Rando! The Villain (1979)
Welcome to the latest entry in Rando! It’s the random-ass column where I write about the stuff in my Netflix queue or whatever the hell else I feel like writing about, as long as it is, indeed, Rando!
The 1979 western spoof The Villain has been on my radar for quite a while. It’s a movie that looks, if not necessarily fascinating on paper, then at least promising. The Hal Needham-directed laugher is most notable for being Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first big Hollywood movie.
Schwarzenegger had previously conquered the seldom overlapping worlds of bodybuilding and documentary film as the wildly charismatic, irresistible star of the landmark 1978 bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron. By the time Schwarzenegger wowed audiences and impressed studio execs as the breakout star of Pumping Iron he’d already both distinguished and humiliated himself onscreen as, respectively, an Arnold Schwarzenegger-style hot shit bodybuilder in the terrific 1976 character study Stay Hungry and an Arnold Schwarzenegger-style strongman in the 1969 exploitation movie Hercules in New York, where his voice was dubbed and he was credited as “Arnold Strong.”
The Villain was supposed to be the next big step forward for the Austrian muscleman and future California Governor. Schwarzenegger’s name appeared before the title alongside Hollywood legends Kirk Douglas and Ann-Margret for playing Handsome Stranger, a devastatingly sexy lawman squeezed into a tight, power-blue outfit that hugs every rippling muscle.
Having helped catapult Burt Reynolds to superstardom as the director of Smokey & The Bandit and Cannonball Run, stuntman-turned-auteur Needham knew a star when he saw one, and he saw one in the handsome, nakedly ambitious future icon. Needham knew that Schwarzenegger was a bona fide, incontrovertible movie star. Needham seems to have sensed, at least, that particularly at that very early, primitive stage in his career Schwarzenegger wasn’t much of an actor. Needham does not, however, seem to have realized that Schwarzenegger is anything but a natural funnyman.
Schwarzenegger is a funny guy in real life, and can be hilarious in film but that’s generally when he’s playing off his image, or spoofing it, or riffing on it, or exaggerating it to the point of delirious self-caricature, as in the motion picture Eraser. When called upon to be funny in a flat-out comedy or exhibit a light comic touch, Schwarzenegger is generally at a loss.
The Austrian oak has seldom been more wooden than he is here. He’s a complete and total stiff, a good-looking galoot who delivers his lines in a heavily accented monotone with no sense of comic timing or delivery.
What makes Schwarzegger funny is the element of self-awareness and sly self-deprecation that he brings to his roles, qualities rooted inextricably in his history as one of our biggest and most beloved movie stars. The problem with Schwarzenegger in The Villain is that he has no persona to play off. Sure, there’s the larger-than-life image he very lucratively and successfully sold in Pumping Iron, an excellent documentary but an even more inspired exercise in pop-mythologizing, but that doesn’t inform his performance here in any meaningful way.
What made Schwarzenegger so dazzling in Pumping Iron is that was that he didn’t just have the body: he had the mind, and the personality, and the charisma, and the swagger, and the intimidating magnetism to obliterate the competition mentally as well as physically.
Schwarzenegger is a sly motherfucker, full of canny and guile. One of my favorite stories about Schwarzenegger is how he tricked Sylvester Stallone into starring in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! by pretending to be deeply interested in the script, knowing that the competition-minded Stallone would want to swoop in and “beat” his rival for the prize of getting to star in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
As that story illustrates, Arnold is a whole lot smarter and more savvy than we give him credit for. Other reasons he’s smarter and more savvy than we gave him credit for: marrying a Kennedy, becoming one of the highest-paid entertainers in the world and getting elected Governor of California.
Schwarzenegger is a smart guy deeply miscast as a sentient dumb joke in The Villain. He’s a total blank, a one-note buffoon who looks fantastic but is never funny. Schwarzenegger isn’t the only actor stuck playing a one-dimensional character.
The underlying conceit of The Villain is both inspired and identical to that of Raising Arizona. Both movies set out to be live-action versions of Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner cartoons. The big difference is that Raising Arizona succeeds in that admirable ambition.
