Rogue Operatives

Rogue Operatives

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Apr 18th 2018

Today in movie history marks the opening-day anniversary of two disparate movies, each with dark undertones and driven by lead characters that strategize, improvise, deal with desperate circumstances to their utmost ability, and constantly reset the rules of engagement – each in their inimitable style. It is recommended that you don’t cross them, even if you admire them when they get down to their dirty business. In fact, Cross (no first name supplied) is the role, a seasoned, world-weary, fugitive CIA operative cast adrift in a world of fraying loyalties and personal convictions, authoritatively played by the great Burt Lancaster in the paranoiac espionage thriller Scorpio (1973), written by David W. Rintels and Gerald Wilson and directed by Michael Winner. Because Cross is supremely good and well experienced, a newer generation of agency leaders wrongfully view him as a U.S./Soviet double-agent threat and mark him for termination. His chief adversary is the code-named title character (played by Lancaster’s The Leopard co-star, the suave and sinister Alain Delon), a Frenchman who learned much of his trade from Cross, and his chief ally is old-school Russian comrade-in-Cold-War-espionage Zharkov (played by Lancaster’s The Train antagonist, the leonine Paul Scofield). As the action zigzags between Washington DC and Vienna locations, the athletically attuned Lancaster proved (at age 58 when filming this) that he still had what it takes to play this high-stakes cat-and-mouse game; CinemaRetro.com reviewer Lee Pfeiffer reports: “Michael Winner takes ample advantage of the exotic settings and provides at least one doozy of a memorable action sequence set in an enormous Vienna construction site where the seemingly ageless Lancaster outdoes himself in terms of stunt work as he attempts to elude his would-be assassins.” 

Another guy with whom one shouldn’t be at cross-purposes is Tommy Spinelli, the hot-wired, eternally frustrated mob bagman – on the verge of retirement yet! – who loses (in an airport luggage carousel mixup) and scrambles to retrieve some gruesome yet prized cargo, namely 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (1997). A blithely bizarre comedy of crude and criminal errors written and directed by Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society, a strangely relevant prior credit), it has an ideal, short-fused protagonist in the Tommy incarnated by a virtuoso of foul-mouthed fury, GoodFellas, My Cousin Vinny and Casino star Joe Pesci. As Slant Magazine’s R. Kurt Osenlund analyzes it, this high-concept caper pays “testament to how entertaining it is to simply watch Pesci get royally pissed. Throughout the movie, Schulman sets Pesci up with ample opportunities to unleash his remorseless venom, whether it’s telling off airport clientele, lambasting impatient folks in line for the pay phone, or comically torturing [duffel bag switcher] Charlie’s Bethesda University pals, Ernie (David Spade) and Steve (Todd Louiso), whom he tracks down when on the hunt for his precious heads. Everyone, especially Ernie, a med student studying neurology, tries to pull one over on Tommy, presuming the thug is a few bullets short of a full clip. But Tommy is always ahead of their belittling mockery, and ‘Don’t get cute with me, asshole’ is a favored phrase.” No question that Lancaster and Pesci are tough customers, the former with his phenomenal physicality, the latter with his manic motormouth. Turn them loose – and watch your back – when enjoying the murderous mysteries of Scorpio and the manic mayhem of 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.