Fairly often while watching a movie, I’m wanting it to be something I just know it’s going to end up falling short of. This one was no exception. Like most ’80s everyman thrust into cloak-and-dagger-type movies, John Landis’s Into the Night starts out strong, but never rises out of mediocrity.

I’m a sucker for the following things: ’80s flicks, cloak-and-dagger plots, and Jeff Goldblum. I feel like you almost have to be a fan of all three to appreciate this film. Well, there’s Michelle Pfeiffer, who’s not too bad on the eyes herself. But even so, I just couldn’t bring myself to give Into the Night 3 stars instead of just 2 and a half.

The premise is simple. Ed Okin (Goldblum) is a desperately bored, insomniac office drone who fails at communicating with his wife, and arrives home early one day to find her in bed with somebody else. Instead of an ugly confrontation scene, he takes to driving the lonely LA highways at night to B.B. King-influenced, but now generic-sounding 80’s synth rock. It’s a right place at the wrong time situation that moves the story from Ed’s dull, boring life to the slightly less dull second act.

From here on out, he’s your classic Joe Blow who finds himself caught up in the middle of something way over his head alongside beautiful and mysterious vixen Diana (Pfeiffer). We don’t know what that “something” is until much later, but for a while we’re content with whatever our imagination can conjure. By the way, try not to imagine too much.

The first half of the movie plays almost like High Noon, as Diana shops around her socialite network for help, only to find that the reservoir has run dry. Ed chauffeurs the unappreciative Diana around Hollywood in a series of interesting cars, from a beat-up Chevy Nova to a ‘59 Elvis-themed Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz and everything in between. If you raised an eyebrow at “Elvis-themed,” I’ll just say this: it’s got some flair that makes the “Pussy Wagon” in Kill Bill look like a Happy Meal toy.

My love for Diana could be represented in a line graph and it would look something like a jagged downward trend: I generally liked her less and less as the film went on, but there were occasional scenes where she would gain back points for either being sexy or simply showing a little emotion now and then. In any case, I can’t think of a single other movie where Michelle Pfeiffer walked around completely stark naked in the background. (That happens closer to the beginning, by the way.)

Ed is a passive observer, only occasionally stepping out of his comfort zone to improvise where a situation calls for it, otherwise bemused by the rituals of this otherworldly realm he’s stumbled into. He drifts through the movie like someone who desperately needs a Red Bull.

To contrast the drab Ed in a melancholy tweed blazer, Into the Night has more than a few characters that’ll make your head spin, among them an Elvis impersonator whose infatuation with the King is more than an understatement, it’s a defining character attribute at the core of his personality. Oh, and right about the time I was wondering if there was going to be some kind of hook to elevate the film above its generic, run-of-the-mill plot, in popped a character played by David Bowie. Unfortunately, he under-stays his welcome.

Into the Night meanders through its plot developments and exposition in a way that’s almost true to the pace of real life but not so great for film. I kept thinking of Frantic for some reason, maybe because of the real-time intrigue-style plot similarities. Certainly not for the tone. If anything, it’s a lighter, cheaper Frantic, or Frantic with a mild sense of humor and without the mysterious European allure.

Like an old house with a manic, easily influenced decorator/renovator, it’s never sure what it is. Gritty, realistic thriller one minute, ’80s B-movie of the week the next, with some slapstick thrown in for good measure. A goon squad of villains chasing Diana and Ed throughout much of the movie, one of them played by Landis himself, can shove their knives into a guy and let him bleed out onto the floor of a parking garage, ruthlessly drown a half-naked woman in the dawn surf, and needlessly open fire on an old man’s dog, and someone’s parrots, and yet at any given moment, they dissolve into the antics of a Three Stooges routine. Twice these henchmen barbarously ransack some rich asshole’s place while a half-naked, voluptuous mistress stands by. In each instance, I was never quite sure if what was about to go down was some kind of rape scene, graphic or otherwise. When they first appear you’re thinking: political thriller. Then, halfway through, they’re suddenly relegated to the comic relief station formerly occupied by such bumbling henchmen as Team Rocket and those hyenas from The Lion King, before meeting their collective ends in a gritty scene reminiscent of a Sam Peckinpah shootout.

As the film builds to its climax, these tactics are an exercise in holding your slipping attention. For some, it will be a losing battle.

Again going for realism, it’s split up into two nights instead of just one, even though the brief gap of daylight in-between is superfluous and unnecessary — since, in order to move the action back into the night, Landis has Diana and Ed sleep nine hours in a secret passage outside an estate’s grounds so they can wait for the maintenance staff to leave.

As a screenwriter I usually find my commentary to be more story-weighted by default. Here there’s not much else to comment on. Bland cinematography, drab lighting, a few focus issues here and there — from a technical perspective, it’s amateur hour. But you already know that; that isn’t why you’re here. You’re here for the cheap ’80s nostalgia, which I won’t deny exists. The funny thing is, Ed’s outfit already looks outdated for this movie. Renowned blues guitarist B.B. King wrote two songs for the film, and I’m told contributed his musicianship to much of the score, which to me sounded like a generic library stock soundtrack, but they made a big deal about it in the special features of the DVD I watched. In any case, it’s pure ’80s.

The movie offers no subplot other than Ed is an insomniac and is bored with his life. My interpretation is that the entire film after he nods off at his desk is a prolonged dream sequence, a deluded fantasy cooked up by his bored subconscious. If you look at it through this prism it becomes much more interesting.

Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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