propelled the previous two installments to dizzying comedic and adventure heights. “Back to the Future: Part III” is a wonderful, warm, and often wildly clever franchise finisher, but after two features of dense scripting and sci-fi cartwheeling, it’s just a little strange to find the whole shebang deflated to a tranquil wild west adventure. 20 years hasn’t shifted my ever-so-slight reservation with the picture.

I don’t have much in the way of complaints about “Future III,” despite what appears to be my disapproval of the final product. The western backdrop of the picture is actually quite a clever way to keep Marty and Doc in the thick of temporal monkey business without having to reheat the formula for yet another feature film. The movie is also a juicy serving of enviable wish fulfillment, taking cast and crew back to the glory days of Cowboys and Indians, gifting the production an opportunity to roll around within a waning genre on Universal’s dime. It’s a franchise curveball that jerks the series in a new direction, yet retains the essential “Back to the Future” parts under the hood, brought to life once again by the amazing cast and their specialized eccentricity.

Perhaps the most charming addition to “Future III” is the romantic entanglement for Doc Brown. Always the popped-vein mad genius, zipping around the background searching the air for answers, Doc is made the romantic lead of the film, with Lloyd sharing unexpectedly responsive chemistry with Steenburgen. The subplot does steal away some attention from the DeLorean panic at hand, but the relationship finally humanizes the character three pictures into the series, adding a few curls to a personality that was previously imagined as nothing short of a straight arrow. It’s wonderful to observe Doc find a soul mate, giving this final chapter a sense of growth and personal stake it wouldn’t otherwise have.

Keeping “Future III” inviting is its sense of humor, with the playful script by Gale mixing western tributes with franchise staples, on the hunt for any gag that might provide some connective tissue to the previous films. The slapstick is helped along by Wilson, who delivers a particularly inspired performance as Tannen, turning his role as bully Biff inside out to portray a cold-blooded idiot of the old west. Fox also seizes his share of the laughs in another multi-character role, playing Marty and his Irish immigrant great-great-grandfather. “Future III” retains a great number of laughs, which keeps the whole endeavor from sinking — it’s a quick-witted film that doesn’t reach for the same cheeky madness as its forefathers, interested more in a settled tone of reverence (genre icons Pat Buttram, Harry Carey, Jr., and Dub Taylor cameo) and community over complete zaniness. The shift in tone is jarring, but ultimately rewarding.

It’s not my intention to sound like a Grinch about “Future III.” It’s a lovely, rootin’ tootin’ cowboy romp with a superbly suspenseful runaway train finale, and an apt closer that permits the excitement to continue on beyond the screen. It was an utter joy in 1990, and again in 2010. Only now there’s a bittersweet quality in the air, knowing that, in fact, it was the last ride for Marty, Doc, and the DeLorean.

Still, three dazzling movies is quite a legacy to leave behind. And we’ll always have this…

Fire Birds

Nutshell: After witnessing the slaughter of his fellow helicopter pilots at the hands of a drug cartel mercenary, Jake Preston (Nicolas Cage) joins the Apache Task Force to exact revenge. Under the tutelage of weary vet Brad Little (Tommy Lee Jones), Jake learns to fly the latest and greatest helicopter from the U.S. Army, utilizing his teacher’s experience to become the most dangerous pilot in the air, ready to save the world from drug dealers. Along for the ride is Billie Lee Guthrie (Sean Young), Jake’s old flame and a steadfast pilot also involved in the Apache effort.

1990: I can explain the appeal of “Fire Birds” to a 14-year-old boy in simple terms: it was PG-13 and contained plenty of blow-em-up material. At the time, there wasn’t much more required to compel me to spend some matinee coin.

I delighted in “Fire Birds” back in the day (even saw it twice, making me the only human being on the planet to make such a claim), viewing it as a shameless “Top Gun” rip-off that actually bested the Tom Cruise phenomenon in terms of action and performance. A broad claim at the time, but “Top Gun” was a lousy movie even then, handing me a reason to root for anything that dared to match its airborne stupidity and filmmaking gloss. Instead of boring old jets, here were helicopters! Instead of an embryonic Tom Cruise, why not a wily Nicolas Cage? Who needs a zombified Kelly McGillis when there’s a zombified Sean Young! Even better, there’s Tommy Lee Jones doing a superlative impression of a hound dog, chewing on the complex military jargon as though it was a Kong filled with creamy peanut butter.

Disappointingly, “Fire Birds” contained little sex appeal (again, Sean Young), but what it lacked in basic male puppetry it made up for in extended training sequences, “A-Team” style action beats, and the oddball wizardry of Nicolas Cage. It was slight, but crunchy enough to please kids with nothing better to do with their May weekends and military enthusiasts with limited imaginations.

Oddly, when I think of “Fire Birds,” I think of this:

Strange, I know. But this line has stuck with me for 20 years. Call it the curse of Cage, but every time I pass by strawberry gum in a store, I softly mutter the invitation to myself.

2010: I knew going into this “Fire Birds” viewing there was little chance the film would provide the same rush of nonsense that felt so right in 1990. I’m older and (possibly) wiser, and derivative crap doesn’t hypnotize as much as it used to. “Fire Birds” is a pretty shameless photocopy of “Top Gun,” but director David Green (the reason the other one goes by Gordon I suspect) does a competent job sticking to the cartoon basics of the premise, winding the editing tight enough to overlook the atrocious cash-in nature of the production.


Therefore, in a certain way, with the help of insomnia and perhaps the closure of one eye, “Fire Birds” actually works in a minor key. Let’s just say it’s the best 77-minute Apache helicopter actioner starring Nicolas Cage I’ve ever seen.

Cage is a good reason to stick through this glorified Stephen J. Cannell television pilot, delivering a performance that’s one-half masturbatory quirk and one-half monetary obligation. Cage is bored, but it works for the film, with Green allowing the actor to do pretty much whatever he wants, with the exception of a few expository exchanges — lines that stiffen Cage to such a degree, I suspect his agent was holding his ankles to prevent the actor from escaping. All air-kicks, slippery seducer, and ace pilot ooze, Cage keeps “Fire Birds” amply volatile, matched well with Jones (in equal check-cashing mode), who also appears to disregard most direction, filling the shallow role with whatever well-honed sass he deems necessary.

Interestingly, it appears “Fire Birds” was pushed through development by Dale Dye, the decorated military man turned omnipresent Hollywood advisor. Snatching writing, producing, and acting credits, it seems “Fire Birds” was Dye’s ticket to the big leagues, showing Tinseltown he had what it takes to package a movie together with critical military support.

I stand corrected. Maybe Dye’s the only other person to have sat through “Fire Birds” twice during its brief theatrical run.

Opening with a George Bush quote, exploiting the “War on Drugs,” and staging a grand finale in the wilds of South America (it looks more like the outskirts of Scottsdale) with a dastardly Red Baron figure, “Fire Birds” practically prints out an enlistment contract from the DVD player — it’s a jingoistic tug that makes the U.S. Military out to be nothing less than a volcanic force for peace, when the reality of the drug war was obviously far less celebratory. But hey, it was 1990. As long as helicopters tore up the sky, Sean Young appeared on camera braless, and strawberry gum was on the menu, everything was going to turn out just right.

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