M, 105 minutes

2 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It would be fun to know the insider gags that went into this remake of a film from 1982. It is, among other things, a comedic take on how the entertainment business can work at the murkier end of the scale.

A shonky producer in hock to the mob, is trying hard to avoid a shallow grave. He hatches a plan to sabotage the sets on his next film so his old lead actor has a fatal accident while doing his stunts. That way he gets a big insurance payout that will cover his debts.

Max (Robert De Niro) Barber’s most recent film, something about an order of lewd nuns, was such a flop that he must find $350,000 to repay his financiers as quickly as he can. Mafia boss, Morgan Freeman as Reggie Fontaine, is expecting results and the money owed returned to him, asap.

Reggie may be a movie buff who likes to trade film trivia with Max on classics like Touch of Evil and Psycho, but he has no time for anything that distracts him when debts remain unpaid.

The lengthy narrative set-up is a drawn-out affair with excruciating close-ups of De Niro mugging furiously to overcome the shortcomings in the script. In deerstalker cap, long grey curls and glasses, De Niro looks and behaves like a frenetic Woody Allen.

After Max has hatched his fiendish plan, he sets off with his nephew and fellow producer, Walter Creason (Zach Braff), to hunt for a suitable star. Max has not confided his evil covert plan to the young man.

Casting takes them to an aged care home full of retired actors. Max and Walter find themselves spoilt for choice as antique performers line up to show them they can still do the thing that they were in demand for 40 years ago.

When they are trying to escape, Max and Walter accidentally break into the room occupied by aging Western actor Duke Montana (Tommy Lee Jones), and interrupt him playing Russian roulette with his pistol.

It’s a relief when Jones appears on screen. At last De Niro will have to share the space with someone else.

De Niro has been just right in some comedies like Analyze This and Analyze That, Meet the Parents and the Silver Linings Playbook, but has also been dreadful in others. His performance here in The Comeback Trail is best forgotten.

The comedy does get a fillip with Jones on screen, though not until he is in character. As the Duke – apologies John Wayne – he is a star of Western movies who no one wants to use anymore. Although Duke is the genuine article as a cowboy who does all his own stunts, no one wants to hire him.

The studios just don’t make Westerns anymore. This is historically correct. The Comeback Trail is set in the 1970s.

Against all the odds, Duke survives a fall from his horse. He gets thrown to the ground when Butterscotch stops shy of a jump over flaming covered wagons. On another occasion, his trusty golden lasso gets him out of a deep canyon as a bridge that Max has had sabotaged, collapses. These moments are funny, but the screenplay written by director George Gallo and Josh Posner is pretty pedestrian.

The idea of a slip of a girl directing Max’s ‘rootin tootin shootin’ Western is a contemporary touch. Megan, played by Kate Katzman, looks like she could be a walkover, but when she gets on set, in shorts and cute tops, she is the epitome of the decisive director.

Megan knows what she wants and she knows her stuff too. No doubt she’s a product of film school. She stands her ground. The wagons should look naturalistic and the star needs to be backlit to enhance his mythic status.

Zach Braff and Robert De Niro in The Comeback Trail

I have not seen the first Comeback Trail, in which Buster Crabbe, a former Olympian swimmer and superhero actor, performed his last role, as Duke Montana. It was directed by Harry Hurwitz, a minor director of the time.

It’s my hunch that the original was marginally more rewarding because expectations would have been lower without big name stars who agreed, for some reason or another, to take part in this remake.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 November 2020