Director: George Gallo
Cast: Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, Zach Braff, Emile Hirsch, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Kate Katzman, Eddie Griffin
Runtime: 1 hr 44 mins
Rating: NC16 (Coarse Language)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 28 October 2021
Synopsis: Producer Max Barber (Robert De Niro) is in debt to mob boss Reggie Fontaine (Morgan Freeman) after his latest film bombs. With his life at stake, Max produces a new film, all to kill his lead in a stunt so he can rake in the insurance. But when Max casts Duke Montana (Tommy Lee Jones), he never expects the old drunk to be revitalized by being in front of the camera. Unable to kill Duke in a basic stunt, Max puts him into ever more dangerous situations. And as Duke survives stunt after stunt, Max ends up making the best movie of his career.
To be honest, we weren’t holding our breath for ‘The Comeback Trail’, notwithstanding that it reunites Robert De Niro with his ‘Midnight Run’ writer-director George Gallo. Indeed, those who have seen Gallo’s most recent films, including ‘The Poison Rose’ and ‘Vanquish’ would know exactly why; both were terrible to say the least, even if they starred such veterans as John Travolta and Morgan Freeman. So even if the cast here were impressive – comprising De Niro, Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, Zach Braff and Emile Hirsch – we must say we approached it with a fair bit of skepticism.
The good news is that ‘The Comeback Trail’ is probably Gallo’s best movie in recent time; the bad news is that given his track record, you should at best take it as faint praise. A remake of the 1982 film of the same name by Harry Hurwitz, Gallo’s comedy drama works as a mildly amusing farce about the seedier side of Tinseltown. It isn’t as sharp as say ‘Get Shorty’ or as madcap hilarious as ‘The Producers’, but it nonetheless has a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, delivered beautifully by a surprisingly game cast that are not afraid to poke fun at their signature onscreen personas.
Not since ‘Analyze This’ has De Niro been this hysterical, but the actor better known for his dramatic roles seems to be having plenty of fun as the ageing grindhouse producer Max Barber, who hatches an outrageous plan to pay off his debts to gangster-cum-movie financier Reggie Fontaine. Decked out in long grey curls, aviator sunglasses and an ancient Cadillac with a bronchial engine, De Niro digs into the role with relish. So too Freeman, who as Reggie, is clearly having a ball playing a mobster who fancies himself as a movie buff, calling out references to movies such as ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Boston Strangler’ while threatening Max.
De Niro’s sleazy act is also perfectly complemented by Lee Jones’ deadpan performance as the washed-out Western star Duke Montana, whom Max and his nephew-cum-business partner Walter Creason (Braff) runs into at a nursing home where Duke has been sent to pasture. The conceit is a tantalising one: whereas Max intends to use the shooting of the movie to facilitate Duke’s demise in order to claim a hefty insurance policy to pay off Reggie, Duke turns out unexpectedly fortunate in each one of the purposedly rigged stunts, and these death-defying escapades in turn end up reviving his verve for life. It’s an utter thrill to see Lee Jones on the big screen after a period of absence, and even more so watching him do so with his trademark furrow-clenched grit.
So even if the script and direction aren’t as witty as it can be, De Niro, Lee Jones and Freeman elevate the material and make this a surprisingly watchable delight. Those who grew up watching Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s as well as how it has evolved since then will also appreciate the trip down memory lane, given the film’s affection for what moviemaking in La La Land used to be and the colourful types both in front and behind the camera. To call it a comeback for the actors is a bit of an overstatement, but certainly this is a welcome return for this posse of veterans, which underscore what good old Hollywood entertainment used to be.
(A loving tribute to the seedier side of 1970s Hollywood, this mildly amusing farce is elevated by a game cast of veterans not afraid to poke fun at their signature onscreen personas)
Review by Gabriel Chong