Who says feel-good tear-jerkers can’t have a little edge?
“Wish Man” may be the story of the Arizona police officer who founded theMake-a-Wish Foundation, the quintessence of “heartwarming” as subject matter. But it’s got violence, dirty cops and alcohol abuse, to go along with flashbacks to a traumatized childhood.
Hell, it’s even got profanity. You know how cops talk.
The squishy, emotional stuff is intercut with the story of a highway patrolman being framed for beating a suspect he most certainly never beat. But in British writer-director Theo Davies’ messy, meandering but heartfelt and righteous film, it all points Officer Frank Shankwitz (Andrew Steel) toward the path he eventually took — making the dying wishes of children come true.
The film opens on Frank’s 1950s awful childhood of poverty, bullying and neglect. His mother (Fay Masterson) drags him from place to place, trailer to hovel, just to keep him out of the reach of Frank’s father.
Her motivations, the film suggests, are purely venal. She just wants to deny her ex (Jason Gerhardt) access to his son. Even though he’s from Chicago, Dad wears cowboy hats and boots. And he teaches young Frank “There’s only one way to make a promise — a cowboy’s binding contract!”
That’s a handshake exchanged over a fence, showing a man’s as good as his word.
But handshake or no, it’s mom who sneaks them out of town again, abandoning the family dog as she does. There has GOT to be more to this story than this, but never mind.
Decades later, it’s 1980 and Frank has become an Arizona Highway Patrolman. He’s a womanizer who gets phone numbers for letting pretty speeders off with a warning, a honky tonk barfly used to making women jump when he barks, “C’mere!”
Kitty Carlisle (not the famous one) doesn’t respond well to that. But events will throw the two of them at each other soon enough.
We see the drunk driving traffic stop that derails Frank’s career (the formidable Dale Dickey plays the foul-mouthed, two-fisted driver). And later we see the accident that makes his heart stop for three minutes.
That scene, by the way, with an allegedly trained officer on-site choosing to let a PASSERBY administer CPR, is the dumbest moment in the movie.
Frank’s sergeant (Robert Pine) assigns new-secretary-hire Kitty (Kirby Bliss Blanton) to stay with skull-fractured Frank until he’s out of the woods and on the road to recovery.
Yeah, she thought that was out of line, even in 1980.
The story of Frank’s departmental and legal difficulties plays out in the 1980 fictive “present,” as snippets of many bad stops in the travels of his childhood pop up to remind us of how rough Frank always had it. As a boy, one diner owner (Danny Trejo) might fire him, with the angry cook delivering a terrible beating afterwards. But another diner owner (Steven Michael Quezada) comes along to take him on, feed him and teach him his second and most important life lesson.
“Remember, someone needs help, you give it to him!”
All of which points to that 1980 moment when Larry Wilcox, playing an old friend of the department, shows up and gives us that “first wish,” a dying child who is obsessed with the TV show “CHiPs.” Yeah, that’s cute, casting Wilcox in that part.
“Wish Man” unfolds like a movie with multiple personality disorder. The film it compares to in my mind is that TV movie about the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, “My Name is Bill W.” But there’s this whole violent and corrupt Frank Whaley/Tom Sizemore subplot, playing bad cops who cover for each other and implicate Frank in an incident of police brutality that he didn’t commit.
And there’s the love story, which drifts from afterthought to perfunctory. As I said at the outset, the picture is just “messy.” Writer-director Davies has only one other feature credit, “Five Hour Friends” starring Tom Sizemore. His inexperience at wrestliing this cluttered script into something tighter and more coherent shows.
But Steel, a Sam Rockwell look-alike, does a decent job of making this cop no angel. Frank’s change from ill-tempered hell-raiser to granter of wishes is thrust upon him, although the events of his life are meant to show this as fated-to-be.
It’s no surprise that’s some well-known players didn’t hesitate to sign on to a film about such a righteous subject — Whaley, Sizemore, Trejo, Dickey and Pine are joined, in the latter acts, by Bruce Davison. All give good value.
I can’t say “Wish Man” is a great film, or even a particularly good one. But it has heart, Steel & Co. make it likeable and writer-director Davies makes its emotional payoff pay off.
MPAA Rating: TV-14, with violence, alcohol abuse, profanity
Cast: Andrew Steel, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Fay Masterson, Frank Whaley, Tom Sizemore, Dale Dickey, Robert Pine, Danny Trejo, and Bruce Davison
Credits: Written and directed by Theo Davies. A Vision Time/Netflix release.
Running time: 1:48