When Butch Casssidy took up law, he did so under the direction of Sidney Lumet and the verbal styling of David Mamet. Not even the stars of Mandingo and The Night Porter could trash up his boozy tour-de-force. When the Sundance Kid took up law, however, he called Ghostbusters’ director and the writers of Top Gun. Not even the star of Terms of Endearment could class up his snoozy tour-de-farce, though in all fairness, The Verdict was a drama and Legal Eagles is decidedly not.
Legal Eagles is a comedy, if you believe its ad campaign, but it’s funny in all the wrong places. Ivan Reitman’s 1986 Robert Redford vehicle is a strange brew of slapstick, mystery, court shenanigans, heist movies, romantic comedy and pyromania. I counted no fewer than three uses of raging fires, none of which manifested itself as romantic chemistry between the three leads. Had there been musical numbers, Legal Eagles could have passed itself off as a rejected Bollywood movie, something for everyone wrapped in the bright colors of its veteran cin-togger, Laszlo Kovacs.
It has been 25 years since I’ve seen this film. I remembered absolutely nothing about it except the horrific Rod Stewart hit song, “Love Touch.” I vaguely recalled that I liked it, though I knew not why. The older, wiser me was far less enamored than my younger version, though I feel an odd desire to protect Legal Eagles as if it were a wounded dog. How can you hate a movie that tries so hard to please you, failing at every turn with an ineptness that could have been so easily fixed by a jolt of common sense to the screenplay? There are shootouts, car chases, domestic squabbles, opening statements, closing statements, sex between a woman and a man old enough to be her Dad, and witness testimony from a dog. The last two are mercifully left offscreen and, like all I’ve said before, is prone to some form of Idiot Plot syndrome.
God, this movie is overplotted! Let’s start with Daryl Hannah’s character. She’s an artist’s daughter who saw her father burn to death in a suspicious art gallery fire when she was 8. As a result, she’s a performance artist fascinated by fire and has a bad screenplay’s penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, always looking guilty as Hell when discovered. She’s on trial for attempting to steal one of the few paintings by her father not destroyed in the fire. It has sentimental value as it was dedicated to her before Daddy became extra crispy. The owner of the painting is Terrence Stamp, former partner of Hannah’s father. Leading the prosecution is Robert Redford, with Debra Winger for the defense. The prosecution is as smooth and wily as the defense is klutzy and unrefined.
So far, so good, right? Try to follow this: Winger wants Redford to talk to her client in the hopes of helping her win her case. Redford refuses, so Winger interrupts a dinner party, complete with press in tow and Hannah in jaw-dropping outfit. Winger bogarts Redford into looking at the defense’s newfound data by threatening to sue him. Couldn’t she have just waited until the case went to court, at such time Redford would have to look at the files? No, because the case gets dropped right after this occurs. So this trip wasn’t even necessary. Redford thinks the case is over, but Winger won’t leave him alone.
Meanwhile, Hannah keeps trying to seduce Redford in order to justify actions she’ll take later in the film when Terrence Stamp winds up dead. Redford resists at first, especially after Hannah performs one of her pieces for him. Legal Eagles wisely leaves Daddy’s lost painting unseen, but no such fate spares us the most hilarious attempt at pretentious, arty twaddle in cinema history. In a huge apartment with no smoke detectors, Hannah plays with large amounts of fire while telling a story about watching some woman burn up in her car. At the end of the piece, she goes behind a picture of herself…and blows the fuck up. As Redford grabs a fire extinguisher to put out her smoldering, burning corpse, he realizes it’s just a mannequin. Hannah appears behind him on the couch.
“How did that make you feel?” she asks.
“Like watching that Beavis and Butthead approved, batshit crazy scene again!” said I, reaching for the remote control.
Soonafter, Brian Dennehy shows up as a cop who tells Winger that Hannah’s dad was murdered and many of his pricier paintings may still exist. He should know; he was in the flashback sequence that opens Legal Eagles, helping to kill the artist. Dennehy’s files point a shaky finger at Stamp, and after Winger talks Redford into threatening to prosecute Stamp, he panics and runs to a warehouse to destroy his files. Winger and Redford follow him, and get trapped inside where, I kid you not, there’s a shitload of dynamite in a file cabinet, complete with a red ticking counter. Redford and Winger have seven seconds to get out of the warehouse before it blows the fuck up. Somehow they do, driving a forklift through a wall and into the Hudson River.
The next time Hannah meets up with Redford, she’s wet and frazzled, just like Winger and he were post-warehouse explosion. Completely ignoring Redford’s daughter (an interesting character given little to do), she tells him that she went to Stamp’s house armed with a gun. He disarmed her, beat her ass and sent her running into a rainy night. She looks and sounds guilty with a capital T. Redford suspects her story immediately but, rather than call the cops, he gets rid of his daughter and bangs Hannah. In the morning, the cops interrupt their post-coital cuddle to arrest her for Stamp’s murder.
Sensing this court comedy has been away from the courtroom too long, we are next treated to Redford joining Winger’s defense attorney’s office after being fired by DA Steven Hill. Redford gives an opening statement to the jury reminiscent of Al Pacino’s famous …And Justice for All yell-a-thon, minus the yelling and the interesting dialogue. It looks bad for Hannah, as the murder weapon is not only hers, but the jury finds out she had motive because, despite his shady past with her father, she used to kneel before Zod. After telling the jury and judge Roscoe Lee Browne that even he thinks Hannah is guilty, Redford promises the jury that he’ll prove his client’s innocence before the next court session.
Did I mention that, during all this, Winger and Redford start to fall in love? You probably knew that already. You also know that Hannah will look guiltier and guiltier as time runs out. And that our protagonists engage in a wild-streets-of-Manhattan foot and car chase that ends with our two female leads handcuffed in an art gallery that, you guessed it, will blow the fuck up very shortly. You know that those famous Daddy paintings still exist, and that the film ends happily with Rod Stewart committing crimes against both human ear and synthesized steel drums over the closing credits.
What may surprise you is that Debra Winger gives a likable performance while playing the horrid hand she is dealt. Underneath her defense attorney’s klutz is a barely mined (by the film) sense of vulnerability, of geeky girl insecurities magnified by her competition with the younger Hannah for Redford’s affection. Screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. give her a desperate, awful romantic line she utters to Redford, and Winger’s delivery beats it into credulity. Redford is game to play along (he sweetly complements her as reassurance), but the movie isn’t concerned with character development. Hannah, who deserved a Razzie nomination for this performance, could have been interesting if the film had the balls to find her guilty as a precursor to her superb sadism as Kill Bill’s Ellie Driver. Instead, her firebug merely serves to give Smokey the Bear a hard-on.
The one truly joyous moment in Legal Eagles juxtaposes our lawyers in love as they separately attempt to fight insomnia with midnight binge eating and a viewing of Singin’ in the Rain. Redford tap dances and sings, and since slapsticky song and dance are not beneath him, he’s loose and engaging. (After Indecent Proposal, what could be beneath him?) Winger destroys her fridge with reckless abandon, and I longed for James L. Brooks to script a phone call between the two of them at that very moment, saving them from the convoluted plot and the fireballs. Alas, it was not to be.