I had thought that I had seen Hot Pursuit many times during my teenage years. As it turns out, I really just had a vivid memory of one scene. It involves John Cusack’s character thwarting a guy trying to hijack a plane with a bomb in a bag, which is actually just a loaf of bread with some wires stuck in it. After disarming the loaf, he goes into a wild-eyed fit in front of all the passengers. I seem to recall that my brother would often repeat this scene, as we often did with favorite movie moments. I guess this solidified this film in my brain as being kind of a crazy, quirky, 80’s teen comedy along the lines of some other Cusack films like Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer. But as I rewatched the film for the first time in at least two decades, I found that I was quite mistaken.
The story concerns a young man named Daniel (played by Cusack) who is a student at a preparatory school of some sort. As the film begins, he is in the middle of a studying marathon in anticipation of a big chemistry test. The test is on the eve of spring break, during which he will join his girlfriend Lori (Wendy Gazelle), and her well-to-do family, in the Caribbean. If he doesn’t pass the test, he doesn’t go on the trip. Well, you guessed it, he flunks the test by just a few points and has to stay behind. Or…so it would seem, until his professor visits him for a little heart to heart. After discussing the science of love, the professor gives Danny a passing grade and sends him off. Now, he is off to catch up with his girlfriend…and you can imagine how well that goes.
The story is a little like Planes, Trains and Automobiles (which would be released later the same year, 1987), with our hero trying to reunite with his girlfriend but always running into some obstacle that prevents him from getting where he wants to be. Just take out the “Trains” part, substitute “Boats,” and you’ve got it. Of course, he ends up with a variety of strange characters along the way, beginning with a trio of Rastafarian locals, led by Keith David. That was a little strange, hearing the distinguished voice that narrates all of Ken Burns’ documentaries doing the “Ya Mon” routine. He also ends up with a grizzled sea captain, Mac, played by the king of “grizzled,” Robert Loggia.
It turns out that Mac is pursuing the yacht that Daniel’s girlfriend and her family are on because one of the crew members hijacked his boat. The boat thief is played by Ben Stiller in his first big screen appearance. He really does come across pretty creepy as he makes moves on Daniel’s girlfriend.
Though there are a few funny moments (the previously mentioned airplane scene, for example), for the most part the movie just isn’t very funny. It was directed by Steven Lisburger, the man behind the original Tron. Though he has a way with a light cycle, a flair for comedic timing is not on display here. Plus, the whole boat hijacking part of the plot does an effective job of sucking a lot of the laughs out of the story. Dead bodies in the closet just aren’t a recipe for comedy gold. I also have to admit some disappointment with Cusack’s performance. The story really requires a bit more of a slow-burn from his character, but he switches from calm to wild-eyed crazy too quickly. Letting his character’s frustration build more gradually could have created some more laughs. But if you’re a fan of some of the other 80’s Cusack comedies, Hot Pursuit is worth another look. Just don’t expect to laugh much.