Schwarzenegger and Ann-Margret inhabit the Roadrunner role here while Kirk Douglas is the film’s Wile E. Coyote surrogate, a dastardly villain and bank-robber named Cactus Jack who is so incompetent in his attempts to apprehend the good guys and steal their money that they don’t even realize that an incompetent madman is on their trails.
Douglas spends most of the film falling long distances, being dragged by horses and/or getting run over and flattened by various things, Wile E. Coyote-style. Let me tell you something, brother (Jesus, why am I talking like a wrestler now?), when it comes to staging physical comedy in the style of classic Looney Tunes cartoons, Hal Needham is no Coen Brothers and as a comically inept bad guy Kirk Douglas has nothing on Nicolas Cage’s wonderful performance in Raising Arizona.
For a Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies homage, this is pokily paced and perversely light on jokes. The jokes in The Villain mosey on over, announce themselves loudly, die an unmourned death, then are replaced by another a minute or two later.
If The Villain is a non-starter comedically, it’s much more impressive as a stunt showcase. That’s not surprising given Needham’s background as a legend of the stunt world. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for example, to tell where Douglas ends and his body double, or body doubles begin. Considering how essential stunts and falls and pratfalls and dangerous derring-do are to the film, that’s high praise. When it comes to coordinating stunts Needham is on sure footing. When it comes to executing individual gags, he seems bored.
Villain Cactus Jack, meanwhile, is unsurprisingly upstaged at every turn by his horse Whiskey, who delivers easily the best and funniest performance in the film.
All of the human stars are reduced to playing one note. Cactus Jack, the Villain, is incompetently larcenous. Handsome Stranger is a handsome stranger who is as heroic as he is simple-minded and Charming Jones (Ann Margret) is charming and gorgeous, a hot to trot vixen bursting out of low-cut dresses while positively throwing herself at the oblivious Stranger, who is too feeble-minded to pick up on the lovely lady’s hints.
The Villain doesn’t even really attempt to be funny. It’s content to be merely good-natured and amiable but even that is compromised by its very 1970s race and gender politics. In a performance that perhaps does not honor the fundamental dignity of Native Americans, Paul Lynde plays Nervous Elk, a chief who tries to sexually violate all the white women he abducts without success.
Alas, this racist rape joke isn’t quite as innocent or as innocuous as it might seem. It’s hard to tell whether the humor is supposed to come from the incongruity of an actor as flamboyantly, famously gay as Lynde talking about sexually violating women or whether we’re supposed to find humor in the anxious leader being so consistently bad at committing the sexual assault that is depicted as a big part of Native American life. It doesn’t really matter, of course, because the joke is extremely not funny in the way casual quips about sexual violence against women invariably are.
This goofball, ostensibly kid-friendly western comedy closes on a giant possible rape joke. Charming asks Cactus Jack what his plans are and he tells her of his plan to steal the money and then ravish her sexually. When Cactus Jack announces his plan to ravish the lovely Charming earlier in the film, it seems pretty obvious he intends to ravish her whether she wants him to or not but when he re-announces his intentions at the climax of the film, Charming is as eager to be ravished as Cactus is to do the ravishing.
The Villain is most itself in its particularly shameless final moments, when an ecstatic Cactus Jack, overjoyed he’s about to have lusty sex with a 1979-era Ann-Margret literally jumps up and down for joy in Benny Hill Show-style sped-up physical comedy shenanigans against the daffy backdrop of a little ditty called “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” you probably know better as the theme song to Looney Tunes.
The Villain is a featherweight trifle of interest primarily to Schwarzenegger completists. They’re also the group most likely to be disappointed by it. We would soon be laughing with Schwarzenegger and his winking, tongue-in-cheek turns in action movies with a good sense of humor about themselves but with The Villain we weren’t really laughing with Schwarzenegger, or at him, or really at all. That’s true of his all-time holiday classic Jingle All the Way as well but by that point Arnold had a good sense of what worked for him, and what did not, yet that somehow did not prevent him from actually making Jingle All the Way all the same.
Is The Villain worth seeing? I honestly can’t say. I literally watched it two hours ago but I already barely remember it. It’s forgettable, to be sure, but it’s also some other thing that’s also slipping my mind right now as well.
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