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‘TARGET’: FATHER, SON TEAM UP IN SPY THRILLER

Times Film Critic

What happens to worn-out CIA agents? Or to ones who choose home, hearth and family over phone booths, airline terminals and excess stomach acid. Interesting question. “Target” (citywide) is created around that germ of an idea, yet even with Arthur Penn as its director, and ingenious casting, it is, sad to say, mainly for connoisseurs of the car chase, European style.

The real meat of the problem is botched. How does a son (Matt Dillon), semi-estranged since he prefers racing cars to a college education, adjust to his faintly boring, Dallas small-businessman father (Gene Hackman) suddenly brandishing a gun and speaking in tongues other than Texan (bad German and bad French). As writers Howard Berk and Don Peterson would have it, the poor kid must stand about, jaw agape, saying, “You speak French!?” “You carry a gun!?” “You killed people!” while at least two armies of trained assassins converge on him and his father.

Because the father-son equation is, supposedly, at the emotional bottom of things, mother is out of the picture instantly. (She is the beautiful Gayle Hunnicutt, who seems to have wafted over from another film entirely, perhaps a Bond movie. Her scenes with Dillon call for her to play them with the elaborate cordiality of a Tournament of Roses queen dispensing kisses to the crowd, not like anyone who’d ever spent time around a grubby teen-age son.) Mother, actually, becomes the McGuffin; having left on a group tour of Europe, she is kidnaped abroad by forces unknown. It brings father and son to Paris and Hackman out of protective cover after almost 20 years.

We move now to Europe and the balance of the cast, the redoubtable Josef Sommer as our man in Paris and Hackman’s friend from the bad old days, whose every suggestion Hackman instantly ignores, and two actresses new to America, Germany’s Ilona Grubel as the flirtatious backpacker who engages Dillon’s interest under heavily suspicious circumstances, and Victoria Fyodorova as a fellow agent from Hackman’s past.

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(Actually, the life of ex-Soviet actress Fyodorova--the daughter of an American admiral and a Russian star, banished for her marriage--as told in Fyodorova’s autobiographical “The Admiral’s Daughter,” might have been a better story than “Target.”)

Fyodorova makes a lovely debut; she is warm, with a sense of resilience that makes her believeable as a long-established covert agent. Along with Sommer and the splendid Herbert Berghof, who emerges late in the film, they are so good you deplore their exasperating material.

And it is exasperating, since the bottom-line story, the work of Leonard Stern, is basically a provocative one and since Hackman and Dillon, (a briskly unlikely physical match) struggle honestly with their father-and-son estrangement assignment. Hunnicutt has, after all, insisted on “quality time” between them in her absence. But since the film concentrates on breakneck action, not introspection, all you can think is what a father-son driving team these two would make at Indianapolis.

Unfortunately, car chases across handsome European locations are not the novelty they once were; the ultimate villain is hardly a surprise, the reuniting of the family is never for a moment in doubt, and there is painfully little to mark this as a Penn film. Oh, for the return of the quiet, intelligent psychological thriller, and the retirement of the high-speed chase. It couldn’t come a moment too soon.

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