If Looks Could Kill (1991): Breakdown by Kooshmeister
During a class trip to France your average American high school loser winds up mistaken for a CIA agent and unwittingly thrust into the role of saving Europe’s gold from a scenery-eating madman.
[THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THEIR BADASSITUDE]
Richard Grieco is Michael Corben
By his own admission, young Michael is a “reject.” Close to failing high school and risking the disappointment of his parents. Although it is inconsistent how his classmates regard him, it’s made clear at one point, at least, that the general consensus is he’s a great guy but not somebody they’d want to come and rescue them when their lives are on the line.
Melissa: Oh my God, we’re all gonna die!
Kent: No, Corben’s here!
Melissa: That’s what I mean!
So, Michael isn’t a badass. He becomes one, however, over the course of his experiences. His character arc through the film is fairly interesting. When introduced he’s just your average schmoe, content to skirt by. When first nabbed by the British agent at the airport, mistaken for the other Michael Corben, he is confused and scared and protests constantly. It isn’t until he is given the gadgets that he becomes enamored with the spy lifestyle. At this, he happily plays along, thinking he can skate by like always, but when the going gets tough and suddenly people are pointing loaded guns at him or trying to blow him up with rocket launchers, he reverts, believably, back to “scared teenager” mode and tries to bug out.
He’s stopped in order by three things of mounting importance: first by his desire to impress the hot British chick with the weirdly Russian name Mariska, whose own secret agent father was killed; then by his concern for his teacher and classmates when they are taken prisoner by the baddies, and, finally, by his stern sense of right and wrong upon learning that the bad guy is scheming to mass murder not only him and his entire class but also a whole mansion full of European diplomats. It’s worth noting that when told he has to kill the bad guy in order for them to escape, he refuses; one meeting with said baddie later, though, and Michael realizes the score, and happily picks up a machine gun in order to prevent hundreds of innocent people from getting killed, including himself.
On the downside though, he wears eyeliner…
Gabrielle Anwar is Mariska
A waste of space. I almost didn’t even mention her. She is the daughter of Blade, a secret agent who gets killed early on, out to avenge her dad. The weird part is she is well aware of her father’s double life, and displays some skill and intelligence early on suggesting Blade may have trained her in self-defense, only to revert to helpless damsel mode the minute she and Michael are nabbed. She later joins him in shooting at the villain’s helicopter, but it’s too little too late. The damage has already been done and no amount of ventilating a chopper is going to make up for letting a nameless goon feel her up without comeuppance, crying in the cell with Michael, doing nothing during the climactic shootout, and then just simpering and screaming for help while held by the villain.
Roger Rees is Augustus Steranko
Although affably and enjoyably hammy, Steranko is one of the least impressive main villains ever. For starters, he’s a wuss with so much hair gel he could cause his own toxic oil spill by falling in the ocean. He openly admits violence makes him uncomfortable and only under pressure does he finally get a gun and start being threatening; prior to this he winces and turns away whenever something icky happens, and uses other people to do his dirty work. I suppose this is meant as a slight parody of the cat-stroking Blofeldian types who don’t get physically involved but whether intentionally or not, Steranko is still just not scary. Next, his scheme is inconsistent and lame. Under the pretense of turning his mansion into “the Fort Knox of Europe,” he’s been squirreling away the gold of various European countries and secretly melting it down to make his own gold coins. Fair enough. Then in the third act he does a complete about-face and now suddenly schemes to poison a bunch of European financial bigwigs as part of some vague plan to conquer Europe. At least he gets a fittingly ironic death.
