Classic Film Review: The Michael Caine that Got Away — “A Shock to the System (1990)”

It came and it went, without most anyone noticing.

“A Shock to the System,” a deliciously dark comedy in a minor, murderous key, is one of the many minor gems on Michael Caine’s cinema resume.

But what those of us old enough to recall seeing it in a theater was how lucky we were. The distribution was haphazard, at best, and we only knew about it because Siskel & Ebert championed it from the bully pulpit of whatever TV show they were doing at the time.

Caine plays Graham Marshall, a Brit in American marketing, a husband in a dysfunctional marriage and a man with a murderous interior life.

The Jan Egleson film, based on a Simon Brett novel, opens with Graham in the basement of his rail-commute Jersey suburb, grabbing a pipe to steady himself as he turns on a light, and getting a serious jolt.

It’s like an epiphany to him. Here he is, on his umpteenth attempt to restart the power after his monied ditz of a wife (Swoosie Kurtz) has popped it off with her latest stairmaster, trapped in a big mortgage with two giant poodles, depending on a long-overdue promotion to get right.

And when that promotion doesn’t come, that epiphany takes shape in his interior monologues.

“He’d always fancied himself a sorcerer.”

It’s 1990, and the younger subordinate (Peter Riegert) with computer tracking ideas he barely understands gets promoted over Graham. The “vibrant and youthful” Benham is always going on and on about his sailboat, popular and a bit of a kiss-up. Until the promotion. Graham’s very bad day includes hearing his old boss and confidante (John McMartin) is out, and that instead of using his shiny gold lighter to torch old George’s cigars, it’s Benham who expects that form of kowtowing.

Graham is in no mood to be panhandled on the subway, and a rash moment has him shoving a homeless man in front of a train. He thinks. He can’t be sure that even happened.

But when the spendthrift wife brown-noses the new boss for him, and cluelessly crosses some other line, Graham’s murder-my-way-to-the-life-I-deserve spree begins.

Elizabeth McGovern is the fetching office assistant who lets him know, in no uncertain terms, that she’d welcome the pink-hued Great Brit twice her age’s advances.

And Will Patton is the curious, not-entirely-overmatched cop who asks a few questions after the first mysterious death in Graham’s life, and gets more blunt after the next.

“You know, sudden death hasn’t been all that bad to you.”

Seeing this film again, decades later, one might be struck by Graham’s tendency to go nuclear — loud bursts of Michael Caine barking at the wife, the new boss. He’s a dangerous character from the start, and if we’re rooting for him, it’s because Graham is played by Michael Caine. There’s just enough “plotting” in his interior monologues, and the grin he wears when he gets the phone called “news” of his wife’s death is wicked fun.

The script has a jerky quality, as does the film. Riegert’s evil-new-boss character is painted in subtle shades that make him a fitting, if perhaps not-entirely-deserving object of Graham’s wrath. The whole Caine/McGovern thing is believable, thanks to her efforts. It’s still icky on several levels.

“Shock” is the lone highlight of Egleson’s resume, novelist Simon Brett is strictly a genre writer and screenwriter Andrew Klavan morphed into a sort of right wing crank, author of the anti-abortion screed “Gosnell” and host of podcasts.

But the film came along at a time when Caine had lost his box office/leading man status, adrift in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Mr. Destiny” and “Noises Off” flops, almost a decade before his “Cider House Rules” comeback. The reason Siskel & Ebert championed it is still relevant. Given anything at all interesting to play, the man always delivered the goods.

As Caine’s working life winds down — He’s not REALLY doing “Now You See Me 3,” is he? — “Shock” is worth dropping in on to remember Caine’s work ethic, his willingness to take chancy material and attempt to elevate it and the fact that he so often succeeded.

Rating: R, violence, profanity, smoking, sexual situations

Cast: Michael Caine, Elizabeth McGovern, Swoosie Kurtz, Peter Riegert, John McMartin and Will Patton.

Credits: Directed by Jan Egleson, scripted by Andrew Klaven, based on a novel by Simon Brett. A Corsair release on Tubi, Amazon etc.

Running time: 1:28

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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