Release Date: March 9, 1984 (screened June 22, 2014 – 16th Annual Provincetown Film Festival)
Runtime: 109 minutes
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director: James Bridges
Cast: Debra Winger; Mark Keyloun; Darrell Larson; Paul Winfield; Brooke Alderson
This is an often overlooked, unseen 1984 film from director James Bridges (“The China Syndrome,” “Urban Cowboy”). While not entirely successful, it’s still an interesting curio and a helluva time capsule for 1980s enthusiasts.
Debra Winger stars as Betty, an average working gal (not that kind of working gal…she works in a bank), living an unexceptional life in LA. She has a best girlfriend, takes tennis lessons, lives in a nondescript house. When the story opens, she is crushing seriously hard on her tennis instructor, the titular Mike. As evidenced by the title of the movie, we know this relationship will not have a happy ending. Mike is a studly dude, but he has secrets, and they are coming home to roost. After she innocently offers Mike a ride one afternoon, Betty unwittingly finds herself caught up in Mike’s underworld bullshit. After Mike’s, ahem, murder, Betty (in spite of her better judgment and the advice of her girlfriend, Patty) becomes obsessed with finding out why Mike bought the farm the way he did. This leads her to consort with a bunch of shady LA types, including, among others, a weird music producer (Paul Winfield) and a coked-up wannabe big shot, Pete (Darrell Larson).
It’s curious why this movie has sort of been relegated to the “no one’s ever hear of it” bin. I suppose some of the reason the film has gone unconsidered all these years is because it was barely released the first time around. The film was produced by The Ladd Company, an outfit founded in 1979 by Alan Ladd, Jr., a former 20th Century Fox executive. His company actually did produce some truly remarkable and successful pieces of work throughout the 1980s (“Chariots of Fire,” “Blade Runner,” “Police Academy”). However, for some reason buried deep within Hollywood lore of long ago, no one got behind this picture and it was dumped into theaters in March of 1984 – and we all know the confidence that studios have in pictures they release in March!
It’s a real shame, because the film has a lot of good moments. First of all, Debra Winger is gorgeous and is such a good actress, that anything with her in it should provoke curiosity about the piece. She’s one of those actresses who could read the phone book (do they still have phone books?) and make it sound interesting. She carries the movie effortlessly. Her costars are quite good as well, especially Mark Keyloun (Mike) and Darrell Larson (Pete). Who are these guys and where did they go? Keyloun has that cute-as-a-button yet manly look about him that makes him perfect for this role. He has an inherent innocence that is constantly threatening to seep through the pores of the macho demeanor he valiantly tries to project. Larson (Pete is actually the larger role) is all nervous energy and reaction…his performance is like Method-gone-loco! Yet, it absolutely suits the character and Larson really turns it up towards the end when Pete’s coke-fueled mania doth runneth over.
The script isn’t really profound in any way: the overarching theme seems to be “LA has some shady people living there so don’t get caught up in its underbelly.” Hardly news. But Bridges is a talented scenarist, so the situations and the dialogue ring true enough.
As I mentioned before, the film’s true raison d’etre these days is as a time capsule for the early 80’s: the cars, fashion, hair, cocaine…it’s all here. Even though “Mike’s Murder” is a drama about fringe players living on the sidelines of LA, these days it is just fun to watch and wallow in its sheer 80’s-ness.