By Ray Sawhill
“The Specialist” is moronic and inept, and it put me in a very good mood. It’s an attempt at marrying a woman’s romance to an action-adventure plot. Sylvester Stallone is a bomb expert with something awful in his past. He’s in Miami, living the embittered former-soldier-of-fortune lifestyle — i.e., bunking down in an abandoned warehouse, practicing martial arts, playing intently with lethal gizmos that beep and make the camera cut to anxious close-ups. Sharon Stone is an enchantress who talks him into a risky job. Her parents were murdered when she was but a girl, and she wants Stallone to blow away the Latino gangster family responsible. Rod Steiger, really working that accent, is the ancient Latino patriarch, Eric Roberts the dumb stud son. The question is: can Sly and Sharon get over clinging to their pain and learn to trust each other?
The film has a luxury-resort quasi-glamour; it seems to have been made on sets that didn’t make the cut for De Palma’s “Scarface.” The visual scheme is tropicalismo: candy pink and neon blue, cabanas and palm trees. The script, by Alexandra Seros, shows a woman’s touch, if not perhaps to its best advantage. Stone to Stallone: “So that’s it? We just walk away? Forever?”
The director, Luis Llosa, may be bereft of filmmaking skills, but that doesn’t stop him from seeing everything in legendary terms. Steiger is unspeakably powerful; James Woods, playing Steiger’s Mr. Fixit and Stallone’s nemesis, unutterably unprincipled; Stallone indescribably masterful; Stone unthinkably beautiful. The bad guys smoke cigars to show how corrupt they are. John Barry contributes an appropriately excitable score. During one scene, the triumphal-yet-ominous horns and strings call up images in the mind of mounted lawmen arriving in town for the final showdown. What’s actually on-screen is Stallone carrying a bag of groceries.
Although watching Stallone struggle with his feelings is like watching cement being mixed, he’s surrounded by world-class hams. Eric Roberts is a sleek, spoiled viper. Woods wears domineering, double-breasted sports jackets, and throws a couple of fits as mean and funny as anything in “Pulp Fiction.” Both are as meek tyros beside Steiger, who chews scenery for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and stays hungry. In one scene, he pushes his face up to the camera and literally snorts like a bull. Woods, for maybe the first time ever on camera, looks a little intimidated.
In a swanky party scene, Stone makes a swivel-hipped, babe-on-a-catwalk entrance; she’s a stunning camera subject. She can act, too, and her tiny-featured, airline-stewardess prettiness makes her commitment to emotionality all the more vivid. Pursuing Roberts in order to watch him die, she allows herself to be caressed and made love to by a man she wants to kill. She does the arousal-crossed-with-revulsion touchingly well. In a daytime scene with Roberts at a bar, she’s wearing flowing cream slacks and a mostly-open cream tunic; her hair and makeup are more subdued than usual. Everything about her is taking in light and returning a soft glow except her narrowed eyes, which glitter. She looks well-fucked, financially taken-care-of, and venomous. (The guys behind me said “Damnnnn!” and “Sheeee-it!” admiringly.)
Is there another actress who compares to Stone as an incarnation of what America — alluring, narcissistic, deceitful, troubled — means to immigrants, and would-be immigrants? She’s the blonde who heroes in chop-socky movies sometimes won, and sometimes had to renounce. Many of the working-class people and recent immigrants I saw “The Specialist” with brought their kids and infants along to enjoy the bombings, beatings and nudity. We were all pretty cheerful afterwards. It’s a film that doesn’t make you feel sour about getting exactly what you paid for.
- Sly and Sharon’s epic first meeting.
- James Wood applies the pressure.
- Steiger, Wood and Roberts try to top each other.
- A visit with Sharon Stone from the mid 1990s.
©1994 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.