“Touch and Go” (1986)

touch and go  A quick bit of trivia about this movie: during their poverty-stricken early days, Slash and Axl Rose of Guns n’ Roses took jobs as extras in “Touch and Go’s” hockey scenes, which were shot in Los Angeles in 1984 (according to Slash’s autobiography). While available on DVD, I watched this movie on a VHS copy I bought (sans case) from a now-defunct video store in Astoria, Queens, so I did not have the zoom button at my disposal. Pathetically, I tried to spot Slash and Axl by running every panned-out crowd shot (there’s around 15 in total) in slo-mo, but failed miserably. I will personally buy anyone who spots them (with or without the zoom button) a case of Zywiec.

And here now, the movie itself. I was a little surprised that the generally clumsy and amateurish but occasionally poignant drama “Touch and Go”–starring Michael Keaton as a Chicago-based pro-hockey player who befriends a troubled Latino boy and romances his mother–so heavily divided the critics upon its early 1987 release. (Directed by Robert Mandel, it was, according to a January 1986 Los Angeles Times article, wrapped in 1984 but then shelved, due to a change of studio representation–from Universal to Tri-Star–as well as extensive rescoring and reassembling of promotional ads during post-production). Vincent Canby’s huffy New York Times review called the film “dismally ineffective….At the end of the film as at the beginning, the actors seem to be meeting each other for the first time.” The Chicago Tribune’s Dave Kehr deemed it “gray and sticky, like maple syrup gone bad”; across town, however, the Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert gave it a generous 3 1/2 stars, impressed with the characters’ “off-the-wall edge.” Most surprisingly, Pauline Kael, in an uncharacteristically relaxed mood, also championed “Touch and Go,” praising the “lovely, spinning rapport” between Keaton and his co-star Maria Conchita Alonso.

I don’t altogether disagree with the film’s supporters that the performances are laced with charm–or at least ambition. In interviews promoting the film, Keaton spoke–rather boastfully–of his heavy training for the role, which involved running up flights of stairs in ice skates and getting inured to those bracing Chicago winters, which rendered the real-life actor as moody, during the shoot, as his character. I bought the defeatist cynicism of Keaton’s Bobby Barbato (what a name!) and the role overall lacks the jaunty wisecracking Keaton was known for at the time–and which sometimes alienated critics. Alonso’s role is throwaway–the poor Hispanic single Mom with a heart of gold–but she somehow adds savvy to an otherwise cloying scene in which her character pursues Keaton’s into the hockey arena’s men’s room, begging him for a dinner date as repayment for his kindness towards her son. I also agreed with the assenting critics that the son’s character (played by Ajay Naidu, who later rose to fame as the belligerent Samir in “Office Space”) is less cutesy than you’d expect. He’s a rotter, this little prick, and you always side with Bobby when he’s seconds away from ditching him in a diner, or a dangerous city street, or the suitcase compartment of a Greyhound bus (long story).

What I didn’t buy at all was the plot. The actors’ energy is wasted on a story that wouldn’t survive most ten-second pitch meetings. Kael noted that Keaton’s “fighting trim” physique shows on the screen, and as such, his hockey scenes aren’t that laughable (though I’m not convinced a hockey star wouldn’t choke on that much chewing gum, what with gargantuan rivals waiting to smash his face into the bleachers at every play). But would a hockey star walk out into an abandoned, inner-city arena parking lot late at night, unaccompanied by a bodyguard? (Hell, would he even drive himself home?) Would this fit yet still rather pint-sized man be able to take on five larger thugs holding him at gunpoint? (He literally flips three of them over his shoulders).

Fortunately, the next 20 minutes or so almost salvage the film from this ludicrous opening. Keaton’s rapport with the smallest member of this gang (Naidu), whom the older thugs were initiating, is actually believable. He collars the punk, throws him into his car and is deadset on turning him into the police. “Rape!” cries the kid. “You don’t watch it, it’ll be homicide!” Bobby fires back. Then the kid makes up a stupendous lie that his mother is a paraplegic and that a police record would end their welfare. When Bobby realizes the kid actually lives in a rather polished walk-up, he’s furious. He also has limited patience for the kid’s foul-mouthed attitude. But he can’t help being taken in by it, either. He’s like the son Bobby never had–or can’t make the commitment to have. (Before the crime incident, Bobby is shown, in a series of poorly edited scenes, sleeping with a succession of trashy groupies; Mandel only shows the initial come-ons and then cuts to the morning after, in which Bobby muses pensively in his trusty bathrobe; it’s a cheap device).

The thaw of Bobby begins. But man, what a slow thaw. We have to endure Bobby leaving the kid’s apartment, blowing off both his and his mothers’ attempts to reconnect, soul-searching during those long, lonely bus rides from tournament to tournament, before the inevitable reconnection and romance. Never mind the horrid editing (one scene ends with Keaton suddenly in his shower, yelling “Hwoooah!” as the hot water bursts on him). What really kills “Touch and Go” is that this hockey player is boring. He could be any jaded ’80s narcissist. There’s no heat to the athletic scenes, nor when Keaton starts playing cute with Alonso (“You will sleep with a Latino woman tonight,” he reads coyly from a Chinese restaurant fortune cookie). The movie often grinds to a halt, most heinously when Max Wright (Willie from “Alf”) shows up as Alonso’s snooty relative. After the kid’s former gang friends threaten both him and his mother, he’s sent to Wright’s suburban home for protection; Bobby is invited to a quaint party at this house; the kid gets drunk and pukes all over Wright’s sofa, upon which Wright condescends to the kid and Bobby hastily breaks his nose. This entire sequence could have been excised, as could Alonso’s subsequent rape by the gang members.

That said, what I enjoyed most about “Touch and Go” is its ability to dodge sentimentality when it most threatens to loom large. I liked that Bobby doesn’t particularly like the kid until a late scene in which he watches the kid pick his own fight in the hockey arena stands. Only brutishness seems to enliven him. When the kid goes soft on him, it sickens him as much as the audience. Bobby’s Scrooge-like shift from selfish to selfless in the final reel–he agrees to bankroll Alonso’s travel agency business–rang true for me, because their whole attraction to each other seems more businesslike than erotic. Unfortunately, that’s how I would characterize the whole film.

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