Back to the Past : Bird on a Wire

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Bird on a Wire
Came Out : 1990
Directed by : John Badham
Starred : Mel Gibson, Goldie Hawn, David Carradine, Bill Duke, Stephen Tobolowsky

We begin with corporate lawyer Marianne Graves (Goldie Hawn), perky and blonde, slightly uppity but likable. In movieland however, one look at her boyfriend, a sexless balding architect, and we know immediately that her personal life is suffering. Cue hunk. While on business in Detroit, she happens upon a garage attendant that looks, acts and laughs suspiciously like her deceased former lover, Rick Jarmin (Mel Gibson). Of course it is Rick, now 15 years into a witness relocation program after testifying against a pair of drug traffickers, Diggs (Bill Duke) and Sorenson (David Carradine). But with the villains still out in the world, Rick prefers to stay anonymous and plays dumb with Marianne. Not good. This doesn’t get our heroes any closer together. Cue dirty federal agent. When Rick contacts the F.B.I. to change his identity for the nth time, his new case worker Weyburn (Stephen Tobolowsky) sells him out to none other than Diggs and Sorenson. Within short time they pay him a house call. Cue Marianne and getaway car.

John Badham’s Bird on a Wire was a bit of a deceiving egg in its day. The poster of Mel Gibson still sporting the partial mullet from ”Lethal Weapon 2” a year earlier gave a handful the impression that “the magic” was back again, just without Danny Glover. Nothing doing. ”Wire” is unrelated to the Richard Donner-directed adventures of Riggs, Murtaugh and Leo “okay, okay” Getz. It does fall within the action-comedy genre of course, with a PG touch, but there might be a better way to categorize this film.

Do you know the girl along for the ride scenario? It goes like this: a beautiful woman is swept away from her private melancholy and near-nerdy boyfriend by a chance encounter with a man of action. She stays by his side, partly for her own safety and partly because he’s the ultimate sugar pill. She won’t admit it though, nor he of her. They bicker at first, about her superficiality and his lack of social graces while on the run from…whomever…but spend enough time in close company to crack their outer shells and affect a more obvious mutual attraction. Sex is delayed until they’ve defied death on at least 3 separate occasions, the last of which allows her to throw off the yoke of the fragile damsel, save his skin, and prove that despite their differences they just might be good together.

It’s the Badham film, more or less, and shares characteristics with other girl along movies before and since (”Romancing the Stone”, ”Knight and Day”) Action over violence is one. There are signs of violence in Wire, shotgun blasts and exploding helicopters, but very little blood or expressions of agony. This helps buffer even death scenes, which are rarely as disturbing in these films. When Rick is confronted by Sorenson at the garage, a fire-fight breaks out. The owner/operator Marvin, previously given enough screen time to establish him as a kind soul, is shot in the back (not the more sympathic front) and killed. Seconds later, we’re chuckling at Rick, hobbling from a shrapnel wound in the butt. Insensitive perhaps, but we can’t help it. The overall bouncier mood and a lack of gore keeps us detached.

But the girl alongs also work hard to keep their villains on a leash. This means reduced potty mouths and substance abuse, and no dropping by the ex’s for nooky after a jail term (for some reason murder is exempt, but again see point above). However, it also means that the villains have a simpler role to play. Take Knight and Day. Whether or not super agent Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) and love-seeking girl along June Havens (Cameron Diaz) have chemistry, they’re given plenty of space to work on it. And not from a lack of evil-doers, more from a lack of consistency. C.I.A., Spanish arms dealers, Austrian assassins – they all spend screen time hunting our beloved Roy and June (actually the Zephyr, but….yeah). Should we even care who’s doing the chasing after a point? If this was a conscious choice by the filmmakers, I would think not. As long as the bad guys give our girl along and her man a reason to stay together, they’ve done their job. Wire repeats the pattern.

Finally, the comedy. If there’s any to be found, it will come from the characters and their discordance with some aspect of the world around them (yes, and fart jokes too). This we know. But the girl along is rarely shy about just getting silly. Rick is still essentially the free-spirited man he always was, but Marianne has been corrupted by success, creature comforts and designer handbags. While taking a shower at a half-star motel, a bug drops into her hair from the nozzle above. She flips out. In silhouette, we see her prance through the room before pulverizing the critter on the carpet. Goofy. But for the film to work, Gibson and Hawn must be able to play both the friction and the romance even while knowing their way around a joke. They do. They did. It does.

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