In the classic 1962 government short RED NIGHTMARE, narrator/muse Jack Webb introduces the paranoid notion that, somewhere deep within the USSR, lies a fully functioning and populated replica of a small American town. Webb suggests that this community’s sole purpose is to train Communist spies in the "art" of being American. Nearly 30 years later the John Travolta vehicle THE EXPERTS (1989) takes place in just such a place. Webb is nowhere to be found, but the plot of the movie hinges on the allegedly comedic premise that this training village is stuck in the fifties and in desperate need of an infusion of "current" American popular culture in order to remain a viable spy institution.
Produced during John Travolta's long post-PERFECT/pre-PULP FICTION exile from the A-list, THE EXPERTS was filmed in Canada in 1987 and barely released to theaters (it was shown regionally in Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma) in 1989. Its home video debut soon followed and Travolta was on to other debacles like SHOUT and CHAINS OF GOLD. But far from being the star’s worst motion picture (there are a number of other more deserving titles vying for that distinction), viewed today THE EXPERTS is a strange historical artifact that represents one of the last efforts at intentional contemporaneous Cold War comedy.* It is also a fitting—if not nearly as funny—bookend to that previously cited masterpiece of unintentional Cold War humor featuring Mr. Webb.
Conceived and written by three (yes, three) gentlemen—one of whom also wrote the 1984 teen sex comedy HARDBODIES—and directed by SCTV’s Dave Thomas, THE EXPERTS is ultimately a film with a moderately interesting premise ruined by cheap gags and imbecilic dialogue. Its greatest crime—aside from the Travolta dirty dancing scene—is the fact that the filmmakers never adequately explore or explain the history of the town or the people who inhabit it. The town—arguably the most interesting "character"—is treated merely as a background canvass on which to slap lame jokes. The story is so scattershot that it is difficult to imagine what demographic the producers were hoping to snare when this film received Paramount's coveted green light. The movie appears to be catering to a non-existent audience (then or now): Travolta-nostalgic teenagers smart enough to know their history and current events yet stupid enough to relish a misplaced vibrator gag.
In fact, Travolta's character in THE EXPERTS ("Travis") is a limp variation on the role that made the former Sweathog internationally famous—that of a dimwitted New York clubster. Indeed, Travis is SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER's Tony Manero gone to seed—a clueless, aging loser who dreams of someday opening his own nightclub with his similarly dimwitted sidekick Wendell (Arye Gross). This shared desire and lack of intelligence make the pair especially ripe for their imminent Soviet recruitment.
When a Communist spy "trainee" fails an oral examination because she misidentifies sushi as an alcoholic beverage and defines "Heavy Metal" as a "catalyst for Plutonium bombs," KGB agent Bob Smith (Charles Martin Smith) secures a mandate from Soviet General Illyich to embark on a mission to New York to find his pop culture "experts." Smith's rival, agent "Jones" (Brian Doyle Murray) harshly dismisses the entire plan as glasnost run amok, but relishes the fact that if Smith's scheme fails Illyich will "evacuate and destroy" the town. Jones, whose stated job function is to keep the town secret, not "dress it up in the latest trends" apparently has, despite his years of service, no emotional investment in its survival. This is but one example of the script's many inconsequential inconsistencies.
Once in Manhattan, Smith wastes no time luring Travis and Wendell away from their pathetic doormen (at a club called "AKA Dump") jobs with the promise of opening up their own New York-style establishment in the "Mid West." He further promises them both $1,000.00-a-week compensation as well as room and board for their efforts. Within moments Travis and Wendell are on a plane drinking drugged champagne and toasting their own dumb luck.
They awake in what Smith tells them is Indian Springs, Nebraska, a community that, from first (and second) survey, appears to be a 99% Caucasian "Pleasantville" stuck in the neutral universe of mid-20th century suburban America. When Travis and Wendell walk through the streets of the town they are gawked at as aliens or worse—strangers. It is telling that the subtlety-abhorring filmmakers take pains to direct the audience's attention in this sequence to a movie marquee advertising one of the allegorical gems of the Red Scare era, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE.
Indian Springs, we are told in piecemeal fashion, is comprised of first and second generation "residents"—some of whom have lived in the town for thirty years—and KGB "trainees" who cycle through every year or so until they graduate. Travis and Wendell, aside from their observation that the Indian Springs television programming is rather limited ("You have one channel that only gets old movies or cartoons!"), promptly accept the place for what they are told it is and set about their intended task.
After remodeling the decidedly hipper, but dilapidated "Polynesian Lounge" into a pastel and chrome '80's monstrosity (that they dub the "So So Ho Club"), the pair is disturbed when their grand club opening is nearly turned into a "church social" by baked good-bearing, child-toting "residents." But before things are allowed to get too wholesome, Bonnie (Kelly Preston)—a beautiful agent assigned by Jones to keep an eye on the Experts—slinks onto the stage and indulges in a scandalous dance with Travis. Travolta's rather embarrassing Patrick Swayze impression hits its nadir when, at the conclusion of their "dirty" jig, Preston spanks him.
Once the club is up and running Smith acts on a suggestion made by his unwitting consultants on how to further modernize the community: He begins importing commercial goods like compact discs, Walkmans and VCRs for resident consumption. "The key to modern America," as Wendell advises, "is Japanese products."
"I thought the whole purpose of this town was to try to defeat the materialistic, capitalistic lifestyle that Smith's experts are now infecting it with," states another rival KGB agent (Rick Ducommun) while a video monitor displays truckloads of merchandise being distributed to joyous citizens. Though this observation conveniently ignores the fact that Indian Springs was created in the fifties to mirror fifties America with all its then current trends and appliances, it also provides the filmmakers with a desperately needed impetus for the third act of their threadbare movie.
Now that Travis and Wendell are finally viewed as a threat to the town they are targeted for assassination. Following a car bombing that the bumbling pair manages to avoid, they happen upon a Russian military control base outside of town. Travis mistakenly assumes that Indian Springs has been invaded by Soviets and suggests that they run back and alert the townspeople. Wendell explains the reality of the situation ("We're stuck behind the Iron Curtain you mindless pinhead!") and soon, after perfunctory betrayals by their KGB trainee girlfriends, they find themselves in state custody.
"This entire class of trainees is ruined, spoiled by American materialism," rages General Illyich as he declares his intention to close the town. Agent Smith protests claiming "The residents can’t just adjust back to life in the Soviet Union" which leads to a compromise in which the town will be permitted to survive if Travis and Wendell can convince the citizens that they hate the United States and are seeking to defect. But all hell breaks loose at the townhall meeting when the pair just can't bring themselves to disparage America, but instead proceed to stammer out a sentimental reaffirmation of their true patriotism. In a rather unlikely display of solidarity, several residents declare their allegiance to America as well. That is, until they are threatened with immediate execution.
The movie ends—as tends to happen in 1980's comedies—with a frenzied and screwball plane escape and an USA TODAY newspaper spinning into the center of the screen. The headline hails Travis and Wendell as "Spy Town Crackers: Kings of New York." Whither the immigrant residents? They are, of course, relocated to a REAL Nebraska town as a sub-Springsteen anthem booms in the background.It is intriguing to consider that what started out as simply another John Travolta comeback project, THE EXPERTS may well be fodder for future history scholars when they examine American pop cultural attitudes toward the Soviet Union at the conclusion of the Cold War. For the time being, however, it is just another movie that failed to deliver on the gimmick that was surely used to the sell the project at the studio "pitch” meeting. The very same gimmick that is stated outright by the Travolta character in the film: "It's 'Happy Days' meets the Twilight Zone!" If only it were.
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