Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Classic adventure: Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Adventures of Brisco County Junior

After heading north to Maine to celebrate the imminent birth of our first niece (if seven weeks is imminent) on Sunday, Matt and I threw the pilot episode to The Adventures to Brisco County Junior into the DVD player. It is, as the couple million of us who watched the show in its first run will tell you, kind of brilliant, and a nice companion to seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen at the Coolidge the next day, and not just because the man who wrote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would rather co-create Brisco.

Both works are very deliberate throwbacks to the Saturday serial style of adventure, with one crazy escape after another. Both involve a search for a magical artifact of great power - one from a religious past, and one (as we later learn) from the distant future. Both give us iconic action/adventure stars - Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Bruce Campbell as Brisco County Jr. - playing educated, intelligent men but more comfortable with a day's growth of beard, searching for something amazing away from the city. Both feature sly, self-deprecating wit.

Both also look really good. Sure, you expect it from Raiders, which has Spielberg and Lucas backing it and works hard to create its untamed 1938 aesthetic. It still looks great 25 years later. But Brisco was a production for what was still an upstart Fox network in 1993 - and back then, not only was Fox not a major TV player, but television in general didn't have a lot of money spent on it. As Matt commented, it doesn't look nearly as good as today's big-time adventure series like 24 or Prison Break. It does, however, look a lot like old Westerns; John Wayne or Randolph Scott wouldn't look out of place on its sets. Heck, much of it was shot on the studios' remaining "Old West Town" standing sets; Campbell and company may have been following in the footsteps of those legends in a very literal sense.

Indeed, it's one of the things I love most about both - the filmmakers are very aware of the genres they're working in, and throw winks to the audience (occasionally for Raiders, frequently for Brisco), but they work hard at recreating the pulp adventure environments they love, throwing a new coat of paint on it to keep things from getting too kitschy. These films aren't genuine recreations of 1930s/1940s serials - they're better, with more talented writers and directors than most of those ever could have had.

One more thing they've got in common - I would drop serious money if either were to get a six-inch toy line. I realize neither is exactly current, but maybe something Diamond Exclusive? It would seriously rock.

The Adventures of Brisco County Junior (Pilot Episode)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 13 August 2006 in Jay's Living Room (Brisco!)

My college friends and I loved this show, and to this day we regret missing the pilot episode because we went out to see Demolition Man on opening night (which I also love, of course, but it could have waited another day). It's amazing how fully-formed the show is right from the start - favorite recurring characters Albert Wickwire, Pete Hutter, John Bly, Big Smith, Lee Pow, and, of course, Dixie Cousins, are all there. We're given a taste of anachronism and the paranormal to show us that this won't be a typical western, but enough to assure us that it will still feel like one. And the characters and their relationships are gently set on the paths they'll follow without it ever feeling coercive.

This show is a big deal to me - I discovered Bruce Campbell here, which led to Army of Darkness and Sam Raimi, which warped my taste in film in ways that have gone unrepaired to this day. It's also one of the few shows that managed to hit the sweet spot between grand serialization and entertaining done-in-one episodes; as good as television is today (there's a serious argument to be made that it's never been better), few series seem to have a premise that is flexible enough for a new story on a weekly basis while also being able to build up a larger narrative.

As much as I loved this show, I don't mind that it lasted just one year. It left no major dangling storylines or cliffhangers, and never suffered a quality drop as its writers ran out of ideas. It's twenty-eight great hours of television.

(That said, if I were a producer at Warner Brothers, I would absolutely reunite the cast for Brisco County Junior in the Valley of Gwangi.)

Raiders of the Lost Ark

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2006 at the Coolidge Corner #1 (Big-screen Classics)

I've got this movie on DVD, but I might as well not, since I'm lucky enough to live in Boston, where both the Brattle Theater and the Coolidge Corner Theater run it roughly once a year. I may not make every showing, but I can see it on the big screen just often enough to sate my desire and for each viewing to be better than I remembered it.

Was Paul Freeman always that good as Indy's opposite number? Does Spielberg always have such good fight choreography in his action movies? How many other movies can slip from action/adventure to horror with such minimal effort? And Harrison Ford. Man, Harrison Ford; not even Bruce Willis can take a beating and still keep at it like Ford does in this movie.

Steven Spielberg is one of the world's great filmmakers because of movies like this, where he's able to get a thousand little details planned out and right while still having room to discover and improvise things on set. He's not always perfect, but his instincts never seem to lead him astray here. Oh, and he's got one of the greatest John Williams scores, too.

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