With the exception of director Luis Llosa, the pedigree involved with this glossy production is ridiculously high, and most likely the stars, composer, cinematographer, the locations, production design and costume budget were all part of a brilliantly conceived package that producer Jerry Weintraub assembled for Warner Bros. to distribute.
Llosa, a producer and occasional hack director, managed to find himself directing a coterie of top box office draws (Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone) and cult actors (James Woods, Rod Steiger, Eric Roberts), and the film almost works as a comic book noir, but it starts to get wrinkly under the Miami sunlight as plot holes begin to emerge once a series of twists are introduced into the structure.
Bearing the weird credit “Suggested by The Specialist Novels by John Shirley,” it seems the script by Alexandra Seros (The Assassin) is a collage of two main storylines: May ( Stone) sacrifices her virtue and becomes a Miami gangster moll to exact revenge on the killers of her parents; and freelance explosives specialist Ray Quick (Stallone) reluctantly agrees to help May, only to find himself going face-to-face with his disgraced ex-sergeant, Ned Trent (Woods), now the security chief for said gangsters.
Stone is compelling as a burgeoning femme fatale, sickened by the need to obey and remain intimate with her parents’ lead killer, Tomas Leon (Roberts), whereas Stallone’s moping expression almost fits his character’s reluctance in agreeing to a series of specious killings.
Woods, given free reign, goes ultra-gonzo, engaging in the performance hysterics beloved by fans, but it's at odds with the film’s sleek visual and aural design. Steiger doesn’t seem sure if character Papa Joe Leon is Spanish, Cuban, or Italian, and he adopts a mushy accent that's oversome by his L.A. speech pattern whenever the actor goes into one of several vein-busting tirades.
The only actor to come out clean is Roberts, playing the marginal Tomas; he's a sadistic killer, but his rage comes from annoyance rather than a malicious sick streak. Pity his character consumes one espresso too many and loses his head, because Roberts is by far the most interest actor to watch among the shiny cast.
Stone and Stallone don’t possess any remarkable screen chemistry, but they sure look good, either decked out in designer clothes and shades (everyone wears expensive shades), or half naked, although the shower love scene remains one of the most awkwardly choreographed & non-erotic on film - this in spite of the two stars being half-exposed and knotted together in their birthday suits.
Llosa made sure to stage enough titillating shots for audiences expecting to see the pretty cast topless and all athletic, and the film’s luxurious gloss is deeply enhanced by John Barry’s score. Barry's nearly-wall-to-wall score features one of his loveliest themes, and feels like a sleek companion piece to his noir classic Body Heat (1981).
What mucks up the film is purely bad plotting: Mary Munro presumably had an affair with slimy ex-CIA Ned Trent to gain access to the gang, and in a deal designed to benefit both, she agreed to “lure” Ray Quick out from hiding so Ned could have his revenge on his old explosives associate, and Mary could exact full revenge and honor her parents memory.
When Ray kills Tomas, Mary manages to escape the bomb blast (and any physical injury) by perhaps using an invisible force field or moving really, really fast. She then conveniently changes her identity with an old dead woman in the hospital.
Meanwhile, Ned manages to maintain his position as lead investigator among Miami’s cops even though he’s an abusive asshole to an entire department.
And in the finale, soon after Ray’s home base explodes, both he and Mary escape unscathed in new wardrobe, cruising afar in a big boat, and evading the swarming cops, police helicopters and sea patrol that ought to have noticed a big white and blue boat escaping the cordoned environs.
END OF SPOLIERS
The film’s final scene, however, is punctuated by a great line from Stone, but the atmosphere is mucked up by a terrible song crooned by Gloria Estafan, whose husband was the music supervisor for the film.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray offers a great HD transfer, and the pleasing bonus for Barry fans is the amazing crispness of the score in DTS-HD. Llosa seemed to prefer a sound design where there was constant ambient sound effects and dialogue, or just music – either of which interrupted by dynamic explosions whenever Ray triggers an exacting kill.
It’s still The Specialist, but as an HD experience, this disc is a keeper. Bonus materials are restricted to a lone trailer, and it’s surprising there were no publicity featurettes made or mined to fill out the video releases. One suspects no one was proud of the film, and preferred to release it quietly while they went on to pursue more ambitious career ventures.
Strangely, The Specialist has aged well; if not as kitsch, then as a snapshot of intersecting career points for the stars and production personnel. Llosa, whose only notable credit was the B-movie Sniper (1993), directed the unexpected hit Anaconda (1997) right after before switching to producing TV series in South America.
Stallone was reaching the end of his action star wave, and what followed were the poorly handled Judge Dredd (1995) and Assassins (1995). Cop Land (1997) proved he could act when committed to a good character, but the few films which lay ahead were either banal genre outings, bit parts, cameos, or voice work, although he broke his semi-star retirement streak by revisiting old glories in the underrated Rocky Balboa (2006), the fabulously violent Rambo (2008), and the cameo-larded actioner The Expendables (2010).
Stone tried to branch out in other genres with major directors, but even with the extra respect earned for her Oscar-nominated role in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995), her subsequent films just weren’t interesting, although the casting of Stone and Stallone again in voice-only for Antz (1998) was novel. Catwoman (2004), and a revisitation to her breakthrough character in Basic Instinct 2 (2006) were major flops, and the bulk of her post-nineties career as been in episodic TV.
Woods co-starred with Stone in Casino (1995), and with the exception of a few feature films, he’s concentrated his efforts in TV, as well as voice work.
Steiger continued to make virtually pure crap until his death in 2002, although a role in Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane (1999) was a slight exception.
Roberts slid in to TV, and during the nineties began a prolific streak making direct-to-video fodder. Like Woods, he’s never boring, and often transcends the material with his likeable screen personality, as evidenced in the ridiculously fun Shaktopus [M] (2010). That same year, he also appeared in Stallone’s The Expendables.
This title is part of a 4-film Stallone Blu-ray wave, including Assassins [M] (1995),Cobra [M] (1986), Demolition Man [M] (1993), and The Specialist (1994).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan