The Empty Balcony: Stick

The 1980s were a tragic decade for people who used to be cool. The ’80s put Eric Clapton in shoulder pads, Miles Davis in sequins, and, in Stick, a vanity project from 1985, Burt Reynolds in a pink jacket. It wasn’t just that pop culture stalwarts such as these men merely looked bad in the ’80s — everything the previous decades’ stars seemed to do was an epitaph to former glory, wrapped up in a decade where the prevailing styles in everything from fashion to music to film was pastel mediocrity. (A fun topic for barroom conversation is trying to picture how those who didn’t survive the ’60s and ’70s would have handled the ’80s. Imagine Jimi Hendrix with Jheri curls or Jim Morrison recording a solo album aided by a drum machine and a salad bowl full of cocaine. Not pretty.)

That’s not to say the ’80s were devoid of great art. The examples are too numerous to mention. But I am saying that in comparison to other decades, the ’80s exist, in my memory at least, as a neon nightmare.

Enter Stick, a Burt Reynolds’ acting and directing vehicle with a screenplay by Elmore Leonard, adapting his own book.

Stick is short for Ernest Stickley, a car thief turned armed robber who was just released from a Florida prison after a seven-year bit. Stick hits Miami and immediately meets up another ex-con, Rainy (Jose Perez). Before the sun goes down, Stick and Rainy are delivering a suitcase full of cash to a drug lord out in the middle of nowhere in the Everglades. Nothing goes according to plan, and Rainy is killed in a double-cross. Stick barely escapes with his life, but now he’s being hunted by an albino hit man (stuntman Dar Robinson in the only speaking role of his life, although I’m pretty sure he was overdubbed).

But no matter, this is an Elmore Leonard story. Sure, there’s violence and action here and there, but at heart, his stories tend to follow both humorous and human criminals. In any other boilerplate crime story, Stick wouldn’t have the time to take a job as a chauffeur to an eccentric millionaire (George Segal), live in said millionaire’s mansion, and work game on a smart, sexy accountant (Candice Bergen). Elmore Leonard wrote characters, and, for the most part, that’s what the viewer gets in Stick. Unfortunately, the viewer also gets a shitty director.

Burt Reynolds has five feature film directing credits to his name. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of the others (we’re talking 25-30 years, at least), so I can’t speak to their quality. But I can speak to this one. It stinks. This film is full of hacks from top to bottom, and Reynolds got nothing out of them; not even one glimmer of believability. Even the top-tier talent (Reynolds himself, Bergen, Segal, and a hilariously attired Charles Durning) seemed unmotivated. Sure, I get it. An Elmore Leonard story is supposed to be loose and a bit freewheeling, but so many scenes appear not just unscripted, but also unrehearsed, like the cast knew their lines, yet were struggling to recall them. Blame for this has to rest at Reynolds’ feet.

As for the rest of the film, refer to my rant above about the ’80s. Everything about this flick screams ’80s cheese. For one, it was filmed in Miami (sorry, Florida). For another, the soundtrack is just dreadful, hardly more than a mishmash of synthesizer vomit. There’s a good film lurking beneath the surface of this one, but it couldn’t escape the times, or the blunt stabs of an overindulged A-lister in the director’s chair.