Michael Caine is one of the best actors working in film today. He's also one of the most frustrating. This point is illustrated best by an event from a few years ago, when Caine was absent from the Academy Awards ceremony that justly gave him the Best Supporting Actor award for his splendid work in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters.
Caine was not there, you may remember, because he was off filming the execrable Jaws: The Revenge.
Like the late Sir Lawrence Olivier, Caine has stated repeatedly in interviews that he'll act in anything as long as he gets paid.
So we've learned by now that for every good Michael Caine film, we can expect a dud or two. For every Sleuth or Mona Lisa, we can expect a Deathtrap or Blame It on Rio.
But even in bad movies, he's very good. Let's face it: Caine could do a lambada movie and it'd be worth seeing.
His work in the new suspense thriller A Shock to the System carries us past the movie's bad direction and muddled script. By now, it's becoming apparent that Caine just doesn't contribute a performance to his films; he contributes a striking, very palpable presence.
Directed by Jan Egleson and based on a novel by Simon Brett, A Shock to the System has all the makings of a barbed black comedy, and for the last hour or so, actually becomes that black comedy. It's about Graham Marshall, an aging corporate executive, who one day pushes a vagrant in front of a subway train. And gets away with it.
He broods over this unexpected event. The vagrant was bothering him, and Graham made him go away just like that. It's a neat trick, so Graham applies it to his nagging wife, played by Swoosie Kurtz. This requires more of a set-up, and it piques the curiosity of a nosy police officer, but it works, just the same.
And then Graham takes his handy little magic trick to his office, where slick young turks are taking over the company, and he gives new meaning to the term, "hostile takeover."
But it takes a while to get to this promising plot. For almost an hour we have no idea what we're watching.
First, we're led to expect something out of Tom Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, where a wealthy man injures a lower-class citizen, and is both persecuted and prosecuted for his crime.
Then the story jumps to typical weekend murder-mystery fare, when Graham accepts an invitation to go sailing with the turk (Peter Reigert) who stole his promotion. But that plot development pans out as quickly as it is introduced.
And, finally, the tone and plot flip to black comedy, and audiences may be surprised to find that, quite suddenly, Graham has become a full-blown psychopath _ albeit a most likable one.
These above-mentioned plot tricks are not the products of a slick and cunning screenplay. Andrew Klavan's script, which has Caine delivering an unfortunate third-person narration, is too uneven and garbled. When the movie suddenly picks up pace for the home stretch, we are very surprised, not to mention thankful.
There's a lot going for this picture, aside from Caine's winning performance. There's Riegert's nice turn as an oily corporate raider, and also worthy performances from Elizabeth McGovern (The Handmaid's Tale) and Jenny Wright (Near Dark).
And somehow A Shock to the System rises above Egleson's inept direction, which has little to offer in the way of inspiration, other than some badly framed shots and a series of crazily tilted camera angles.
But the main attraction here is the ever-watchable Caine.
When he settles into the suit-and-tie psychopathic role, we shouldn't be surprised that we're pulling for him, even laughing with him at some rather morbid events.
That's what Caine does best: He takes bad material and makes it worth watching. If any other actor had been signed to play this role, the movie would be unwatchable.
A Shock to the System
Cast: Michael Caine, Elizabeth mcGovern, Peter Riegert, Swoosie Kurtz, Will Patton, Jenny Wright
Director: Jan Egleson
Screenplay: Andrew Klavan, based on the novel by Simon Brett
Music: Gary Chang
Rating: R; profanity, adult situations
Running Time: 91 min.