There are a few actors out there who made their name on giving ‘on the edge’ performances and, for our money, James Woods is the king of dancing over the line between intense and batshit crazy. He’s the best thing in Cat’s Eye, the only reason to watch The Specialist and we reckon Cop is better than Dirty Harry. So, his portrayal of a vengeful, and quite psychotic, hitman in Best Seller was always going to be one of the film’s strongest attributes for us.
He plays Cleve who, after years serving as a very prolific assassin, has decided that his boss, David Madlock – a successful businessman/crime boss – isn’t living up to his side of their arrangement and decides that the best way to get even isn’t to kill him but rather to team up with Dennis Meechum (played by the ever-reliable Brian Dennehy), a cop who is also a fairly successful crime author to spill the beans on his entire operation. Meechum is a good, honest cop though and isn’t too thrilled with the idea of teaming up with a killer but as he investigates Cleve’s leads, he begins to realise the story needs to be told and reluctantly follows Cleve further and further into the shadowy world that he and Madlock operate in.
In some ways Best Seller plays out like a typical buddy cop movie. Meechum is the straight as an arrow cop while Cleve is often the comedy character, the Pep Streebeck to Meechum’s Joe Friday if you will. Except that, every once in a while, he’ll remind you that his emotions don’t extend as far as caring too much when he kills people. A task that he tends to carry out with ruthless efficiency.
James Woods gives a great performance, veering from cold as ice when he dispatches his victims to an almost comedic vulnerability as he repeatedly attempts to win Meechum’s trust. Stealing every scene he’s in, Cleve is charming, plausible and for a while there you’ll even feel some sympathy for him. Right up until he once again reminds you that he’s a psychopathic killer.
Cleve’s not always the most believable of characters but Woods’ performances adds a flair that compliments Dennehy’s more traditional performance and their chemistry works.
The tension at the heart of the film between Meechum and Cleve, is the real story here and although the expected raid on Madlock’s mansion evokes memories of countless similar scenes (Beverley Hills Cop and Commando spring to mind), the take away from Best Seller is Cleve’s need for approval from Meechum who acts as a reluctant older brother to him. Their relationship makes them the ultimate Odd Couple but has a Hollywood classicism to it. It does also help that James Woods can act his arse off.
The only downside to an otherwise fantastic thriller is the stunningly dumb move Meechum’s daughter makes when she irrationally circles an entire room to run straight into her kidnapper. An action that sets up the film’s fairly predictable ending. But that cannot detract from the film’s appeal and any film that stars James Woods in the Eighties is always going to be a bit of a classic. Which means it’s probably time to get watching Videodrome for the first time in a long time.
Oh but you may want to switch off just as the end credits start. The final music (‘Perfect Ending’ by Ben E. King) makes the average Stan Bush track seem subtle.