The Experts

Has any actor had more ups and downs to their career than John Travolta?  I remember watching him every Saturday night on “Welcome Back Kotter,” but then he was gone.  Replaced by another guy because he was off making big hit movies like “Grease,” “Saturday Night Fever,” and “Urban Cowboy.”  But then came flops like “Perfect” and “Two of a Kind.”  But hang on, then “Look Who’s Talking” was a huge hit, only to be followed by the unspectacular “Shout.”  But then Tarrantino got hold of him and we had “Pulp Fiction,” to be followed by other hits like “Get Shorty” and “Michael.”  But it was all in vain, for they led to “Battlefield Earth.”  A roller coaster ride if their ever was one.  “The Experts” is a movie that came on one of the low sections of the roller coaster.

I remember first hearing about this film in the early summer of 1988.  During one of my weekly visits to the local googleplex, I was handed a multi page flier which highlighted the upcoming releases from Paramount Pictures.  I remember it highlighted films like “The Accused” and “Big Top Pee-wee,” and then there was this one.  But the film never came out!  Supposedly it finally received a limited release in early 1989, several years after being filmed.  It sure didn’t come out in my corner of the Chicago suburbs until it showed up one day on the shelves at Blockbuster.

Travolta is Travis and Ayre Gross is Wendell, a couple of New York club hoppers with dreams of one day starting their own dance club.  One night, they are recruited by Bob Smith (Charles Martin Smith), a businessman from a small Nebraska town who wants to bring a New York style club to the American heartland…or so he says.  Actually, Smith is a Soviet agent who runs a training facility for Soviet spies.  The facility is made to look like an average American town, where people actually live and work, to help future spies blend in to American culture.  Problem is, the town was built over 30 years ago, so it looks more familiar to Wally and the Beav than to kids who want their MTV.  Smith plans to use Travis and Wendell to update the trainees on American life.

To be honest, I think the premise has a lot of potential.  Another promising aspect of the film was the director, Dave Thomas.  No, not the founder of Wendy’s, Dave Thomas of “SCTV” fame.  Thomas was one of the real standouts of that show’s extremely talented cast.  But “The Experts” reflects none of that sort of comic sensibility.

I think the biggest problem with the film is, unfortunately, the two leads.  They are both fine actors, but they just aren’t funny in these roles.  Had the characters been a bit more like…say Bill & Ted, there would’ve been a lot more comedic opportunities.  Instead, Travolta and Gross play the whole thing pretty straight.  It doesn’t help that both are waaaaay too old for their parts as well.  They are supposed to be hip young 80’s trend setters, but, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, Travolta was about 35 when this film was made…Gross about 30.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m currently 40 years old and that I stopped being an expert on what was hip about 18 years ago (if ever there was such a time).  Both leads look awkward trying to play roles written for actors much younger than they are.

Travolta and Gross are both given two 80’s dream girls for their love interests…”Valley Girl” star Deborah Foreman and Travolta’s future wife Kelly Preston.  Neither is given much chance to develop their characters.  Foreman barely even has any dialogue.  These ladies, and the other townsfolk, are supposed to be Russian agents in training…yet they never slip into a Russian accent, or make accidental reference to their true purpose.  Moments like this would’ve added a bit of humor to this dull script.

As I said before, this film sat on the shelf for years before a limited theatrical release in early 1989…later that year we saw the end of the cold war.  Perhaps this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I guess we can be thankful for that.

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