Do you remember Dillonmania?
When Donna Lloyd disappears in Paris, her contractor husband Walter (Gene Hackman) teams up with his estranged son, Chris (Matt Dillon), to find her. A botched hit reveals a secret: Walter is really Duke Potter, an improbably-named CIA agent living undercover in retirement. A shocked Chris follows Duke as he picks through his old contacts to uncover the threat, following the threads to a decades-old murder and a conspiracy within Duke’s own agency. Duke and Chris weave their way through conflicted loyalties and murderous agents to ferret out the conspiracy, reveal a double agent, and rescue Donna. An explosion follows.
Due to its open mediocrity, Target doesn’t get much attention these days, and so production information is scarce. Somebody knows something about how Target was made, but I can’t find it without, apparently, a dousing rod and a lot more time than I want to waste on Target.
All I can say for sure is that, as with all of Penn’s late work, funding Target was a struggle. In a 1990 interview, Penn implied that funding had been cut at least once for the film when the financing company was sold and its projects reexamined. My guess is that attaching names like Dillon and Hackman to the project greased just enough wheels to get the cameras rolling.
While you can argue that Arthur Penn’s style was the wrong fit for an action movie, and I will, there were benefits. Penn’s ear for dialogue and his eye for composition gives his dull exposition scenes a surprising hint of life. The best takes place when Duke finally meets with the man who kidnapped his wife, the elderly German agent named Schroeder (Herbert Berghof). Instead of growling at each other, the script places the men by the graves of Schroder’s family, where they regret the rules of engagement. Schroeder accuses Duke of betraying a professional courtesy by killing his family. Duke insists that that it was somebody else who broke the rules. Under Penn’s direction, the scene becomes less about the plot and more about the confusion of war, and the weariness of the warriors. Great stuff.
I’d love to say that Target is a scathing indictment of the policy of assured mutual destruction at the height of the cold war, or that Arthur Penn was making a statement about the lingering scars of terrible actions, but the truth is that Target is mostly about Arthur Penn’s career. In the aftermath of Four Friends, Penn talked openly about making a (lucrative) action-adventure movie. Target was the result, but its failure did little to lift Penn’s flagging film career.
Let’s all take a moment to appreciate Matt Dillon.
There was a moment in the early 1980s where it seemed as if he might take over the world. Dillon was the matinee idol du jour, sending teenage girls and studio execs aflutter as he soaked up box office dollars in his pouty doll’s eyes. His 1983-84 work—The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, The Flamingo Kid —is an insane triple-header for a newcomer, and when his star died out (outshined by the blinding power of Tom Cruise’s thetan), Dillon could have walked away forever and still called it a pretty great career. Instead, Dillon refocused and drifted away from the heartthrob moors, carving a niche for himself as the hunky actor with quirk. Singles; To Die For; There’s Something About Mary. Dillon was working with the best again, and when he finally won his Oscar (for a far less interesting role as one of Paul Haggis’s Crash puppets), it was kind of like a gift from Hollywood saying “Hey. Yeah. Sorry we did that all of that to you.”
Target is a parasite movie, a flick that can only live by sucking life from some trendy studlet (see also: Remember Me). Dillon is the centerpiece of the film’s marketing. There he is, the biggest face on the poster, brandishing a gun as if he mattered. At. All. In reality, Dillon is a non-entity in the story. He could be cut from the script without mussing its hair. Penn described Target as an oedipal struggle where a son learns to respect his father’s hidden power, but I think it works better as a film where a father learns that his offspring is a moody mega-tool. Dillon’s character feels tacked on, added by a studio note (“Where’s the young people? Everyone in this thriller could die of natural causes while we’re watching!!”), but without the plot required to justify his existence. His only job in the story is to screw up and create problems that Gene Hackman has to solve because Gene Hackman is a spy and Matt Dillon is not.
It’s hard for me to see the appeal of this script, and it’s clear that neither did Penn. Target was the third film Hackman and Penn worked on together, and the movie has the urgency of a fading band’s reunion tour. Penn once tried to link Target to existentialism, pointing out how the film is about being who you are, not who you wish you were. In the same breath, he admitted that he took the project to do “something relatively mindless.” It’s hard to imagine his heart was in it.
For the most part, Target has been lost to time because it doesn’t make enough noise to be noticed. I suppose the film is a rough ancestor to the Jason Bourne movies, a realistic take on the European spy thriller developed as a reaction to James Bond’s growing silliness. Come to think of it, Target shares the most modern DNA with Liam Neeson’s Euro-thriller Taken, which is no masterpiece, but it’s a film that can teach Target a thing or two about winding up tension. Penn spent his life wringing the maximum amount of energy from his dialogue scenes, but when asked to drive the story with action, he loses interest. The movie hangs around, going through the motions with a yawn. My wife fell asleep during the car chase.
The only reason to bother with Target at all is to watch Hackman perform his ass off. He chews C-grade material with A-grade urgency, and his effort soon paid off with his 1986 hit, Hoosiers. His performance alone pushes Target past the likes of Penn & Teller and Four Friends. If Target were a music video, Hackman would be Tom Petty and the movie would be Kim Basinger. Hackman is dancing, but everything else is as dead as Matt Dillon’s hunky eyes.
Added Fun: Listen to this Canadian James Lipton as he loses his marbles on Dillon over the uncanny significance of the name “Chris.”
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
13. Four Friends (1981)
12. Target (1985)