Film reviews and more since 2009

Best Defense (1984) review

Dir. Willard Huyck

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★½

“I picked up a script called Best Defense. There’s a movie that sucked real bad! At first, I wasn’t going to do it because I read the script, and I felt like I was an actor at first. But the money they gave me to do Best Defense, y’all would have done Best Defense too, OK? [….] I was like, ‘What?! How dare you give me a script like this! Oh, that much money? Let’s go!”Eddie Murphy on Best Defense during a 1984 episode of Saturday Night Live.

Best Defense is the kind of movie that might’ve been mediocre had it been mostly left alone, but thanks to pervasive studio-meddling, it became a full-fledged disaster. It devolved into something so ignominious that it could be mistakenly left off a lowlight reel of its major stars. Had my girlfriend not acquired a copy on the internet due to a friend once mentioning it, even I might not have perused the depths of Wikipedia to unearth such a lump of coal.

Written by the husband-and-wife team of Willard Huyck (also director) and Gloria Katz, who worked off the book Easy and Hard Ways Out by American engineer Robert Grossbach, Best Defense might’ve fared better had it been left alone after it debuted to poor test screenings. Different accounts say the film was at least focused on Dudley Moore’s character, a caddish and unlikable engineer. But with a comedian like Eddie Murphy hot off successes in the form of 48 Hrs. and Trading Places, Paramount thought wise to have the filmmaking couple do back to the writing room and write some extraneous sequences of Eddie Murphy as an Army lieutenant driving around Kuwait with a hapless crew in a malfunctioning tank.

Murphy never plays a meaningful role in the film’s primary plot, nor does he interact with any other notable castmembers. As detached from the narrative as he is, he is still Eddie Murphy, ultimately. While nothing he says or does comes close the work he did before or would go on to do, he still effectively rescues Best Defense from being a completely miserable slog. I maybe laughed five times over the course of 94 minutes, and I’d wager that four of those were a result of Murphy’s comic timing and delivery.

Besides that, Best Defense‘s timing is completely off and it’s late to deliver anything worth remembering when it comes to the main story. The plot involves an incompetent engineer named Wylie (Dudley Moore), who is tasked with developing a targeting system that could be used on tanks in the Army. Meanwhile, Murphy plays Lt. Landry, whose scenes take place two years prior to what we see happening with Wylie, essentially illustrating how shoddy and unreliable tank technology was before he stepped in.

By “stepped in,” I mean Wylie takes credit for a gyroscope for use on army tanks. He’s given the blueprint for the technology for a KGB agent (Tom Noonan), a KGB agent who entrusts Wylie with the confidential material, and is offed shortly after this chance encounter. This leads everyone to believing that Wylie is responsible for cracking the ostensibly impossible code. Wylie soon becomes a new American hero, and is permitted to do things like cheat on his wife (Kate Capshaw) with a coworker (Helen Shaver), and get wrapped up in international espionage with his loafer friend (George Dzundza).

Best Defense is too stupid to be a talky satire, and too witless to be a farce, so what we’re left with is a hodgepodge of two plots that never coalesce, much less acknowledge the existence of the other. When following Moore’s Wylie, we’re shuffled from scene-to-scene in hopes some comedy catches up with the pace of the movie, which feels breathless despite going nowhere. The fact that we are expected to root for a womanizing oaf wouldn’t be such a tough ask if we were given some functional comedy to go along with it. But Huyck and Katz fail to present any clear comic angle other than Dudley Moore being too dumb to function.

When Moore is haplessly trying to cover for his fraudulent ways, the film is moribund. When it focuses on Murphy struggling to control a tank, there’s enough to suggest the film should’ve been reworked to feature more of its “strategic guest star,” as the poster bills him.

Just how bad is Best Defense? Well, the DVD is long out of print. It’s a good joke in itself that your mind even thought of the potential that there was a Blu-Ray released, but the real howler is that the film is wholly absent from Paramount+, not necessarily the gold standard for streaming in the modern day.

NOTE: As of this writing, Best Defense is available to rent on multiple platforms.

Starring: Dudley Moore, Eddie Murphy, Kate Capshaw, George Dzundza, Helen Shaver, Tom Noonan, and David Rasche. Directed by: Willard Huyck.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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