Linda Hunt is Ilsa Grunt
Making Steranko look even more pathetic is the fact the true badass among the baddies is a small old woman. Her name and status as the mastermind’s right hand make her a nod to Irma Bunt, obviously. She is everything her boss isn’t. Bold, manipulative (even of him, sometimes!) and a ruthless killer. By poison, gun and bullwhip this seemingly harmless little woman does the lion’s share of the killing amongst the villain team, easily killing three supposedly well-trained secret agents, including Mariska’s father. Her only misstep is overestimating her value to her boss, ending up with a one-way ticket out of a helicopter in mid-flight. There”s vague hints of an unrequited romance between the two, as Ilsa, after her pet assassin Zigesfeld fails to kill Michael, becomes incensed when Steranko opts to send his arm candy, the obligstory femme fatale slut chick, to do the job. Ilsa bristles and secretly instructs Zigesfeld to kill Steranko’s girlfriend behind his back. Unfortunately this vague intimation stays vague; her apparent jealousy never comes up again.
Tom Rack is Zigesfeld
On the surface, this guys is just another glorified henchman with a gimmick. He’s a killer dressed in black with a gold (!) metal robotic hand, kept covered for much of the movie Terminator-style by a black glove. But there’s more to him than just this. And that is his relationship with Ilsa. His readiness to kill Steranko’s girlfriend for her at the drop of a hat suggests he is more loyal to her than Steranko. It is also strongly intimated that he is retarded or at least feral. In one scene, he becomes startled and almost turns violent, and Ilsa calms him by stroking his gloved robotic hand, and he grins at her stupidly like a mentally challenged ten-year old. As far as being scary goes, with only one line, Zigesfeld does more than he says, and although he rarely succeeds at actually killing anyone, his tendency to solve any situation by just throwing a violent tantrum make him an unpredictable and threatening presence. A shame, then, that he goes out like a total punk after all the buildup.
[THE SEX AND VIOLENCE]
[DudeSweat and Machismo]
We see Michael not only shirtless but nearly naked in his underwear (tighty-whities!) during his makeout session with Areola. But since he’s making it with a woman I doubt this counts.
This is really about it although during their confrontation over dinner Steranko gets, shall we say, uncomfortably close to Michael and it’s easy to look at a screenshot of the scene and take it out of context.
[Exploitation and Misogyny]
Michael’s classmate Melissa exists only to just be the token female friend from school, and at one point, Michael’s best friend and potential future sexual deviant Kent molests her while she’s sleeping on the bus and tries to put his tongue in her ear. Beyond that, and the aforementioned fact that the best and most humiliating demise is reserved for the film’s sexually-charged female baddie, there’s not much on display here.
MURDER BY NUMBERS: [ 21 ]
The action is pretty bloodless and, in keeping with the radically changing tone of the film, the deaths in the first and second acts, except for Blade’s which looked pretty painful, are treated with a lighthearted goofiness. At the climax when the situation has turned far more serious, the action scenes follow suit; people get gunned down left and right and Michael himself scores a total of 12 kills.
[THE BEST OF THE REST]
[Most Satisfying Death(s)]
Steranko’s thoroughly annoying and slutty arm-candy Areola (!) Canasta attempts to kill Michael in bed at his hotel using a scorpion (in reality a harmless emperor scorpion), only for the horny teen’s frantic search for condoms to result in the errant arachnid going down her nightgown and stinging her in her, um, no-no place. Her death throes are unintentionally seen as dancing by Michael, especially after she bumps into and accidentally turns on the stereo. Before she has a chance to fully die from the poison however, Zigesfeld arrives, sent by Ilsa as described earlier, and in keeping with the fact that “subtle” isn’t in his vocabulary, he promptly annihilates Areola with a direct hit from a shoulder mounted rocket launcher, taking out the entire bedroom (Michael survives only by diving into the bathtub).
A runner-up: One particular goon during the gold foundry firefight.
Michael literally fires around the corner without even looking and kills the guy.
[Best Fight Scene]
Chosen only because it’s really the only fight scene, that is, the only hand-to-hand fight; when Michael fights Zigesfeld in Steranko’s gold foundry. It’s too short and as mentioned Zigesfeld dies too easily, but you take what you can get. The setting is nice and to his credit Michael tries to grab a gun from a killed goon but Zigesfeld drags him on top of a big vat of liquid gold where he uses his one physical advantage, his metal hand, to bitchslap the kid around some. His downfall comes, though, when he puts a little too much effort into one punch and hits the wrong thing…
The epic moment is at the end, fittingly. Steranko’s helicopter crashlands and does a goofy flip in midair, and then the still-spinning rotor section detaches and chases after the heroes like a huge buzzsaw. This is so utterly ridiculous I was amazed it even transpired.
