Film Review: A Shock to the System (1990)

in #aaalast year


Few actors are able to elevate otherwise underwhelming films with their presence like Michael Caine is. One example of his talent can be seen in A Shock to the System, 1990 black comedy directed by Jan Egleson.

The film is based on the eponymous novel by British writer Simon Brett. Screenplay by Andrew Klavan has moved the plot for original London setting to New York City. Caine in the film plays Graham Marshall, middle-aged advertising executive who, after decades of hard work feels exhausted, surrounded by ruthless yuppies and deeply unhappy at home because of nagging money-sucking wife Leslie (played by Swoosie Kurtz). His only consolation appears to be upcoming promotion that could solve some of his domestic financial issues, but instead of him the post goes to back-stabbing manipulating yuppie Bob Behnam (played by Peter Riegert). Graham feels embittered and, while returning home, he gets into altercation with aggressive panhandler in subway and accidentally pushes him in front of incoming train. After realising that he won’t be held responsible for man’s death, he suddenly feels liberated and empowered and decides to use murder to solve his problems. He has Leslie electrocuted and makes it to look like an accident. Later, he sabotages gas tank on Bob’s boat which leads to explosion that would kill Bob, allowing Graham to take his post. Graham has started romantic relationship with junior clerk Stella Henderson (played by Elizabeth McGovern), and used it to establish alibi. She, however, begins to suspect that Graham might be murderer and her suspicions are shared by Lt. Laker (played by Will Patton), police detective investigating the explosion.

Produced by relatively small budget and in many markets released straight-to-video, A Shock to the System turned out to be an obscure title despite respectable cast. Director Jan Egleson nevertheless did the solid job, mostly by making the pace quick and fitting the plot into easily digestible hour and half of running time. The main problem for the film is in Klavan’s script which tried, but ultimately failed to exploit anti-yuppie sentiment characteristic for 1980s and some satirical dimension to the depiction of corporate culture, greed and its backstabbing. A Shock to the System is actually not that funny and functions as comedy only in first half. In the second it looks more like conventional thriller, with only unconventional but poorly written finale saving it from looking like cliché. Most of the credits for film being watchable and sufficiently entertaining should go to Michael Caine. Apart from portraying protagonist, he also provides narration but the result isn’t too confusing. His talent is again at display and he seamlessly transforms character of Graham from victim of injustice and someone audience could identify with into ruthless sociopathic killer. He even allows audience to root for him getting away with murder. Caine’s performance was actually so powerful that the script was changed during the production and ending turned out quite different than in Brett’s novel. Caine is helped by diverse and talented cast, with Peter Reigert standing out as his ruthless corporate rival. Another great performance comes from John McMartin as Grahams’s old friend and colleague George Brewster, an exhausted and broken man who gives Graham frightening insight into his possible future. Swoosie Kurtz is, on the other hand, wasted in one-dimensional role, while Elizabeth McGovern, despite her talents, fails to develop proper chemistry with Caine. A Shock to the System is flawed film, but entertaining enough to be recommended, even to viewers who aren’t huge fans of Michael Caine.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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