Release Date(s)1990 (September 21, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
While watching Bird on a Wire, one is reminded of the Alfred Hitchcock films The 39 Steps and North by Northwest, in which the leading man and leading lady join forces on what amounts to an elaborate chase. Bird on the Wire follows a similar template, this time with an unsuspecting woman getting entangled with a man constantly looking over his shoulder. Yet it never achieves the delicate balance that makes this kind of film click.
Rick Jarman (Mel Gibson) is working at a Detroit gas station, the latest in a series of jobs and identities he’s had since joining the Federal Witness Protection Program. He testified against a couple of government narcotics agents 15 years earlier and they’ve been looking for him ever since. High-powered New York lawyer Marianne Graves (Goldie Hawn), in Detroit on business, coincidentally drives into that very station for gas and recognizes Rick, and won’t believe his claim that he’s never seen her before. Driving back to the station that night, she arrives just in time to save him from being murdered by the two thugs looking for him. We learn that Rick and Marianne were lovers 15 years ago until he suddenly disappeared without a word. She now knows why.
The film then becomes an extended chase through numerous picturesque locations, with the bad guys hot on their trail. Now Rick must not only save his own life, but Marianne’s as well. Director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever) attempts to infuse the plot with humor, but does so in obvious, unimaginative ways. Slapstick is fine in its place, but when two people are in fear for their lives, it can easily tilt the balance and render the film silly. While Hitchcock knew how to adroitly place a line of dialogue, a look, or a situation to lighten the mood, Badham trowels on the gags as if he’s helming a Monty Python film. It’s clear early on that the flimsy plot is just an excuse for chases and gags, mostly involving Goldie Hawn’s high-maintenance princess act and gorgeous legs. We have no doubt that Marianne and Rick will emerge in one piece despite explosions, machine gun fire, inching across a narrow beam atop a skyscraper, falling into an alligator exhibit, or dangling from an unsteady foot bridge.
Gibson and Hawn have pretty good screen charisma and get into the spirit of the screenplay’s zaniness, but their backstory is presented perfunctorily more as a necessary reason to explain their bond than to explain why they both make harebrained decisions while trying to keep from getting killed.
The action sequences are elaborately staged and the stunt work is impressive, but they clearly overshadow the plot. It looks as if the Big Moments were planned first and then a script was concocted to string them together. Because Hawn has a sweet charm and Gibson plays Rick as a likable action hero, the film holds our attention, though it leaves us with an empty, unfulfilled feeling by film’s end.
Bird on a Wire comes to Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics in 1080p resolution. Presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the master has been sourced from a new 2K scan of the film’s interpositive. The picture quality is sharp in most scenes, with individual strands of Hawn’s hair, Gibson’s whiskers, shrubbery and a waterfall in the zoo setting, bullet hits, and tiger close-ups especially well defined. A huge nighttime gas station explosion lights up the sky (any time a vehicle is wrecked, an explosion is sure to follow). An outdoor birthday celebration at a large home is dressed with pink balloons along stairways and railings and scores of helium-filled balloons floating among children in pastel party clothes, giving the scene the look of cotton candy.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and precise throughout, though the film relies more on visuals than dialogue. Sound mixing is good, with audio shifting from left to right or right to left as cars race through streets. Sound effects like car screeches, car crashes, motorcycle engines, police sirens, gun fire, explosions, animal sounds, and Hawn’s frequent screaming dominate the soundtrack. After the song The Age of Aquarius is heard at the beginning, the Hans Zimmer score takes over and helps to make the action scenes more exciting. The zoo sequence features a waterfall, splashing alligators, chattering chimpanzees, and roaring tigers. Suspense is heightened when a foot bridge starts snapping its ties, threatening to drop Marianne and Rick into the midst of the wild animals prowling below.
Bonus materials on the PG-13 rated Region A Blu-ray release include an audio commentary and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Film historian Daniel Kremer, director John Badham, and producer/second unit director Rob Cohen share this commentary. They begin by stating that Bird on a Wire was a box office hit when originally released in May of 1990. The Age of Aquarius was used to open the film because the story of Marianne and Rick covers two periods—the present day, and their time together 15 years earlier. The original script had a lot more information about and references to the 60s. A few outdoor scenes were filmed in Vancouver (standing in for New York City). Canadians were upset to see how littered and dirty the filmmakers made the location look to simulate New York City of the period. Hawn plays a tough, resilient, killer lawyer. According to Badham, Goldie Hawn is “an incredible film presence.” Badham made Bird on a Wire while awaiting Michael J. Fox’s availability for The Hard Way. Mel Gibson was a major practical joker on the set. At the time, he was a major star, having already made Lethal Weapon and its sequel. “He was a very fine guy to work with.” Gibson would rehearse the lines as written in the screenplay, but would ad lib when the cameras rolled. Many of his ad libs were kept in the final version. Both Gibson and Hawn were Badham’s first choices. Badham notes that Gibson is adept at making action sequences more intense. Toronto also stood in for New York because of how difficult it had become to shoot in New York due to problems with the unions. Some of the shots during the car chase were storyboarded, particularly the shot in which Rick’s head is down by the accelerator and Marianne is driving. One gag builds on another, the film never taking itself too seriously. The commentators note a phone booth in the middle of nowhere and the absence of cell phones as they wonder how films were ever made without them. Rob Cohen was put in charge of the action unit, choreographing the chases and other stunt work. The zoo set was prepared and lit days before the actors came onto the set. A large number of camera angles were used to make the sequence exciting. No animals were hurt. The tigers were filmed at 40 frames per second rather than 24 frames per second to make them appear more massive. Getting wild animals into Canada was a project in and of itself. The zoo sequence keeps revealing new bits, never repeating itself. The production team never considered putting actors in animal costumes. They philosophically note, “If every movie you did could be this much fun it would be absolute paradise.”
Theatrical Trailers - Ten trailers for this and other Kino Lorber titles are included: Bird on a Wire, The Hard Way, Running Scared, Code of Silence, Wanted Dead or Alive, Taffin, Mad Max, The Bounty, The River, and Deceived.
Bird on the Wire has exciting moments but relies on generic bad guys, an overly familiar plot device with not much originality, contrived danger, and humor that tries to shore up the action. Goldie Hawn and Mel Gibson both handle the light comedy adroitly, but the film never convinces us that these are real people in grave danger. When the plot should be wrapping up, it goes on and on, overstaying its welcome by at least fifteen minutes.
- Dennis Seuling