Review: My Bodyguard

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The critical adulation that greeted last year’s Breaking Away was symptomatic, in retrospect, not so much of a need to return to intelligent “little” films as of an acclimatization to the smallness, safety, and literary limitations of the TV movie. Breaking Away’s strong suit wasn’t anything particularly cinematic, but a witty, entertaining script that tended to carry the viewer through a series of artificial crises. The same is true of My Bodyguard. Alan Ormsby’s dialogue—however unlikely in the mouths of 15-year-olds—is nothing if not clever. But Tony Bill, in his directorial debut, always opts for the safety of the TV-approved crisis-and-resolution, and the trite-and-true device. The story of the close relationship between a small, smart rich kid and a slow, gentle giant of a student who becomes his protector against bully extortionists in a Chicago high school unfolds in nothing more inventive and honest than a series of tired-since-the-Sixties montages. First, rich kid pursues giant through unfamiliar streets; second, rich kid and giant seek—and find, in cutesypoo voicelessness—the last part needed to complete the motorcycle giant is working on as a dream project; third, rich kid and giant ride motorbike through a positively idyllic downtown Chicago; and fourth, rich kid loses giant and tries to find him in a nocturnal search through, again, unfamiliar surroundings. Interwoven with this basic device is an irrelevant subplot in which Ruth Gordon typically overdoes her eccentric-old-lady shtick, and the closest we come to a connecting thread between the two is the notion of the old lady as a foil to the gentle giant: old person “afraid not to live” counterbalances young person afraid to face life.

It’s textbook plotsmanship and Bill never manages to turn it into anything more. The gentle giant, Rick Linderman (Adam Baldwin), lives a lonely, secret life that recalls the schoolboy who lives apart in Truffaut’s L’Argent du poche, which in turn recalled the short-lived freedom of Antoine Doinel and René Bigey in Les 400 Coups. But Linderman’s dangerous alienation is played more safely than either of its Truffaut antecedents, and the boy’s terrible secret is given a moment’s silence by the film, then cheerfully forgotten. A lot of the comedy is given equally short shrift by simply being cut-in too slowly or too late (e.g. the reactions of the short and cowardly intellectual, Carson, played with a delightful throwaway style by Paul Quandt). Highlighting the film are a series of physical confrontations in which the right of the rich kid (Chris Makepeace) to some semblance of freedom and self-determination in the alien environment of a public high school is jeopardized by the school’s self-appointed Godfather (Matt Dillon) and defended by the gentle giant with a heartbreaking past. The constant recourse to combat, however well choreographed, marks My Bodyguard clearly as a post-Tehran film; but it is finally little more than a revenge fantasy whose reaffirmation of physical violence is meaningful only in a world where might makes right and little guys really can beat up big ones just by wanting to badly enough.

MY BODYGUARD
Direction: Tony Bill. Screenplay: Alan Ormsby. Cinematography: Michael Margulies. Production design: Jackson De Govia. Editing: Stu Linder. Music: Dave Grusin. Production: Dan Devlin; executive producer: Melvin Simon.
The players: Chris Makepeace, Adam Baldwin, Matt Dillon, Martin Mull, Ruth Gordon, Craig Richard Nelson, Kathryn Grody, Paul Quandt, Hank Salas, Joan Cusack, John Houseman.

© 1981 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.