Bird On A Wire (1990)

I have this test for a certain kind of actor.  If you can make me forget you’re an asshole in real life for two hours, then I have to admit you’re scary good at your job.

For a long time, Mel Gibson passed this test.  A raging xenophobe & homophobe and a violent misogynist off-screen, he could turn on the charm rather easily on-screen.  It helps explain why he got away with being a terrifying abuser for so long.

Take his role in Bird On A Wire, for instance.  In the film, he plays a paranoid pacifist hiding in plain sight through the FBI’s witness relocation program.  15 years ago, while seeking Acapulco Gold with a pal in Mexicali, he got entangled with a couple of crooked federal drug agents.  They roped them into doing a major drug deal which went horribly wrong.  One of the narcs (David Carradine) killed his friend and a federal agent.  After three months in jail, Gibson testified against him and he’s been moving around the country with different names and accents ever since.  (Apparently, he briefly ran Columbia Pictures, a funny inside joke.)

When we first meet him, he’s a bored, isolated, prank-lovin’, pony-tailed Southern mechanic in a Detroit gas station.  One rainy night, his past begins to catch up with him.  A customer in a BMW pulls up and the minute they lock eyes, he knows his cover’s been blown.

Goldie Hawn, a high-powered corporate attorney, is the driver.  Thinking they were on the verge of marriage 15 years ago, she was led to believe he died in a plane crash.  She even went to his memorial service.  When confronted, Gibson plays dumb, pretending he doesn’t have a tattoo and he’s a Vietnam vet.  Hawn knows better.

In a panic, Gibson tries to re-connect with the FBI agent who has overseen his case.  But he’s retired now and, as it turns out, rather senile.  So, he’s put in touch with Stephen Tobolowsky, the worst possible guy he could talk to.

Shortly thereafter, a now paroled David Carradine (yeah, that’s believable) and an indicted Bill Duke (who escaped during the ill-fated drug deal debacle) pay him an unexpected visit.  (They need to eliminate him so they can get back to smuggling.)  But because Carradine is gabby, Gibson survives with only butt pain, thanks to Hawn’s impeccably timed return.  (Hesitant villains with bad aim are the lamest villains of all.)

For the rest of the movie, the formerly devoted couple alternate between bickering, laughing, running, driving, flying, starving, ogling and, inevitably, screwing, all while continually tipping off their whereabouts and yet implausibly avoiding serious calamity.  (Gibson gets shot three times but never in a dangerous area.)  Hawn is pissed about being kept in the dark all this time but, even though she has a new boyfriend, she never got over Gibson.  Despite having a fling with a gun-totin’ veternarian (Joan Severence in one of her better performances), he feels exactly the same about Hawn.

It’s a delicate balancing act trying to make a funny action film, let alone one with a dickhead leading man, and Bird On A Wire can’t pull it off.  The chase sequences mostly lack genuine excitement and consistent comic ingenuity.  There’s a really funny moment, though, when Gibson makes a cheeky observation about Hawn as they’re climbing up a ladder, but that’s a rarity.  Most of the gags just don’t work.

Gibson and Hawn have such an easy, natural chemistry that when they argue, to a certain extent it feels a bit phony.  Shouldn’t she be more relieved than angry he’s still alive?  And even though he’s an old-school hippie who still sings Dylan at the top of his lungs and she’s now a loaded capitalist stuck in a dead-end relationship with some overworked nerd, their oppositional tension isn’t believable, I don’t care how many times she mumbles.  When they spend the night in a crummy motel (which inspires a couple of laughs), all it takes is a dick joke and one night of intimacy to make Hawn let go of her mostly contrived grievances.

All the while, Carradine, Duke and Tobolowsky continue to stalk them until the expected final confrontation.  After finally reconnecting with the now-retired FBI agent, Gibson and Hawn are advised to make their way to a nearby zoo.  Gibson used to work here during a past identity and he’s expecting to find a cache of weapons in the control room.  Good thing he knows how to unlock cages.

I first watched Bird On A Wire on my 15th birthday during its 1990 theatrical run.  I kinda liked it (I still love The Neville Brothers’ catchy Leonard Cohen cover) and was blissfully unaware of Gibson’s real-life dark side.  Now in my early 40s (and knowing a lot more about his general awfulness), I understand today why critics were not as enamoured.

There aren’t many surprises here except maybe the denseness of the heroes.  As paranoid as Gibson is in the film, he’s not very smart.  After being wrongly accused of murder early on, he doesn’t exactly keep a low profile.  In fact, he doesn’t change his appearance at all.  Plus, he drags Hawn to some of his former stomping grounds.  Tobolowsky and company correctly anticipate his next moves because they know all his former identities, and it takes him forever to finally realize that.  Hawn isn’t much help to his cause.  At one point, she makes it worse.

Even though Gibson is far from truly hateful in the film (he’s more of a reckless, harmless goof than anything else), he does offer an unnecessary impression of a sissy hairdresser, a tired stereotype.  I have to admit that when he gets beaten up and shot at, I wasn’t terribly upset, even though his character is more principled than the actor who plays him.

There’s an unwritten rule in Hollywood that assholes are often cast as heroes and actual gentlemen play the nastiest villains.  There are exceptions, of course, but not in the case of Mel Gibson.  If Bird On A Wire had been a lot funnier and smarter, the charm con that he long specialized in would’ve prevailed once more.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 30, 2017
6:40 p.m.

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Published in: on April 30, 2017 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

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