When most people think of Val Kilmer‘s greatest performance, they usually default to his portrayal of of Doc Holliday in the uneven Tombstone. Don’t get me wrong, his performance as the gunslinger is impressive, but to me he has never been and never will be finer than he was as Chris Knight in Martha Coolidge‘s incredibly humorous and wonderful Real Genius.
Real Genius is centered at Pacific Tech (loosely based on CalTech) where under the direction of Dr. Jerry Hathaway (the always bastard-y William Atherton), geniuses hone their skills, bringing fortune on both them and Dr. Hathaway. The narrative focuses mostly on two characters: Knight, resident brainiac who is about to graduate, and his new protégé, Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret), who happens to be a 15-year old and the first student ever admitted to Pacific Tech for the mid-Winter term.
Why was Mitch admitted to the university early, you ask? Well, it seems Dr. Hathaway is working in league with the military on a top secret project, one which employs a high-powered laser to vaporize single targets/people from outer space. Of course, the students aren’t privy to what Hathaway has been up to. When the military decides they need the project complete in 4 months, not 18, Hathaway brings in Mitch, his ace in the hole.
So it takes a while for them finally find a good footing, but they do and for the most part prosper. Like any good 80s movie, one villain isn’t enough. Not only do they have to deal with Hathaway, but also his toadie, Kent (Robert Prescott), who is jealous that Knight and Mitch get all of Hathaway’s attention despite the fact the he has done everything Hathaway has ever asked him to do. He’s the typical brown-nosing asshole that we all hated when we were in school.
In keeping with a certain weirdness that crept over 80s teen comedies (a la Better Off Dead), this film wouldn’t be complete without the crazy genius recluse who lives in a closet, right? And that would be Lazlo Hollyfeld (the incredible Jon Gries), the gentle-souled former BMOC from Pacific Tech, who went underground after finding out that a product he invented was killing people. He also lives in Mitch and Chris’ closet. But never fear, he’s not some nut – he ends up being the last cog in the wheel that helps set everything straight in the end.
When Hollyfeld finds Knight, Mitch and their merry band of misfit geniuses including Jordan (Michelle Meyrink) and Ick (Mark Kamiyama) celebrating, and tells them what they’ve done, they band together to stop the military from testing the weapon all while exacting revenge on Kent and Hathaway.
Despite being every bit an 80s film, Real Genius was strangely prophetic. When you look at the Crossbow Project, which is the weapon that the guys build, it is basically a different version of the now famous and widely reviled drone program employed by our government and military. The Crossbow was undoubtedly born out of of Ronald Reagan‘s delusional Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) unveiled in 1983. So go figure, right?
This is one movie that I truly believe still stands tall given its age. The humor is as fresh and biting as when this film was released nearly 30 years ago (for the most part). Val Kilmer had just come off of a strong comedic performance in the Zucker Bros.’ Top Secret! and really shines in this film. From his delivery:
to his reactions:
to the offbeat:
…it’s just a a top notch performance. It’s a real shame he abandoned the more comedic roles and instead went for fare like Top Gun. Literally broke my heart when he was in that one.
And how can we ever forget probably the best line in the entire film delivered by Dr. Hathaway?:
PRICELESS and applicable on so many occasions in real life.
And like all 80s movies, the soundtrack is very important contributing immensely to the film. The usage of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” over the ending and credits is an absolutely perfect complement to the premise and the actions of Dr. Hathaway and the US government. Add to that the two incredible montages set to “I’m Falling” by The Comsat Angels and “Number One” by Chaz Jenkel and you have yet another example of the effective use of music to convey the feelings of the characters and add to the story. I just think that 80s movies had a better grasp of this concept. There was no equivalent of Rick Ross playing over a western like in Django Unchained and for the better.
While there are mediocre performances (Mitch?), the whole of the film is strong. Getting a rare glimpse inside the world of the young genius is quite fun and this film is positioned differently than other films like it from the same time, i.e. War Games and The Manhattan Project. While the pall of the Cold War is cast over the three of them, only Real Genius is able to make light of the situation and really empower the kids in the film. I tribute that to a great script from Neal Israel and Pat Proft (who co-wrote Tom Hanks’ Bachelor Party and Police Academy) and Peter Torokvei with really adept direction by Martha Coolidge. A winner on really every level. If you haven’t caught this one, do so at your leisure. It’s one that is not to be missed.
It’s a shame that this one has been relatively forgotten amidst so many of great 80s films. This one still resides at the top of my list.
Here’s the trailer: