My guess is that most moviegoers would not think of William Friedkin as a comedy director, some of his most-famous films being "The French Connection," "The Exorcist," and "To Live and Die in L.A." Nor would most folks probably consider arms dealing exactly a subject ripe for comedy, not in 1983 during the Cold War and especially not today after 9/11. So maybe teaming up the somber-minded Friedkin with comic actor Chevy Chase for a film comedy, even a dark satiric one, about arms dealing was a questionable idea from the start. Audiences must have had an uneasy feeling about the subject matter, just as they did with Nicolas Cage's 2005 box-office disappointment, "Lord of War," which dealt with a similar theme.
None of which would make much difference if "Deal of the Century" had been funny, if it had contained funny satire or funny characters or funny dialogue or funny gags. Unfortunately, none of it is all that funny. This may not be surprising considering the director, but it is surprising considering that the movie's producer was Bud Yorkin, whose comedy experience dates all the way back to "The Jack Benny Show," "All in the Family," and "Sanford and Son"; and that the screenwriter was Paul Brickman, who wrote "Risky Business." In fact, the black humor mostly misfires. Not to say the movie doesn't have its few amusing moments; it does. Yet it seldom grabs an audience intellectually or comically to any appreciable degree. The result is another so-so chapter in the Chevy Chase canon of motion-picture comedies.
The movie begins auspiciously enough with a commercial poking fun at the arms industry, a promo for the Luckup Industries "Peacemaker," a pilotless fighter drone that promises to "preserve our way of life," with pictures of families and children in the background. There's a touch of "Dr. Strangelove" in the proceedings as the company executives discuss marketing plans for the plane, but the company president, Frank Stryker (Vince Edwards), announces the campaign is too soft. He's a hard-nosed boss who wants a tougher ad campaign, something like a fighter pilot explaining to the listener, "Why do I fly the A-10? On account of it kills." While the film clearly intends this kind of humor to be astute and biting, the film never carries any of it very far, and most often the intended jokes come across too seriously. Maybe it's the delivery; maybe it's because Friedkin didn't have Peter Sellers, Sterling Hayden, or George C. Scott to supply the right seriocomic touch.
Chase plays Eddie Muntz, a freelance arms dealer who will sell weapons to anybody to make a buck: governments, terrorists, criminals, guerillas, whomever can come up with enough dough. When we first meet him, he's in the little Central American country of San Miguel selling small arms to the rebels there. But things don't go as planned. Then he meets Harold DeVoto (Wallace Shawn), a despondent sales rep for the Luckup Corporation, who is trying to peddle some "Peacemaker" drones to the country's President, General Arturo Cordosa (William Marquez); and he meets Harold's beautiful wife, Catherine (Sigorney Weaver), soon to be Harold's widow. "What's a place like this doing around a girl like you?" asks Eddie. When Harold commits suicide, Eddie decides to take his place and pass himself off as the Luckup representative in a deal that could net him millions of dollars, a "deal of the century." Catherine also joins in the scheme, as does Eddie's best friend and partner in mischief, Ray Kasternak (Gregory Hines). The rest of the movie involves their conniving the Luckup Corporation and the President of San Miguel to commit to the plan.
Comedy is a delicate art that requires a deft touch, and I'm not sure these filmmakers were up to it. Nobody involved with the movie seems to have had any idea what the movie's mood was supposed to be. The black comedy angle is explored only on occasion; the caustic jabs at the arms industry are hit-and-miss; the humor ranges from the reasonably perceptive to the dumb to the just plain nonexistent; and, as always, Chase seems merely to flow with the current. For instance, just what is Ms. Weaver's character supposed to be? One moment she is a supreme con artist; the next minute she is a grieving widow; and the moment after that she's chasing after Chase and selling herself to the General. And Hines's character? After years of making money off the selling of death, he suddenly gets religion. Is this intended as a spoof of born-again zealots? Or is it simply a plot device to get us to the movie's wholly unfunny climactic dogfight? In any case, both actors are rather wasted in their ill-defined roles.
You can see good intent written all over "Deal of the Century," but it needed a smoother blend of comic styles to be successful, a more consistent tone, and a better melding of wackiness, caricature, exaggeration, send-up, and satire. I wouldn't have expected the movie to be another "Strangelove," but it could have been something more along the lines of the original 1979 farce, "The In-Laws." But, then, Friedkin not only didn't have Sellers, Hayden, or Scott, he didn't have Peter Falk or Alan Arkin, either. As it is, what little humor we find in "Deal of the Century" often seems contrived and forced, with too many dead spots along the way.
Eddie keeps shooting himself in the foot, wearing a cast through most of the movie; clearly, the filmmakers shot themselves in the foot at every turn as well.
The picture quality varies from below average to excellent, with everything in between. I suppose it all balances out to ordinary. The WB engineers maintain most of the film's original 1.85:1 ratio in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, and they provide a good black level for excellent color depth. However, there is a veil of grain almost always present that mars ultimate clarity, the image is somewhat soft and ill-focused, and darker areas of the screen tend to smother inner detail. A couple of outdoor scenes, like one at a golf course, look as good as anything you'll find on DVD, but such scenes are the exception here.
The audio quality also varies all over the map. The Dolby Digital 2.0 reproduction delivers a pleasantly wide front-channel stereo spread and quiet backgrounds, but the rear channels are left to the mercy of one's Pro-Logic system. Worse, the overall frequency balance seems to favor the upper midrange, making the sound a tad bright and hard. Then, about halfway through the film, the sound picks up an odd, sour resonance, which continues on and off for the rest of the movie.
Because this is an older catalogue item, Warner Bros. chose not to include any serious extras to include with it. About the only things you'll find are a widescreen theatrical trailer; twenty-six scene selections but no chapter insert; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
No one could ever accuse Chevy Chase of making great films. But the man has not made very many outright stinkers, either. "Deal of the Century" appears to have been Chase's and director William Friedkin's attempt to do something lighthearted on a serious subject, where neither end of the equation came out quite as funny or quite as profound as the filmmakers might have liked. Let's just say that "Deal of the Century" turns out to be more like "No Big Deal of the Century."