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The Island

Director: Michael Ritchie
Cast: Michael Caine, David Warner, Angela Punch McGregor

(Universal; US DVD: 11 Dec 2012)

Michael Caine has appeared in over 150 films, and it’s inevitable that some of them would be stinkers. Not every movie is going to be Alfie or The Ipcress File or Hannah and Her Sisters; some are going to be Beyond the Poseidan Adventure and The Swarm. It’s a statistical inevitability; out of any given number of movies, some will be brilliant, most will be average and a few will be utterly dire. The best one can hope for, maybe, is that the dire ones will be awful in surprising and (sometimes) entertaining ways.


That is certainly the case here: 1980’s The Island is one bizarre movie. Now it’s been released in a sweet DVD blu-ray combo pack from Shout! Factory, and anyone who watches it isn’t likely to forget it anytime soon, for better or for worse.


Caine plays Blair Maynard, an investigative journalist chasing a story about boats disappearing in the Bermuda Triangle. He finagles a trip to the region following the disappearance of yet another craft, a small tourist boat. Since the audience saw what happened to the boat in the movie’s opening sequence, we have a pretty good idea of what to expect when Maynard and his son show up. That son, by the way, is a bratty 13-year-old named Justin, who unfortunately plays a major role in the movie. Justin’s pivotal presence in the plot is just one more reason why this film is a fair bit less enjoyable than it might be.


So Maynard and his boy journey to Florida, where Maynard buys the kid a handgun, because—well, it’s not really clear why he buys him a gun, besides the fact that he can, because this is America, goddammit! Then they get on a plane and fly to an island but crash-land and then take a boat and get attacked by knife-wielding baddies and use the gun to shoot one of them but get knocked out and dragged to a weird sort of tribunal. Stop me if this is going too fast, and trust me, it feels just as random onscreen as it sounds in this summary.


The good news, though, is that the weirdness is just starting to ramp up. Maynard and son regain consciousness to find themselves in the midst of a uniquely odd society, one that I won’t say too much about. (Catching up with the weirdness of this society is about 90 percent of the fun of this movie.) Suffice it to say that the folks living on this remote Caribbean island are definitely not the type you want to bump into in the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night. Or in the daytime, for that matter.


The rest of the movie is one long escape sequence, as Maynard tries to hightail it as best he can, taking his son with him. This is complicated considerably by Justin’s going over to the dark side, so to speak, and embracing the new society that has taken him in. Despite my reservations about the character of the kid, actor Jeffrey Frank does a reasonable job of it. Caine, of course, is Caine, which is to say, just the right balance of muddled and clever. Character actor David Warner stands out as the charismatic ringleader of the bad guys, with numerous supporting players adding color and entertainment value. Angela Punch McGregor also does a fine, restrained job as Beth, the widow whom Maynard is expected to impregnate. (Still trying not to give anything away here, but it’s tough.)


Perhaps the movie’s biggest weakness is its uneven tone. Certain scenes are bloody and horrific, especially early on, when the film seems to be trying for a straight horror-movie vibe. Elsewhere, it plays like a domestic drama, and at one point seems to be seeking slapstick laughs. This occurs in one of the film’s liveliest scenes, in which a yacht is attacked and boarded by a band of hooligans. In the midst of all the violence comes a comic king fu sequence which is played strictly for laughs, and which is jarring in the extreme. Then it’s back to thriller mode, then family drama. There’s even a little erotica thrown in, because, what the hell, it’s America goddammit!


Despite all this—or because of it—aficianados of off-the-wall movies are likely to find some good entertainment value here. Shout! Factory’s double-disc reissue comes with a DVD and blu-ray disc in one package, with the blu-ray naturally edging out the other in terms of picture clarity and sharpness, though to be honest the difference isn’t enormous. There are no extras on the discs other than trailers for other movies (Death Valley, They Live) released by Shout! Factory. It’s hard to imagine this lack being a source of great distress to anyone—the amazing thing is not that there aren’t extras, but that this movie was given a blu-ray release in the first place.


It’s all fun enough, in a watching-a-train-wreck kind of way. For the bad-movie fan on your holiday shopping list, this might prove to be a welcome stocking stuffer. Ditto the Michael Caine completist. For everyone else, though, there are likely to be better options out there.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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