Saturday, September 14, 2013

In short: Center of the Web (1992)

Mild-mannered theatre teacher John Phillips (Ted Prior) is mistaken for a professional killer, nearly dies in a car chase, and is then thrown in jail for his trouble, quite to the displeasure of his girlfriend, assistant DA Kathryn Lockwood (Charlene Tilton).

Department of Justice agent Richard Morgan (Robert Davi) forces John to continue to play the role of the killer, because, umm, stuff. Of course, things get really dangerous (yes, more dangerous than a shoot-out and a car chase) for John real soon, because he's not only impersonating a killer, but impersonating a killer who is going to be made the patsy for the assassination of a state governor, a governor Kathryn has reason to despise.

Consequently John, who is quite a natural when it comes to shooting, chasing, etc., finds himself on the run from the police, the people who wanted to Lee Harvey Oswald him, and possibly other factions. I foresee plot twists, betrayals, and Tony Curtis in his future.

Ah, the glories of David A. Prior's conspiracy thriller phase, which sits, if you're not up on your Prior studies, shortly before and after the end of Action International Pictures, and at a point in time when Prior planted his various obsessions and weirdnesses in hard-earned technical competence. Seldom will you find conspiracies less believable, more peculiar accidents, and more stupid plot twists than in the director's conspiracy thrillers. Of course, if you just go with the flow and interpret "conspiracy thriller" to mean "film consisting of a series of illogical developments which enable a near-ritualistic repetition of chases and gestures you know well from the best and worst films of the genre", you can have a lot of fun with Prior's films. I certainly do.

In Center's particular case, you can look forward to the cheap yet effective car chases, shoot-outs, Charlene Tilton over-emoting quite painfully, dialogue that comfortably drifts in and out of tough guy talk and sense, Tony Curtis slumming, various Prior mainstays doing what they do best (in fact, there are so many of them in the movie there's hardly enough time even for Charles Napier), and an exploding school bus. The last of these excellent things is of course for urban set action movies what the exploding bamboo hut is for jungle action. I'd imagine school buses to be rather more costly to explode, but then the USA are often strange, so I may very well be wrong and there might be a group of car dealers specializing in hawking used school buses to filmmakers to explode. Actually, this does rather sound like the set-up of a David A. Prior movie he never got around to make.

As a weird-ass conspiracy thriller (that is an existing sub-genre, right?) Center of the Web doesn't quite reach the heights of Prior's later Felony with which it shares a few of its central plot twists, particularly the one concerning the nature of its hero, yet it still is a pretty enjoyable time. Where else, after all, can you see Tony Curtis aggressively feeding pigeons, diagnosing pigeon psychology and human psychology to be quite alike?

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