Story by Larry Cohen (uncredited)
I was not sure if I should include the Jeff Speakman vehicle The Expert as part of the Cohen Case Files. Cohen is not even credited on the finished film. Instead, the credits list a screenplay by veteran crime and mystery novelist Max Allan Collins. A “story by” credit is given to Jill Gatsby, a sometime actress who also just happens to be Larry Cohen’s daughter. But in this interview with Collins, he claims that the original screenplay was by Cohen and he used Gatsby’s name as a pseudonym after having his original script so heavily rewritten. Since I see no reason for Collins to lie about such a thing, I’m going ahead with the assumption that Cohen was the original voice behind the screenplay.
John Lomax (Speakman) is something called a “close quarters combat specialist.” Apparently this means he works as a consultant who trains the SWAT teams of law enforcement agencies—at the very least, that’s how he’s introduced. In short order, he explains to his cop buddy Dan (Wolfgang Bodison) that he is content training others how to fight and save lives because he no longer wants to go looking for trouble. Of course, John has no idea he exists in the down-and-dirty world of DTV action films and doesn’t realize he’s jinxing himself by uttering aloud his peaceful life philosophy.
It seems that John has a younger sister named Jenny (Michelle Nagy). Jenny is a law student and apparently is Dan’s love interest (this is not really clear because she is introduced flirting with Dan before she brushes him off in the next scene by explaining that she’s not at a point in her life where she wants to be in a relationship). Jenny catches the eye of Martin (Michael Shaner), a fellow student who seems equal parts goofy, brilliant, and totally insane. Instantly obsessed in the way only a movie maniac is capable of being, Martin breaks into Jenny’s home and murders her. Leaving behind a ton of physical evidence, Martin is convicted of Jenny’s murder and sentenced to death.
In prison, Martin finds himself under the rule of Warden Munsey (James Brolin), an old-school hardass who enjoys beating the prisoners and emotionally torturing the death row inmates under his charge. But changing times lead to Munsey’s authority being stripped away as he is assigned Dr. Alice Barnes (Alex Datcher) as an assistant warden. Dr. Barnes is a psychiatrist and anti-death penalty advocate who takes a special interest in Martin. When Barnes convinces the governor to commute Martin’s sentence and transfer him to a special psychiatric facility, John is understandably distraught. It’s not long before he hatches a goofy plan for revenge that is best left as a surprise for anyone who dares to brave this sloppy movie.
There is no context in which The Expert can be considered a good movie. But it is an ambitious, incredibly wrong-headed movie, and you should never underestimate the fun that can be had with such lunacy.
Much of the film’s random nature and slapdash feel can be attributed to a change in director during production. William Lustig—a usually reliable horror and action filmmaker, not to mention a frequent Cohen collaborator—was the original director on the film before quitting and being replaced by veteran stuntman and stunt coordinator Rick Avery. My guess is that most of the film had already been shot and Avery simply padded out the running time with a few action sequences that are tangential at best, completely irrelevant at worst, to any of the film’s six different plot threads.
The Expert feels like Lustig had a vicious anti-death penalty satire in mind. At times, the tone of the film reminds me a bit of Starship Troopers in the way it seems to embrace an extreme right-wing mentality before skewering those same beliefs through a ridiculous speech full of talking points delivered with relish (and mustard) by the obviously nuts Warden Munsey. But just as often as the tone of the film points to satirical intentions, it seems to suffer from some confusion about its identity. Not long after Munsey callously taunts a man on his way to the electric chair and holds a celebration in honor of the prison’s 125th execution, he is turned into something resembling a hero.
Then again, maybe I am misreading the intentions of the original filmmakers. Maybe the film really is a straight action film that also works as a celebration of the death penalty. After all, John, the film’s supposed hero, doesn’t say much and spends most of his time seething with rage at the idea that Martin might not fry in the electric chair. But the lack of any apparent double-meaning behind his character could also be due to the fact that Speakman is where charisma goes to die. He is never called upon to do anything more than kick, punch, and shoot people. For those rare occasions when he is required to do any kind of emoting, you can get whiplash from the action of how quickly the film screeches to a halt. Maybe it was just easier for Lustig and Avery to reduce Speakman’s part to nothing more than a sullen, slightly redneck killing machine than have to deal with his atrocious performance.
Speakman’s inability to inject any personality into the lead makes his protagonist into a character who is not essential to most of the plot threads. John takes no proactive action until desperation forces his hand in the third act. Even then, his attempts to make things right actually cause more chaos. If that plot progression felt intentional, The Expert might be considered a daring film. Instead, the head-scratching twists that are taken in the run up to the climax just further highlight the frayed seams of the patchwork story.
But until the film settles for a third act that is mostly a series of by-the-numbers DTV action movie clichés, it never lacks for story ideas—no matter how half-baked. A subplot about Martin being locked in a cell next to a man who was wrongfully convicted for one of his earlier murders provides some snap to the second act until that storyline comes to an abrupt end. The same goes for the power struggle plot between Munsey and Barnes over how to treat the prisoners. In many ways, The Expert is a film that is nothing but subplots because of how long it takes for John to start acting like a proper protagonist.
No matter how random or poorly constructed the extraneous plots are, they at least keep the film watchable in a screwball sort of way. By the time Jim Varney pops up in a cameo as a sleazy weapons dealer, I could almost see the sweat on ace editor Bob Murawski’s brow as he tried to figure out a way to shoehorn the character into the film in a way that’s at least semi-coherent. This is to say nothing of the near superhuman effort it took to force in a barely sketched romance between John and a TV news reporter (Elizabeth Gracen).
While Cohen’s touch is evident in its overtly politicized focus on the death penalty, it lacks the cohesion of the disparate elements that he brings to his best scripts. Even so, The Expert charmed me. It’s an absolute mess, but that’s what makes it fun.
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