Tuesday, April 12, 2011


When I think of spy movies, I'll be honest with you...spying isn't the first thing that comes to mind.  Instead, I imagine lots of action, witty banter, and beautiful (but dangerous) women.  Basically, I think of James Bond.  There are movies that actually deal with the whole spying part of being a spy, but they're relatively rare and usually pretty dramatic.  Hopscotch, aside from being a pretty horrible title for anything, especially a spy movie, is unusual because it is a spy movie about spies doing their spy stuff, but has almost no gunplay, little excitement, and isn't very dramatic.  In its defense, though, I don't think I want to see Walter Matthau as a James Bond-ish character.

Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) is one of the best field agents the CIA has in the Cold War.  He's not particularly daring or dangerous (he doesn't even carry a weapon), but he's smart and uses logic and his wits to win the day.  On a mission in Munich, Kendig manages to foil a microfilm exchange, preventing it from entering Communist East Berlin.  Since he's unarmed, how does he foil anything?  Well, this time, he waits for the exchange and photographs the entire act, intercepts the Soviet agent, Yaskov (Herbert Lom), and threatens to publish the photos and embarrass/expose Yaskov.  The Russian follows the logic and hands the film over, with no blood spilled.  When Kendig arrvives back in Washington, his loud-mouthed, bureaucratic boss, Myerson (Ned Beatty), blows a gasket.  How could Kendig not kill, or at least apprehend, Yaskov?  Kendig gives him the old "devil you know" argument (which, from my readings, seems to be about right for the Cold War in Europe), but Myerson will have none of it.  He takes Kendig out of the field and assigns him to file clerk duty, presumably for the rest of his career.

What a downer ending.  Oh, wait...we're only about ten minutes into the film.  Instead of going meekly into the filing world, Kendig opts to quit the CIA and publish his memoirs, airing out the dirty laundry of both the CIA and the KGB.  That would be dangerous under normal circumstances, but Kendig also decides to mail each chapter of the book, as he writes them, to all the major intelligence agencies in the world.  Myerson has two choices; he can either admit that Kendig has made a fool out of him, or have him killed.  He opts for the latter.  So, Kendig is just goofing around, publishing his book little by little and having fun outwitting his fellow spies, but their intentions are deadly serious.  There's only one way this can end, you know.
Because I know how the notion of Walter Matthau as a sexy spy gets you in the mood.

Hopscotch is based on the book of the same name by Brian Garfield, the author of Death Wish.  Apparently, this Garfield can offer variety.  Too bad the cat can't say the same.  I like the story just fine, but it's not quite of any particular genre.  It's not nearly serious enough to be a drama, but it's barely smirk-worthy, so it's not a comedy.  The plot could make a great thriller, but it's not thrilling at all.  What is this movie?  It's like a lighthearted version of Spy Game, or even Three Days of the Condor.  It's breezy in tone, but (almost) never silly or frivolous.  It's just an odd duck.
If Hopscotch was an animal, it would be a confusing one.
The acting in the film is fine, but most of the cast underperforms, due to the script.  I will admit that it was nice to see a fairly young-looking Sam Waterston in this movie; he plays Kendig's protege, who is tasked with outwitting his mentor.  He doesn't actually do a whole lot, but it was interesting seeing him outside of a Law and Order setting again.  Two-time Academy Award winner and current British politician (almost twenty straight years in Parliament!) Glenda Jackson plays Matthau's love interest and, as always, I find it hard to believe it when any actress feigns attraction to Matthau; I will admit that their romance, at the very least, is age-appropriate.  Jackson does a pretty good job parrying Matthau's wordplay, but she is capable of a lot more.  Ned Beatty does a good job being unlikable in this movie; he, too, can play much more interesting characters, but he plays the one note that he's given pretty well.  I thought Herbert Lom was the only supporting character that did an all-around good job; I've always liked the idea of enemy spies being friends, and I thought Lom pulled it off quite convincingly.

The success or failure of the movie, though, depends entirely on Walter Matthau.  The supporting actors didn't have much to work with.  Director Ronald Neame shows absolutely no intention of adding suspense or action to the film.  So, it's up to Walter.  And I was surprised at how appealing I found him.  This isn't a game-changing role for Matthau; he plays a smart guy, but his general attitude is about the same here as it is in so many of his movies.  His portrayal of Kendig isn't very funny, but he does convey a sense of mischief, and that was pretty endearing.  If I was going to judge the film on his character alone, I would say that this is a pretty enjoyable film.

Unfortunately, there is more to the movie than Matthau.  He prevents it from being a bad movie, but the screenplay itself is inadequate and I don't think it could have ever been good.  Still, Matthau is definitely likable throughout the movie, and the rest of the cast play their parts well.  It's not a great movie, it's not a bad movie, it's just...meaningless fluff.
And, for your enjoyment, here is Walter Matthau absolutely not being offensive.

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