[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
The critical adulation that greeted last yearâ€™s Breaking Away was symptomatic, in retrospect, not so much of a need to return to intelligent â€œlittleâ€ films as of an acclimatization to the smallness, safety, and literary limitations of the TV movie. Breaking Awayâ€™s strong suit wasnâ€™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 Ormsbyâ€™s dialogueâ€”however unlikely in the mouths of 15-year-oldsâ€”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 seekâ€”and find, in cutesypoo voicelessnessâ€”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 â€œafraid not to liveâ€ counterbalances young person afraid to face life.
Itâ€™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 Truffautâ€™s Lâ€™Argent du poche, which in turn recalled the short-lived freedom of Antoine Doinel and RenÃ© Bigey in Les 400 Coups. But Lindermanâ€™s dangerous alienation is played more safely than either of its Truffaut antecedents, and the boyâ€™s terrible secret is given a momentâ€™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 schoolâ€™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.
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