POWER PLAY
Canada - U.K. | 1978
Directed by Martyn Burke
Starring
Peter O'Toole
David Hemmings
Donald Pleasence
Color
| 102 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD(R1 - NTSC)
Scorpion Entertainment
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Bare Flesh
 
 
Review by
Brian Lindsey

Film:6
DVD:7
An offbeat, at times documentary-style political thriller which follows the planning and execution of a military coup d'etat in a fictional European country.
    This make-believe nation is never named, referred to in the film only as "the Republic". At one time it apparently had a representative/democratic form of government, but the current regime is a sham the civilian leadership, from the president on down, is thoroughly corrupt, kept in power by a ruthless secret police force which 'disappears' critics and opponents. The country's armed forces, accorded much prestige and honor in society, steadfastly remain above politics, more or less operating by the maxim My country, right or wrong. For certain officers of conscience, however, this maxim has finally reached the breaking point.
    Colonel Narriman (David Hemmings) is one such officer. The talented and respected chief of the general staff's Operations section, the soon-to-retire Narriman is deeply troubled by recent events radical leftists are waging a campaign of violent terrorist attacks against the government, prompting ever more extreme responses by the Gestapo-like agents of Interior Minister Blair (Donald Pleasence). Yet despite these concerns, the patriotic Narriman seems content to retire to a quiet country house and tune out society. This outlook abruptly changes when the daughter of an old family friend is arrested as a terrorist, tortured by Blair's thugs and executed without trial. Then another longtime friend, Dr. Rousseau (Barry Morse), a civilian intellectual with ties to the army, approaches Narriman with a proposal. For the good of the nation, the present government must be overthrown... Not by destructive revolution, but from within by military coup. And the colonel is just the right man to plan it.
    Narriman agrees, but only under certain conditions: Violence is to be kept to an absolute minimum and free elections must be guaranteed within six months of the takeover. He then sets himself to the task. Working out the details is just one aspect, however; recruiting the right men into the conspiracy will be the main hurdle. Narriman and Rousseau carefully sound out key army officers for their willingness to participate. Some of these men are likewise motivated by love of country, but others, notably eccentric tank brigade commander Col. Zeller (Peter O'Toole), appear to have different reasons personal ambition and promotion. The growing cadre of conspirators hold secret meetings at night in the briefing room of the army war college, always wary that even the smallest of slip-ups could cost them their lives. Worried that security chief Blair suspects something is afoot, the coup plotters launch their own counterespionage operation to keep the secret police at bay. On paper, at least, everything seems to be coming together... but as a military theorist, Narriman knows full well that even the most meticulously laid plans never quite survive a battle intact.
    Based on a treatise by military historian Edward Luttwak and partly inspired by the 1944 Valkyrie conspiracy against Hitler, Power Play turns out to be more interesting than it is entertaining. There's an odd unreality inherent to the scenario, given that these events take place in a generic country with no specific geography or culture (the movie was shot in Canada and West Germany); character names are English, French, Spanish, German even Russian and Arabic. This was a deliberate choice by writer/director Martyn Burke, who wanted to imply that the story could be happening anywhere... Instead, especially in the beginning, it's more like "nowhere". This wears off once the plot kicks into gear, though, much like watching an episode of the old Mission: Impossible TV show in which the IMF team pulls a job in the "Republic of Valeria" or somesuch.
    The excellent main cast is what draws the viewer in. Hemmings (Deep Red, The Heroin Busters), Morse (TV's Space: 1999) and Pleasence (You Only Live Twice, Halloween) are all in fine form; Peter O'Toole is merely playing Peter O'Toole here, but for this particular role that's quite okay. Some of the important secondary roles are miscast, unfortunately, utilizing either bland or over-the-top performers. The first half hour of set-up is somewhat muddled but the film begins to coalesce once the planning begins in earnest, and questions of morality arise to confront Narriman and Rousseau who together form the conscience of the conspirators when the possible necessity of murder (to keep the coup plot secret) rears its ugly head. Since the film doesn't focus exclusively on Narriman, we never quite learn just how much he's driven by patriotism and how much he's motivated by the sheer challenge of pulling it off. Hemmings' performance suggests it's a high degree of both.
    There's a fair amount of action for what is ostensibly a political suspense thriller, although these sequences are bookended at the beginning and the climax. A flurry of ironic twists at the very end some actually coming unexpectedly give the drama some impact. And one can't help noting the echoes of today in this 30+ year old movie: the terrorists set off an IED to ambush a cabinet minister's motorcade; Blair's thugs use waterboarding to torture a suspect.
    Worth seeing, but perhaps tough sledding unless you're a political wonk and/or a fan of the actors.

Reputedly the best version ever available on home video, Scorpion Releasing's 2010 edition of Power Play offers an anamorphic 1.85 transfer from a source print in somewhat worn condition. Picture is soft at times, colors often seem muted and there's a sprinkling of damage and dirt here and there, but all told this is an acceptable-looking DVD. The mono audio track is okay; some of its flatness I attribute to the film's original sound recording.
    DVD Extras: An audio commentary by Martyn Burke, explaining how he came to option an academic work by a military historian (incorrectly labeled a "novel" in the back cover blurb) and the subsequent casting/production of the film (a British-Canadian co-production); a 16-minute video interview with Burke, providing the short "Cliff Notes" version of his much more detailed commentary; a brief 3½ minute interview with actor George Touliatos (one of the coup plotters in the film), who tells some interesting anecdotes about Donald Pleasence; the original theatrical trailer (which tries to make it look like an action/war movie) and a trailer reel of current/future Scorpion titles. 3/07/10
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