In the same scene, before the helicopter crash, Steranko falls out of it while it’s in the air and is killed by being smothered in a rain of his own ill-gotten gold coins. Michael offers up not one but two appropriate one-liners for your convenience during this:
First, as Steranko is being buried, he yells, “Time to cash it in, Steranko!”
Secondly, after the villain is thoroughly buried and quite dead, he cements his cheesy action hero credentials and adds, “Keep the change!”
If Looks Could Kill is often called a comedy. Although it is a sendup of action movie cliches (spy films in particular), and has its fair share of silly moments, the actual problem being faced is a fairly realistic one and is treated with dead seriousness. Ignoring the ridiculousness of the central premise (everyone thinks a high school kid is a spy), let’s dive right in and explore, in brief, why If Looks Could Kill is not really a comedy despite its inherent goofiness.
It starts out like any teen comedy. Excepting one cutaway to an action sequence at the villain’s hangout early on, almost all of the stuff early on is of the silly variety. Goofy Bondian gadgetry, buffoonish adult spies, the hero’s immature and annoying classmates, etc. However as the story progresses it becomes gradually darker the closer the hero gets to the villain. The situation grows increasingly more unfunny and more dire but still over-the-top in its depiction. The spy life, fun at first, quickly becomes unavoidably grim as the high school student main character is forced to take up arms and take lives or risk having his own, and others’, taken. I’ll discuss this more under his category.
The action sequences are unfortunately poorly choreographed and badly edited, but not to the point where it’s impossible to tell what is going on. It’s just that shots don’t always match up and occasionally the same unnamed goon gets killed twice. Things of that nature. There’s a slow and uninteresting car chase midway through, and although the entire point is that our hero is completely unaware of his pursuer, it doesn’t excuse the lackluster direction of the sequence and the slow pace at which the vehicles move.
Besides this, there’s the problem of the Bondian gadgetry. X-ray glasses, suction cup shoes and exploding chewing gum are a few. Their presence is a problem as it detracts from the apparent realism of the scenario which the movie is trying to present (oddly I have no such qualms about the stuff the villains have; see below), and also they’re each used so sparingly you wonder why the writer included them.
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
Gold is really heavy, and in its liquid state highly explosive. Also, If Looks Could Kill is a fairly average action-pseudo-comedy with potential that goes underutilized.
[THE AOBG ACTION CHECKLIST]
[ ] Athlete(s) Turned “Actor”
[ ] Clinging To The Outside Of A Moving Vehicle
[ ] Crotch Attack
[X] Dialogue Telling Us How Bad-Ass The Main Character(s) Is/Are
[ ] Ending Featuring An Ambulance, A Blanket or A Towel
[X] Giant Explosion(s)
[X] Heavy Artillery*
[X] Improvised Weapon(s)
[X] Macho Mode(s) Of Transportation
[X] Main Character Sports Facial Accessory(s)
[ ] Manly Embrace(s)
[ ] Notorious Stunt-Man Sighting
[X] Passage(s) Of Time Via Montage
[ ] Politically Fueled Plot Point(s)
[X] Senseless Destruction Of Property
[X] Shoot Out(s) and/or Sword Fight(s)
[ ] Slow-Motion Finishing Move(s)/Death(s)
[X] Stupid Authoritative Figure [Haywood]
[ ] Substance Usage and/or Abuse
[ ] Tis The Season
[ ] Torture Sequence(s)
[ ] Unnecessary Sequel
[X] Vehicle Chase(s)
[ ] Vigilante Justice
[TOTAL: 12 outta 25]
*Note that despite the aforementioned use of a rocket launcher I’m unsure if this counts as heavy artillery. When I think heavy artillery I think tanks. [Editor’s note: Rocket Launchers totally count]