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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Bird on Wire’: A Hawn, Gibson Balancing Act

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Badham’s “Bird on a Wire” (citywide) is both frenetic and witless--a bad combination. It’s the sort of action-comedy vehicle that stands a chance of succeeding only if the star chemistry is strong enough to compensate for all the uninspired calisthenic derring-do.

Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn can’t cultivate their chemistry because their characters are too busy dodging bullets and scampering away from the bad guys. They’re moving-target gagsters in a techno-pop shooting gallery.

Gibson plays Rick Jarmin, a former counter-culture roustabout who, as a result of testifying against a crooked fed (David Carradine) 15 years ago, is still being shuttled around the country in the Federal Witness Relocation Program. When his ex-sweetheart Marianne (Hawn), who believed him dead, accidentally encounters Rick working in a Detroit gas station, she’s furious at him.

In other words, she still loves him.

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Released from prison, the corrupt fed reteams with his partner (Bill Duke) and goes gunning for Rick. Marianne ends up the willing hostage of her old boyfriend. She’s a big-time corporate lawyer now, which, given the film’s woozy spirit-of-the-'60s bias, means it’s only a matter of time before she drops out and goes native; we’re supposed to be charmed by her reluctant re-entry into Rick’s time-warp world of hippie flamboyance and nose-thumbing at authority.

The time warp is a bit too conveniently warped. Even though we’re regaled with ‘60s music, Rick’s initial romance with Marianne was, by my calculations, circa 1975--not exactly the height of hippiedom. But the time delay allows for a somewhat less superannuated pair of lovebirds.

Marianne may be a successful professional woman but, in contrast to her “radical” past, she’s castigated as a grasping, acquisitive screecher--a turncoat. When, on the run with Rick, she bemoans the loss of her gold card and her daily massage, we’re essentially being treated to Pvt. Benjamin in lawyer drag. Her princessy rantings have a recycled sameness.

By comparison, Rick gets off easy. His drug bust, which we see in a shimmer of flashbacks, is recalled as a romp. But since it involved flying a drug-laden plane across the border, and the shooting of Rick’s partner, it’s tough to connect these gruesome flashbacks with Rick’s current footloose affability.

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Has a male star ever received this much on-camera ogling at the expense of his female co-star? Goldie Hawn flounces around in a series of unflattering poses while Gibson--literally--butts into half of his scenes. There’s a fanny joke around every corner. In one car-chase scene, Rick spends the entire time scrunched beneath the glove compartment with his bottom pointing skyward. In another, we get to watch as Rick has the buckshot lovingly removed from his rear by an amorous veterinarian (Joan Severance).

Gibson tries to trick all this adulation into a comic style, and he has a pretty good time of it. He can be funny on the run, as he also demonstrated in the early parts of “Lethal Weapon 2,” before he was required to endure the inevitable pummelings and stabbings and bombings. But he’s essentially window-dressing here, just as Goldie Hawn is essentially a sound-effects machine. (She’s all whine and purr.) The movie (rated PG-13) is so pointlessly geared-up that it can’t accommodate any subtle, small-scale human interactions. Only one scene, a too-brief reunion between Rick and an old protector, has the savor of real life, and that’s because, as the addled old man, Jeff Corey carries a quiet dignity that puts the rest of the movie to shame.

John Badham takes a ham-fisted approach. When one of the bad guys is thrown into a pool of piranhas at a zoo, we get a close-up of his face being gnawed. The violence in this movie, of which this snippet is typical, doesn’t have a comic kick to it. It’s just thrown in to juice the junk. Does this explain why the people in this film are such androids? If they were actual humans, we might be forced to wince at their pain. As it is, we just wince at the movie.

‘BIRD ON A WIRE’

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A Universal Studios release. Executive producers Ted Field and Robert W. Cort. Producer Rob Cohen. Director John Badham. Screenplay David Seltzer and Louis Venosta & Eric Lerner. Cinematography Robert Primes. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Phillip Harrison. costumes Wayne Finkelman and Eduardo Castro. Film editor Frank Morriss and Dallas Puett. With Mel Gibson, Goldie Hawn, David Carradine, Bill Duke, Stephen Tobolowsky, Jeff Corey.

Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).


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