Murphy’s Law

(1986)

by D. B. Bates, Editor-in-Chief

From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.

Charles Bronson’s moment of ascent from supporting strongman to leading man came at a curious time in both his life and on the cultural landscape. After his brilliant turn as Harmonica in Sergio Leone’s iconic masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Bronson finally got leading roles in movies ranging from bizarre (1970’s Lola, in which he plays a smut novelist who falls for and marries a 15-year-old) to badass (1972’s The Mechanic, which arguably served as the template for the revenge films that made him a star), but his breakthrough didn’t come until 1974’s Death Wish.

Bronson was 52 the year he made Death Wish, almost a decade older than action stars considered contemporaries, like Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen. His age seemed even starker in comparison to the new generation emerging in the late 1970s, notably Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In many ways, this made him an antidote to the changing times. He was a member of the Greatest Generation, and most of his post-stardom films reflect the feelings and attitudes of his era. At their core, the utter fear of progress permeates these films. In various ways, all five Death Wish films fear the lawlessness brought about by urban decay; Death Hunt expresses a deep-seated fear of government; 10 to Midnight, in a similar fashion, fears the ascent of a criminal-coddling justice system; and, of course, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects takes a bizarre yet compelling look at the 1980s boom in Japanese immigration. All of these films play to the anxieties of Bronson’s generation, and sometimes (particularly in Kinjite), they approach the issues in fairly interesting ways before descending into the orgy of violence emblematic of Bronson’s canon.

Murphy’s Law continues the trend of terrified subject matter; this time, the film focuses on women. Gail Morgan Hickman’s (not a woman, so don’t get your hopes up for a pro-feminist romp) screenplay features three archetypal female characters, each of whom symbolize the progress in women’s rights — and the danger of that progress — in their own ways. Bronson plays Jack Murphy, an alcoholic robbery-homicide detective whose wife has just left him. In a bizarre twist, Jan (Angel Tompkins) has left Murphy in order to live out her dream of stripping (she calls it “dancing”). Murphy has a habit of sitting in the back of her club, getting hammered, taunting Jan, and then following her back to her apartment to peep while she makes love with other men. Seriously.

Jan doesn’t know it, but she’s on a collision course toward wackiness with one Joan Freeman (Carrie Snodgress), a psychopath Murphy put away years earlier. She’s out on parole and has made it her mission to get revenge on everyone who had a hand in putting her away, starting with Murphy — but, as she says when she makes an anonymous call to Murphy, she intends to “put him through hell” before killing him. Joan knows Murphy’s routine, and she uses that knowledge to frame him for the murder of his wife and lover. Murphy’s nemesis on the force, Reineke (James Luisi), arrests Murphy with pleasure and doesn’t have much interest in Murphy’s stories of being framed.

For unclear reasons, when they put him in lock-up, they shackle Murphy to the third — and most important — female character in the film, Arabella McGee. Played by the always adorable Kathleen Wilhoite, the film allows her to be the lone positive example of a fiercely independent, modern woman. We only need to ignore the fact that she’s a petty thief with a habit of insulting everyone she meets. (In a pre-Tarantino effort to keep the dialogue relatively free of cursing, Arabella’s insults sometimes border on avant-garde — my personal favorites were “suck my squirrel” and “butt crust.”) When Murphy sees an opportunity to bust out of lock-up, he takes it — and drags her with him.

Murphy’s Law opens with a far-too-coincidental in which Arabella steals Murphy’s car, and he chases (on foot) and arrests her. Theoretically, this scene might be needed to establish her particular hatred of Murphy, but the fun thing about Arabella’s character is that she hates everyone, especially cops. Murphy hates her back, and he insults as viciously as she does.

Don’t enter the film expecting a gender-role variation on The Defiant Ones. They’re unchained quickly, but Arabella discovers via news reports that the police consider her an accomplice. She knows the only way to get out of this jam is to help Murphy prove his innocence.

At this point, two very important things happen, thematically. First, the film allows Arabella to develop into a real character — without marginalizing the things that make her so appealing.

In far too many supposedly feminist films (Life as We Know It leaps to mind), the independent woman has only two options — remain a shrill, career-obsessed bitch, or melt into a puddle of mush and allow the man to do the thinking for both of them. It would have been very easy for a film like Murphy’s Law to fall into a trap like this, softening Arabella’s edges until she’s a worthy romantic interest for an old-fashioned stud like Jack Murphy. To the film’s credit, it never does; in fact, the closing scene finds Arabella immediately insulting and browbeating after cheating death. Murphy’s the one who changes, seeing Arabella as more than a thug; she becomes a person, to him and the audience, without ever losing her edge.

