Every now and then you find yourself pleasantly delighted to discover something extraordinary in a film you had shelved away as nothing particularly special. For example, the other night, while facing a bout of insomnia, Amazon Prime Video suggested I watch The Pelican Brief and I took the bait. I’d seen it before (it’s a 28-year-old flick), so I knew the principal cast and kinda sorta remembered the plot. Most importantly, I knew there was a high probability tuning in would soon bring about the desired state of boredom/drowsiness where complete relaxation fades into slumber. So I hit “watch now,” and just after the opening credits finished rolling, I realized there was a major element to this picture I had never recognized properly (or maybe I did recognize it but then completely forgot; it’s hard to know these days).
I was looking at a jon boat coming to shore and a lone man clad in black disembarking, carrying some luggage. Obviously up to no good, he heads off into the nearby woods, presumably with his luggage, and we get a look at him:
That’s right, my man Stanley Tucci was right there, front and center, playing the heartless, no-f*#k-giving bad guy. So much for sleep.
He grabs some sort of animal skin pouch that’s been tied to a tree branch, hops into a conveniently placed half-ton Chevy pickup with a junkyard paint job, and heads off toward D.C.
Then just a few minutes later, the same dude—transformed by the power of a shave and a snappy double-breasted suit—is at a hotel room door identifying himself to an anonymous Republican henchman (that’s what the dude looked like, anyway) as “Mr. Sneller” and retrieving a tell-tale manila envelope shoved at him under the door.
He slides into his own room down the hall, where the phone is ringing. He answers and tells the unidentified caller in a stilted “euro” accent of mysterious origin that as long as the money is in his account promptly, “It will be done.” He hangs up and dials the front desk to order room service, now inexplicably speaking perfect American, “coffee, scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast, and orange juice.”
I find myself sucked into the plot by the machinations of this devious bastard. I had forgotten entirely how this super smooth operator takes over the film. And even though I’m generally familiar with where we’re headed, it’s become necessary for me to pay attention so as not to miss any details of his next move. Stanley Tucci is spinning his web.
There’s a bit of exposition to give us a big ole hint as to the subject of his mission (via revelation of the content of said manila envelope)…
…and then we see an AARP-aged nurse take a bullet to the back of his neck from an unseen gun equipped with an impeccable silencer that makes bullets sound like blow darts, and his elderly patient (known to be a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) succumbing to a similar fate, except this time it’s a bullet to the cranium.
Next scene, a bespectacled dude in gym shorts and tank top jumps a fence and oh-so-casually jogs down a darkened alleyway toward the camera, pauses to fasten the headphones from his Walkman so he can crank up his Mozart tunes, and jogs away.
Now the scene dissolves to the interior of a darkened movie theater, where an old white dude in a windbreaker and fishing hat secures a seat in an empty row down in front to watch some gay porn.
A balding guy sporting a low budget Freddie Mercury mustache sneaks up and sits down in the row behind him with an extra-large bucket of buttered corn.
The mustachioed dude proceeds to pull off the four-foot length of nautical-quality rope he’s deployed as a belt, and swiftly snaps the solo theatergoer’s neck from behind.
Cut to a clueless President (Robert Culp) and his chief of staff (Tony Goldwyn) meeting up for a vital strategy session with the director of the FBI (James B. Sikking, the former SWAT captain from Hill Street Blues) and the CIA director (William Atherton, the EPA enforcer Bill Murray promised a fruit basket in Ghostbusters). The foursome chats for a bit and they shrewdly come to the conclusion they should meet again later.
There’s some more exposition featuring a law student with stunning hair commiserating with her Bushmills-swilling professor/lover (Sam Shepherd) about his murdered mentor (see cranial bullet victim, above), and then you get our man at the airport, sans mustache and sporting some new hair, headed for the “Trans-Atlantic Check-In”:
We’re treated to a few minutes of Denzel Washington coolly Denzeling as only Denzel can, before being introduced to the FBI director’s chief counsel (John Heard). At a key moment about 30 minutes in, we learn from two “agents” briefing Carl Bruner from Ghost that the authorities in Paris spotted an international terrorist, newly arrived on the flight from Dulles a mere 10 hours after the neck-snapping business in the adult theater. His name? “Khamel” (a lousy Arab stereotype).
Off to New Orleans now, where we see Sam Shepherd and his red Mustang hard-top blowed up good…
…leaving his law student girlfriend with the great hair badly shook.
Without delay, the evil terrorist Khamel appears back at the Republican dude’s hotel room door, calling himself “Mr. Sneller” again and brazenly retrieving another manila envelope, which he takes to his hotel room to inspect.
He moves lightning fast and targets the FBI lawyer/dad from Home Alone (did you know John Heard’s first wife was Margot Kidder?). Blood quickly splatters all over the hotel room mirror and Khamel returns to the screen purloining one of the dead guy’s complimentary night-night mints off the bed.
Relying on a wiretap we knew nothing about that had apparently attached itself to the FBI lawyer’s phone, our evil genius then puts on just the belly part of a fat suit, buttons his long-sleeved oxford over it, and dons a red MAGA cap (except it’s blank because we’re a good 23 years before the dawn of the MAGA era).
He practices his impersonation of the dead guy’s speech expertly, and heads off to meet our slightly less shook heroine at the Riverfront Bandstand so he can do another murder. Except that, out of the blue, our villain is the one who gets kilt.
And so ends the assassin’s mission, and with it, the bearded-to-clean-shaven-to-bald-with-mustache-to-back-to-full-head-of-hair-to-dead-guy-in-a-fat-suit-and-MAGA-hat Stanley Tucci’s stellar work. Just like that, the object of my attention (and admiration) is totally out of the picture. We’re now better than an hour into The Pelican Brief, left to wonder for whom the dude who shot down the notorious, chameleon-like Arab terrorist/assassin that was presumably hired by lawless Republicans to kill Supreme Court justices works. There’s another hour or so to go, featuring a parking garage chase and a surprise Doberman cameo, ending with another blowed-up vehicle, all accompanied by a score filled with a theme song best described as “discordant pounding of piano keys.” We learn of the murder of another lawyer (that makes four if you count the two Justices). There’s also some Jeep Wagoneer-driving John Lithgow as the big boss in action, before the improbable conspiracy story plays itself out. The team of splendid-maned Julia Roberts and suave, wise-beyond-his-years Denzel Washington prevails over the unctuous, whoring high-dollar oil and gas lawyers, but it’s frankly slow going compared to how we started. The absence of “international” terrorist intrigue is noticeable.
SPOILER: The pinko environmentalist bird lovers were at the heart of the whole damn problem.
I confess I didn’t make it all the way through (blessed sleep having overtaken the thrill of the chase) that viewing after our devilish assassin met his sudden, bloody end. But what I did take in made me glad for my impulsive decision to hit “watch now.” The unanticipated magnificence of Stanley Tucci in this improbable role left such a lasting impression I felt the need to insist it be recognized in the form of some props here on Al Gore’s internet. So if you should find yourself unable to shake continued consciousness, be cautious: you could wind up absorbing some top-notch Tucci action in the guise of a dated thriller peopled with a cast of fine characters.
Oh, one last thing: how did it come to be that Stanley Tucci was cast as an Arab terrorist? Well, just guessing, but I’m thinking his range as a mob flunky dazzled the folks in central casting.