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Looking Back: Legal Eagles (1986)

As a child, I had a weird affection for “Legal Eagles.” I’d watch the film often and, at the time, I couldn’t tell you why, only that I really liked it. As an adult, I think the reason is kind of obvious: in spite of a story that doesn’t work (it either doesn’t make sense or it does but buries itself with nonsense), the film is about chemistry, exuding movie star gravitas and an exercise in charisma. Without a doubt, stars Robert Redford, Debra Winger and Daryl Hannah have all given better performances elsewhere, but here, they’re so good, look so great at what they do and click so well together, nothing else in the movie matters very much.

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That isn’t to say that director Ivan Reitman isn’t trying hard to make everything work. His follow-up to “Ghostbusters” has massive fire sequences (some as big and elaborate as “Backdraft”), foot and car chases, shoot outs, explosions and glib courtroom sequences. There’s a complex plot about art ownership and whether a valuable work of art is the property of the a dead artist’s daughter (Hannah) and whether she’s responsible for a murder. Redford and Winger play her lawyers, taking on a case that reveals many layers, each one unearthing a dark secret that brings many questionable, potential suspects into the spotlight. Brian Dennehy and Terrence Stamp play men who, basically, are around for the audience to keep guessing which one is guiltier, as well as how Hannah’s character is connected to them.

Again, the plot is busy but little of it matters. The story by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. is both over complicated and flimsy. Not unlike their screenplay for “Beverly Hills Cop II,” it gives the actors moments to shine but the story does them no favors. The movie works in spite of its narrative.

LEGAL EAGLES, Robert Redford, Debra Winger, 1986

Redford is relaxed, natural (pun intended) and so utterly charming, his performance works even when he doesn’t seem to be doing much. Winger has never been more beautiful and matches Redford in making her solid characterization appear effortless. The two make an attractive pair and their romance, which builds slowly over the course of the film, feels plausible and sweet, not inevitable or perfunctory.

Daryl Hannah’s “performance art” is something to see. This was the first time I had ever heard the term and, no question, even by the broad definition of what it can be, you’ve never see anything like this crazy “fire” art. Both highly improbable, campy and riveting, the sequence encapsulates everything that is sexy, offbeat and unique about Hannah.

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My wife watched this with me for the first time recently and made a point worth mentioning: the film’s theme song is “Love Touch” by Rod Stewart, a tune I’m fond of but, now that she mentions it, is utterly wrong for this movie. The hit radio staple is one of the reasons “Legal Eagles” was so popular but, unlike Ray Parker Jr.’s contribution to Reitman’s previous hit, the song choice here feels forced.

Many have noted that Bill Murray was supposed to play the Redford role. I recall an interview where Murray rolled his eyes at the memory, recalling how he told Reitman “you want to come back to the U.S. for this?!” Winger was rumored to dislike the movie, which was re-tooled in Murray’s absence as a snappy, old fashioned romantic farce with thriller elements. While it isn’t anywhere on the level of “Ghostbusters,” Reitman’s summer movie for grownups is very entertaining and, even at its darkest, always pleasant.

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“Legal Eagles” was one of this unfortunate movies that, like “The Saint,” was well liked and made a lot of money when released but cost so much to make that it wasn’t successful for its studio. On the other hand, considering how much Universal Studios lost releasing “Howard the Duck” the same season, they were lucky to have both Redford and Stewart’s “Love Touch” do as well as it did.

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