Part of that — maybe most of it — can be attributed to Wilhoite’s singular presence in cinema. Especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s, she had a habit of popping up in the stereotypical role of the perky, cute, sexually uninteresting (to the leading hunk) woman who proves herself invaluable but still stands aside so he can lick the tonsils of the nearest statuesque blonde. This is never a great role for an actress, but Wilhoite always brings darkness and edge to a stock character. She evokes a wild, punky spirit that give vibrancy to generic dialogue in small parts. Arabella, a rare leading role, plays to this aspect of Wilhoite’s personality, allowing the character and performance to show the power of a strong woman without getting too ridiculous (just ridiculous enough for your average Bronson flick).

The second, and perhaps most important, twist on an old favorite is Murphy misidentifying the person behind this frame job. In typically sexist fashion, Murphy ignores all the clues — including a woman calling and threatening him — and assumes Vincenzo (Richard Romanus), a mobster Murphy has been investigating, must be making good on his revenge threats. Targeting Vincenzo is a big mistake, and a colossal waste of time. Tellingly, the fact that Murphy humiliates the man in front of his favorite prostitute sets him off. Even more tellingly, it’s Arabella who calms Murphy down and makes him realize Vincenzo has nothing to do with killing Jan.

Adding the mobster element should have made the climactic scenes more exciting, but longtime Bronson (and Cannon) collaborator J. Lee Thompson doesn’t let the elements come together in a particularly thrilling way. Imagine it: Murphy has identified and confronted Joan; she takes Arabella hostage and brings her to the Bradbury Building, one of the coolest buildings in Los Angeles; Murphy risks everything to beg for police backup; and the mob’s inside man on the force alerts them to Murphy’s location. Murphy gets his backup, in the form of cops showing up to arrest him, so as police and mobsters surround both Murphy and a ruthless killer — come on, that pretty much writes itself.

But Cannon’s notoriously low budgets strike again — Thompson ruins the fun of shooting in the Bradbury Building by using the film noir “trick” (known in noir’s heyday as “a budgetary necessity”) of using minimal lighting to keep most of the huge structure in shadows. And about ten extras, serving as mobsters and cops, enter the fray. It’s not exactly Death Wish 3. The presence of the mobsters and cops in such a diminished capacity has the ironic effect of feeling like a needless distraction. Allowing Murphy to have a one-on-one confrontation with Joan might have been a more effective way to stage these scenes, given the constraints, but I won’t sit here wishing for the film that was.

Because of the way it peters out so unsatisfactorily, I can’t quite recommend Murphy’s Law. Bronson and Wilhoite are great individually and together, making even their awkward sex talk midway through the film believable. I admire much of what it attempts to do, especially in putting gynophobia into the context of an action film (the most gynophobic, or misogynistic, or sexist, of genres). Usually, cheesy genre films’ attempts to overreach that ruin them. With Murphy’s Law the overreaching is actually the best part — it succeeds as a fairly simplistic but well-meaning and often interesting examination of sexism. However, it fails as an action movie, boasting little more than a few stiffly blocked shootouts and the disappointing climax.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

Comments (2)

On August 9, 2012 at 1:34 AM, Charles wrote...

I think you are way too kind with this utterly horrible film. I admire your analysis but I thought the acting by Wilhoite was wretched at best. “Dicknose” insults (couldn’t the ghastly scriptwriter have come up with better insults?) and the cheapjack musical score really undermined what could have been a fairly interesting film.

Once upon a time, J. Lee Thompson had been a pretty damn good director (“Guns of Navarone”, “Cape Fear” even “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes”) but by this time I heard he was living paycheck to paycheck and didn’t give a crap. And it shows. As you state, he could have done more with the amazing Bradbury building. How anyone could have screwed that up (he was probably in a drunken haze) is beyond me.

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On January 19, 2016 at 12:09 AM, JB wrote...

Loved this movie and your review.

Her insults SUCKED. But by the end, I was wondering what’s next.

Granted that did ruin the film as I shouldn’t gave been laughing at each preposterous slam she uttered but it amused me nevertheless.

The movie was anticlimactic.

Good first half, surprisingly solid chemistry and for once he played to age and with flaws.

It’s definitely no classic, likely a bad movie but was an enjoyable watch and for that I give it a B or 3 stars.

I’d watch it again and I quite enjoyed Arabella despite her awfully awkward and embarrassingly scripted insults.

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