As heist scenarios go, Grimm’s plot to get out of the bank with a million bucks is pretty standard: With each demand the authorities meet—from simple requests like a transport bus to harder gets, like a monster truck—he agrees to release one hostage. And the first three hostages to go are Loomis, Geena Davis’ Phyllis, and Grimm himself, all filing out in ridiculous-looking disguises that are nonetheless enough to get them by the troglodytes of the NYPD. Grimm’s nemesis, a police chief played by the great Jason Robards, acquiesces to his demands much like the grim-faced authorities in the original 1974 The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, with salty language and a distinct lack of enthusiasm. That’s one thing Grimm and the police chief have in common: They just want to get through a typical headache of a day in the Big Apple.

Though Quaid and Davis are capable tagalongs, most of the laughs in Quick Change are owed to Murray’s wisecracks and stupefied reaction shots, with assists by a cast loaded with veteran character actors like Robards, Stanley Tucci, Victor Argo, Tony Shalhoub, Phil Hartman, Jamey Sheridan, and other familiar faces. As with Scorsese’s After Hours, the city and its half-crazed inhabitants make the simplest task—like getting from one location to another over a stretch of several hours—a Kafka-esque journey through a dysfunctional hellpit. (I’d bet both movies were made in part by native New Yorkers trying to ward off tourists. Scorsese, for one, could never live in any other city.) Here’s a typical exchange, where Grimm and company ask construction workers for directions to the BQE:


“Will you be putting up a new sign?” “Not today. Today’s just taking shit down.” Yep, that’s pretty much what a doesn’t-give-a-shit construction worker might say. And so it goes for the wealth of other colorful stereotypes Quick Change trots out: The bus driver who won’t accept any fare that isn’t exact change (shades of After Hours again); the cabbie who asks repeatedly, in his native tongue, where his passengers want to go; a pack of easily duped Italian gangsters; a preppie Ted Bundy type who looks too conspicuously clean-cut to be anything other than a serial murderer. Nearly everyone they encounter has a gun—and short of that, an attitude—and there’s open hostility and even death at every turn, from a surreal showdown between two men on bikes jousting with dustpans to the lonely old woman crying, “Flores! Flores para los muertos!”

Quick Change is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a perfect film; a subplot involving an obvious “secret” that Phyllis is keeping from Grimm introduces a measure of sentiment to a comedy that could stand to be a lot darker. Though Grimm, Loomis, and Phyllis’ misadventures in New York’s less hospitable neighborhoods lead to many big laughs—some off-the-wall surreal, and others more in keeping with the milder standards of studio comedies—the film never tops the image of Murray in his clown costume, crying on the inside while staging a bank robbery as if it were an elaborate, irreverent practical joke. That’s the image we have of Murray now, the reluctant jester who has stopped even pretending to be a populist goofball and has consequently brought himself greater critical appreciation. The only difference: The Murray of today wouldn’t be that interested in leaving the New York of Quick Change. He fits right in.


Coming Up:

Next week: I [Heart] Huckabees

July 2: Darkman

July 9: Lost Highway

July 16: [Vacation.]