James Garner, Jenilee Harrison, and C. Thomas Howell star in TANK, directed by Marvin J. Chomsky for Universal Pictures.

Tank (1984, Marvin J. Chomsky)

I wonder if the U.S. Army would like to get a movie like Tank out today. The movie’s politics are… well, they’re not hilarious, but they’re so blatant, it’s stunning. It’s a pro-Army film and an intensely anti-Georgia film. It likes Tennessee though. From Tank, a future cultural historian could surmise the residents of Georgia are a bunch of fascist, backward bigots, people from Tennessee are not. The U.S. Army, this future historian would also observe, was on the cutting edge of racial equality and family rights. The first half of the film, with James Garner and family moving to a new base and getting situated. The beauty of Dan Gordon’s script–besides how well he pulls off the one liners in the second half–is the unassuming first forty minutes. Tank could be about Garner and son C. Thomas Howell following the (undeveloped) death of Howell’s older brother, or it could be about Garner and wife Shirley Jones’s marriage as he gets ready to leave the Army. In many ways, the film is about those things, with the unexpected turn of events changing the story’s course. Gordon’s script runs out of steam after a while, once Garner has broken Howell out of jail, but Tank still works on its basic level–it’s a James Garner movie. The viewer engages with it on that level first. Everything else is gravy.

The second half of the film moves awkwardly; instead of sticking with Garner, Howell and Jenilee Harrison (from “Three’s Company”) in the fugitive tank, the film moves between the cultural reaction to them being on the lam, with some time spent with evil sheriff G.D. Spradlin. Tank‘s a movie about a guy with his own personal tank who uses it to break his son out of (unjust) imprisonment, which doesn’t imply a lot of restraint, but Gordon’s script stays reasonably grounded. It’s improbable and absurd, but the first forty minutes, with Garner charming the viewer, make it pass right by. There are occasionally some problems thanks to Howell’s lame performance (he has trouble emoting and emphasizing), but Tank‘s a fine ride until its finish. The ending’s got a fair amount of tension–then descends into slapstick for its send-off of Spradlin, who’s got to be one of cinema’s evilest villains. Gordon’s script, again sticking to a semi-reality, never gives Spradlin what he deserves.

The acting is all excellent (besides Howell). James Cromwell’s good as a dimwitted (but evil) deputy, Shirley Jones is great as Garner’s wife. Her turn in Tank, which relies on her making a deep impression off just a couple scenes, reminded me she’s an actor, not just the mom from the “Partridge Family.” John Hancock and Dorian Harewood are both good in too small roles. The big surprise is Harrison. She’s fine. It’s probably the best performance out of a female actor from “Three’s Company” ever.

One big disappointment is Lalo Schifrin’s score. It’s a bad score, the kind of 1980s music I never wanted to see Schifrin’s name on. There are some synthesizers and it’s always obvious. I had high hopes when I saw Schifrin in the opening titles, but once Garner gets into the tank, the score immediately… well, tanks.

Director Chomsky almost always directed TV movies, but he’s got a fine understanding of the theatrical frame. His direction’s never awe-inspiring, but it’s impossible to imagine the film directed any other way.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Marvin J. Chomsky; written by Dan Gordon; director of photography, Donald H. Birnkrant; edited by Donald R. Rode; music by Lalo Schifrin; production designer, Bill Kenney; produced by Irwin Yablans; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Garner (Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Zack Carey), Shirley Jones (LaDonna Carey), C. Thomas Howell (Billy Carey), Mark Herrier (SSgt. Jerry Elliott), Sandy Ward (Maj. Gen. V.E. Hubik), Jenilee Harrison (Sarah), James Cromwell (Deputy Euclid Baker), Dorian Harewood (Sfc. Ed Tippet), G.D. Spradlin (Sheriff Cyrus Buelton), John Hancock (Mess MSgt. Johnson) and Guy Boyd (Sgt. Wimofsky).

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