RATING: *** (out of ****)
Few directors can measure up to Roger Donaldson when it comes to infusing a film with the culture of its physical setting. Case in point, his 1988 film Cocktail begins with the ambitious ex-army man Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise) saying good-bye to his buddies and boarding a bus for New York City. In an intro credit sequence set to a popular tune, Donaldson’s shot of the twin towers is as iconic as the dog walker seen outside the bus window. Donaldson is extremely adept at capturing what New York is all about and getting the audience comfortable with this big new place our protagonist is thrust into. Flanagan is of the ambitious sort, and the film successfully explores the positives and negatives of such earnestness. On the one hand, he is forward-thinking, bound to be successful, and has a pleasantly naive outlook on life. On the other, he is unable to connect with people on a personal level, frequently treating those who love him apathetically at best. It becomes increasingly difficult to root for Flanagan as the film goes on, and Donaldson successfully adds complexities to the character that are unexpected in fare as light as this. For it is light. Cocktail is one of Cruise’s least appreciated films, partly due to its frequently sexist overtones, but mostly due to the predictable last act which hinges on an unbelievable change of heart by Cruise’s love interest Jordan (played by Elisabeth Shue).
But for all the structural short-comings of the screenplay, the film is still tons of fun with Cruise turning in an all too rare comedic performance, Bryan Brown in an all too rare major role, and Elisabeth Shue as likable as ever as the main love interest. The actors successfully create multidimensional characters in surprisingly top notch performances. There is a scene in which the strikingly beautiful Shue sees Cruise with another woman, and her reaction is a tasteful, extremely sad moment that exemplifies the hurt ambition can bring on those individuals closest to it’s epicenter. Brown is also more than just a womanizing bartender, becoming a Shakespearean tragic by the third act which finishes off his remarkably complex arc. Finally, Cruise is in control of the movie. He charms and revolts in equal measures, while also contributing to most of the humor of the story.
Technically, the film benefits from Donaldson’s keen cultural eye, and cinematographer Dean Semler’s indulgent, but pleasant landscape framing. The soundtrack is full of classics from the 70’s and 80’s and nodding one’s head to the familiar melodies is surely what the filmmakers intended. Finally there is the editing by Neil Travis. Never my favorite editor, Travis doesn’t help the screenplay’s lapses into awkwardness, frequently emphasizing scenes that shouldn’t be and picking close-up shots when a wide frame would have better suited an exchange or action. But overall, non-nitpickers should ignore the bashing the film has endured over the last 20 or so years and just have fun. It’s a roller coaster ride that may not take all its turns smoothly, but stops in just the right moment at the end. Recommended.