In the espionage genre of films, a tight, well-acted thriller is difficult to beat and even more difficult to accomplish. Noted director Arthur Penn managed to do it with style and verve when he brought “Target” to the screen in 1985 with Gene Hackman and Matt Dillon. It’s neither as famous as or as storied as Penn’s iconic “Bonnie and Clyde,” but, in quality and watchability, you’d be hard-pressed to find better. Do yourself a favor and find a way to check it out.
(1985; 117 minutes; rated R; directed by Arthur Penn and starring Gene Hackman, Matt Dillon and Josef Sommer)
WHEN YOUR PAST COMES BACK TO HAUNT YOU
(NOTE: I expanded this review with some more opinion, additional trivia and the updating of links on March 25, 2017.)
Director Arthur Penn hooks up with Gene Hackman for the third time in the espionage thriller “Target,” with the first two being “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967 and “Night Moves” in 1975. It’s a wonderful pairing of two of Hollywood’s most accomplished at their respective professions.
Hackman does his usual outstanding turn as “Walter Lloyd.” From his first scene to the last, Hackman never looks like he flags even for second throughout the film. Matt Dillion is here in his first film after his iconic turn in “The Flamingo Kid” (click here for my review) the year before and plays Hackman’s son “Chris” in a surprisingly deep effort.
As to the film’s plot, Hackman’s having trouble at home. He is alienated from his son and his wife’s headed off to Europe for a solo vacation (he refuses to go). After the characters’ baseline is set, Hackman gets a call from Paris saying that his wife is missing and has left her tour group.
Jumping a flight to Paris with Dillon in tow, Hackman then sets out on a journey to find and bring home his wife.
The big surprise, especially for Dillon, is that Hackman isn’t who everyone back home believes: the conservative, quiet lumberyard owner who even “warms up the car” in the summer. He is actually former CIA agent “Duncan ‘Duke’ Potter” who retired and relocated after working for “the Outfit” in Europe (it’s actually “The Company” in real life jargon, but this is, after all, a movie) as a very young man. He was scared for himself, his wife and his son.
Now they all have new names (Dillon was so young when they were relocated to Dallas that he had never heard of his original identity) and the wife has been kidnapped in a plot to get Hackman back to Europe.
The plot then winds around Europe as Hackman tries to make contact with the kidnappers. He is in touch with an old CIA buddy, played superbly by Josef Sommer, but really doesn’t trust anyone. The film moves forward efficiently (although nearly two hours in length, it doesn’t drag) and plays out to a very conclusive end.
Here’s my look at some of the principal cast:
- Two-time Oscar winner (not for this one) Hackman is Hackman here: He’s so immersed in the role that you KNOW that he’s a former spy. He works with such apparent ease that it’s all too easy to forget just how difficult it is to accomplish the smoothness he projects in every scene. I really best like his work in “The French Connection” (click here for my review) that earned him his first Oscar and he, naturally, was simply tremendous for his second with Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” Hackman has also been nominated for three other Oscars.
- Sommer, who played the bad-guy cop in “Witness” with Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis the same year as “Target,” has a meaty but small role as “Taber” that he makes the most of, but we needed to see more of him. He’s had a somewhat prolific career of 100 credits over four decades, but hasn’t had one since 2010. He was also solid in “The Family Man” (click here for my review). He also was in “Absence of Malice,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “The Mighty Ducks” and “Patch Adams.”
- The best supporting actor at work here is Herbert Berghof, who plays “Schroeder.” He’s the East German spymaster who is behind the whole plot and is seeking revenge on Hackman. Berghof, like Hackman, just oozes his character – he’s bent on revenge and you believe every ounce of his emotion. Berghof was in “Cleopatra” and “Harry and Tonto” and “Target” was his last credit before his death at 81 of heart failure in 1990.
- Two other supporting actors are worthy of note: Gayle Hunnicutt, who plays Hackman’s wife “Donna,” and Viktoriya Fyodorova, who plays “Lise,” a former love interest of Hackman’s and a member of the espionage game herself. Both have enough time onscreen to develop their characters and make an impression on the audience, but far too little to have a big impact. However, the two make sure their characters don’t get lost in the wake of Hackman-Dillon. Hunnicutt’s numerous TV credits include “The Love Boat,” thereby cementing her legacy (I’m not kidding; I truly enjoy “The Love Boat” – click here for my look at the series). She also did “Taxi” and “Fantasy Island.” Fyodorova had only 20 credits over three decades – mostly in Russian cinema – and died in 2012 at 66 of lung cancer.
In their short time together onscreen, Hackman and Berghof show just how good two actors can accomplish their craft. Berghof is especially solid as the outraged victim of a tragedy nearly a generation earlier.
I won’t spoil it too much, but there is a scene with Hackman, Sommer and Berghof, but it isn’t structured so that all three can showcase their talents with interaction together for more than a few moments. Well, too bad. It would have been outstanding if it had been framed differently, but I can see how it would have been impossible to accomplish.
“Target” appears to take the “tradecraft” of spies seriously with how Hackman navigates being back in the world of espionage. This isn’t some big-screen spectacular with 007 saving the world, “Target” is the story of a somewhat dysfunctional family that is overwhelmed with new dysfunction by its past. Certainly too old for CGI’s special effects, “Target” doesn’t need them – it has acting and dialogue for its talented cast.
By the way, the “R” rating for this one is certainly not deserved by today’s standard, where it would most assuredly be a “PG-13.” The violence isn’t much; there’s a brief scene of Dillon with a girl in bed; and the crisp dialogue is for the most part clean (there are a few curses here and there – certainly less than what you hear as the mostly bleeped out cacophony of stupidity on MTV today).
“Target” was the 91st ranked film of 1985 with $9 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. The No. 1 film was the now-iconic “Back to the Future” with $210.6 million and it was followed by “Rambo: First Blood Part II” with $150.4 million. I don’t understand how such a quality film as “Target” came in behind some true losers of motion pictures, but, ah well. Here are the other films from 1985 that I’ve reviewed:
- “American Flyers” (terrific) – click here for my review
- “Commando” (cheesy Schwarzenegger) – click here for my review
- “Fletch” (classic comedy) – click here for my review
- “Gotcha!” (underratedly good) – click here for my review
- “Just One of the Guys” (good) – click here for my review
- “Moving Violations” (bad, very bad) – click here for my review
- “O.C. and Stiggs” (pure crap) – click here for my review
- “Prizzi’s Honor” (very good) – click here for my review
- “Real Genius” (terrific comedy) – click here for my review
- “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” (horrid) – click here for my review
- “Silverado” (super) – click here for my review
- “To Live and Die in L.A.” (outstanding) – click here for my review
- “Turk 182!” (very good) – click here for my review
- “Weird Science” (good) – click here for my review
Here are some cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- In addition to the movies mentioned here, Penn directed “Little Big Man” and “The Missouri Breaks” with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando. He has only one acting credit: a 1999 TV show called “BeastMaster.”
- Hackman and Sommer also were in two other films together: “The Chamber” and “Reds.”
- Sommer’s first big screen role was as the district attorney who has to follow the law and free a killer in Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” from 1971 (click here for my review).
- Directly from IMDb.com: “One of the final films of production house CBS Theatrical Films. The company went defunct the year that this movie was released.”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “One of two 1985 movies starring Matt Dillon first released in 1985. Both had one word titles. The other film was Rebel (1985).”
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