52 Pick-Up is considered a small highlight of John Frankenheimer’s ‘80s period, an era that wasn’t kind to him due to his alcoholism at the time. It’s also one of the very few Cannon films that is of note (the best being weirdly John Cassavetes’ masterpiece Love Streams), and the first Elmore Leonard adaptation to “get it right”. This made Quentin Tarantino a fan of the film—he later adapted Jackie Brown from Leonard’s novel Rum Punch.
Weirdly enough, the year before 52 Pick-Up was made, Cannon made another adaptation of the very same novel, called The Ambassador, featuring Rock Hudson in his last film role and directed by J. Lee Thompson, another older Hollywood director who had fallen on hard times. However,the two films couldn’t be any more different despite having the same source material.
Roy Schneider stars, having had his last big role in the surprise 1983 hit Blue Thunder. However, his career had otherwise fallen flat despite a extroadinary run in the ’70s ending with All That Jazz. Schneider is a LA businessman whose wife (Ann-Margaret) is running for office. When blackmailers approach him with a sex tape of him with his mistress, he can’t go to the police because of his wife’s political career. His solution is to try to play them at their own game.
Throughout the late 70s and most of the 80s, Frankenheimer’s alcohol problem blighted his career and led to poor career choices. Somewhat amusingly, his drinking problem had more or less begun while working on The Iceman Cometh, which he produced a “cinematic play” version of, and which has alcoholism as part of its theme. It resulted in his directing less than stellar films, such as 1979’s Prophecy. Before this, his last film had been The Holcroft Covenant with Michael Caine, which was not successful but reunited Frankenheimer with George Axelrod, the Manchurian Candidate scriptwriter. His long run of turkeys left Frankenheimer in need of a hit, but Cannon’s low budgets made that a real challenge.
While 52-Pick Up was not the big success he needed, it gained Frankenheimer some positive reviews, including from Roger Ebert and New York Times critic Janet Maslin. In reality, however, the film was a bit of a mess. It’s nearly two hours long, and the pacing doesn’t hold up. Frankenheimer doesn’t even exploit the political thriller aspect of the film surprisingly which is what he made his name on. chneider’s good enough in the part, Ann-Margaret is under-used, and the quirky villain played by John Glover is the film’s highlight (he’s great fun to watch, although he chews the scenery a bit too much for his own good). Clarence Williams III is also in good form, but Kelly Preston continues her run of lacklustre performances in low-budget films. Prince protégée Vanity also appears.
The film was shot by Jost Vacano, so the cinematography is one of its better aspects. Vacano also shot almost all of Paul Verhoeven’s films from Soldier of Orange onwards and Das Boot for Wolfgang Petersen. Along with a very late-80s look, it has a cheesy ‘80s score, as do many Cannon films. The composer, Gary Chang, went on to work with Frankenheimer on several other TV and film projects.
There’s also a long party scene featuring many porn stars of the silver age of porn. This gives rise to one of the most pointless special features ever seen on a DVD release, where a pair of dudes play “spot the porn star.” The commentary by Glen Kenny is more worthwhile; a trailer and booklet are also included in this Arrow release.