Friday, July 27, 1979.THE VILLAIN. Written by Robert G. Kane. Music by Bill Justis. Directed by Hal Needham. Running time: 93 minutes. Mature entertainment.
THE VILLAIN OPENS WITH Cactus Jack Slade (Kirk Douglas) leaping from a rock ledge to the roof of a speeding train.
At least that’s what he’s trying to do.
He misses, ending up in the roadbed between the rails watching the train disappear into the distance.
It’s a good gag. Like most of the gags in director Hal Needham’s new film, though, it has been borrowed whole from somewhere else (in this case from Kid Blue, Dennis Hopper’s underrated and rarely seen comedy western about a badman with little aptitude for crime and even less for honest work).
Hopper’s picture, made in 1973, has become something of a cult film. Needham’s never will. It will be too successful for that particular fate. The kids are likely to take to it with the wholehearted enthusiasm that they still bring to 1974’s Blazing Saddles.
Like the Mel Brooks film, The Villain is not nearly as funny as it might have been. It’s too long, and too dependent on a single comic conceit to be a true classic.
Neither problem will keep it from being a big hit, though. Needham, previously responsible for 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper (1978), deliberately set out to make a live-action cartoon.
He takes his inspiration from Warner Brothers’ popular Roadrunner shorts. Cactus Jack is his Wile E. Coyote, the singleminded, accident-prone villain of the title.
Cactus Jack has been hired by evil banker Avery Simpson (Jack Elam) to steal a cash-filled strongbox. The box is bouncing along on the back of a buggy driven by the unbelievably heroic Handsome Stranger (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and the unbelievably beautiful Charming Jones (Ann-Margret).
Like Blazing Saddles, The Villain operates on two levels. Robert Kane’s script is full of one-liners, most of them groaners (for example, there is a scene with a stuttering telegrapher who struggles through a message, only to be told “that's easy for you to say”).
The brightest bits are the characters' explanations of their own names. “Why do they call you ‘Handsome Stranger?’ ’’ Charming asks.
“I was named after my father.”
“Was he handsome, too?,” Charming persists.
“I don’t know,” Handsome says ruefully. “I never met him.”
Think about that one for a moment.
Later, Handsome will ask Charming about her name. “It was the first thing my father said when (my mother) told him that they were going to have me. My mother said “Parody, I’m pregnant.” He said, “Oh, charming. Just charming.”
Then there are the visuals, borrowed from the cartoons and executed by an entire corps of stuntpersons. Like Wile E., Cactus Jack devises elaborate plots that invariably backfire on him.
He’s aided and abetted in his nefarious schemes by his horse, a beautiful black stallion named Whiskey (Ott), the most impressive equine actor to come along since Kid Shelleen’s empathetic mount in 1965's Cat Ballou.
After seeing the picture, I asked my three-year-old what she liked best about it. With the solemnity that only a pre-schooler can manage, she said “Whiskey.”
Cactus Jack and his horse are partners, and as such enjoy the best-developed relationship in the picture. Handsome contributes the best-developed muscles, while Charming is merely best developed.
Forgettable froth, The Villain is slight, light and likeable, offering unpretentious summertime family fun.
The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1979. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.
Afterword: Credit former stuntman Hal Needham with recognizing the comic potential in professional bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Villain was the first movie in which the aspiring actor did not spend the majority of his screen time shirtless. Following his 1982 breakthrough role, playing a (shirtless) Conan the Barbarian for director John Milius, Arnie would not get the opportunity to be deliberately funny until Ivan Reitman cast him opposite the diminutive Danny DeVito in 1988’s Twins.
At 31, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the youngster invited to a previous performing generation’s class reunion. (Leading lady Ann-Margret was six years his senior.) The Villain was Needham’s way of throwing a party for all the stuntmen and supporting players with whom he’d worked for more than twenty years. Veteran character actors such as Paul Lynde (in his final screen role), Strother Martin, Jack Elam and Robert Tessier appear to be having a ball playing cartoon versions of themselves. Composer Bill Justis, who scored Needham’s first two features as director (1977’s Smokey and the Bandit and 1978’s Hooper), efficiently channels iconic Looney Tunesmith Carl Stalling. Though the movie made an indifferent impact at the box office, it’s now beloved by the same cult film fanciers who revere Kid Blue.
See also: In an interview on the eve of The Villain’s release, director Hal Needham chatted about his concern for safety, his friendship with Burt Reynolds, and his new movie.