The Amateur (1982) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
One of the nicest things about the DVD revolution is
that is has encouraged smaller publishers to acquire the rights to
and release some forgotten films. A lot of those have been art films
and grade-B efforts from the drive in and double feature eras, but
every once in a while an old mainstream effort is pulled back from
Such a film is The Amateur, which was considered a major project and earned some respect in its own day.
So what happened over the years to doom this film to obscurity? Well, John Savage did not go on to become a superstar, as you know, so there was no interest generated there. And the film is one of those Cold War espionage films which now seem so very dated. The film wasn't topical enough or good enough to remember for the right reasons, nor was it bad enough to remember for the wrong reasons.
The premise of the film sounds a lot like Gorky Park. A solitary American goes behind the Iron Curtain on a mission of personal revenge, and is assisted by a smart, honest Eastern European cop. The similarity between the two films ends at the set-up level however. The Amateur is told from the American's point of view, not the local cop's, and the American is not a tough guy who speaks the local language, but a wimpy monoglot, a mathematician who seems to think he can just slip into Soviet-controlled territory and knock off three hardened terrorists.
The terrorists in question murdered the genius's girlfriend when she was working on a photographic assignment in Munich (played by Vienna). It was one of those ugly deals where the terrorists were going to kill one hostage every fifteen minutes until they got their way, and she came up first in the rotation. He works for the CIA as a cipher expert, encoding and decoding various messages, and goes to his bosses for assistance. They say they can do nothing, so he devises a plan in which every secret in the history of the CIA will be revealed to the press unless they let him go into the Eastern Bloc and take out the terrorists. After having read the last sentence, you don't think his plan is plausible, and you realize that he wouldn't have a prayer. The CIA bigwigs have the same reaction, but since they have no choice, they send him for agent training in order to buy enough time to figure out how he has rigged the system.
Once he gets into Czechoslovakia, the CIA manages to foil his blackmail scheme, at which time they decide to send more CIA men to Prague (again played by Vienna, only this time with the German signs papered over), but to kill our hero, not to help him. Therefore, the terrorists, the communists, and the CIA are all using professional killers to try to kill him, and he is just "the amateur." He seems to be doomed, but he gets a break. A scholarly local policeman (Christopher Plummer) takes an interest in this whole business of CIA agents shooting at other CIA agents, and wonders why. When he finally figures out the whole scenario, he ends up wanting to help our nerdy hero. Why is the Czech so eager to help our hero, and why is the CIA so eager to kill him? That is the mystery which forms the real core of the plot.
I liked this film, although it really has a lot of problems. In fact, I can't imagine how it was ever nominated for awards. Some of the plot elements are just absurd.
Despite all these mystifying lapses in common sense and logic, I got drawn into the mysteries and counter-mysteries, I found the resolution reasonably satisfying, and I really enjoyed the European locales, including the poor sections of Prague (Vienna), and some small towns which time has forgotten. There is also a great set-piece which involves a shoot-out in a warehouse filled with mirrors and chandeliers.
Plusses and minuses.
It's a film which has been forgotten and I suppose you can leave it forgotten if you aren't into the cold war espionage genre. If you do like those films, however, this is a flawed by still pretty decent little flick that you have probably not seen, and which you have certainly not seen at this level of quality, because is now available in an excellent widescreen anamorphic DVD produced by Anchor Bay. There are no features, but they did a great job at re-mastering and transferring the film itself.
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