A Shock to the System
The 1990 comedy-thriller A Shock to the System is easily overlooked because its triumphs aren’t obvious and neither are its flaws. The film, which has a 50% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is polarizing with critics who found Caine’s flat affect confusing, despite its importance to the narrative framework Of the critics who did “get it”, Roger Ebert provides the best analysis of Caine’s nuanced performance:
Caine is a splendid movie actor, a consummate professional who is fun to watch in any film, because there is always a layer of irony and fun right there below the surface. That makes him especially entertaining as a villain; his charm makes his sins seem permissible, or at least understandable. He rarely plays villains we hate. More often, we want him to get away with his sins. Since the sins he commits in “A Shock to the System” are wicked ones, that sets up a nice tension inside the movie. We see things from his point of view, we are invited to identify with him and yet when the Connecticut detective comes calling, we think it’s about time.
Ebert is bang on in his assessment of why I found the film so darn enjoyable. Much like his American cohort Gene Hackman, Caine’s screen persona is littered with lovable scamps (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), affable cads (Alfie) and noble douchebags (Get Carter). It is Caine’s ability to encourage audiences to identify with even his most deplorable character, which proves the most satisfying aspect of A Shock to the System. The titular “shock to the system” awakens Graham Marshall’s sleeping dog who then spends the rest of the film looking for bones to gnaw on and then subsequently bury. Mild mannered white guys who go off the rails – I see you, Falling Down – are certainly no novelty. Heck, many of Caine’s films embody this trope. But what makes Shock to the System infinitely better is how freaking funny it is and how well all the best aspects of the tropes – the haranguing spouse, the oily upstart and the meddling authority figure – are used in service of the narrative. Director Jan Egleson, who wandered away from his television roots provides satisfying, skillful, but not especially exciting direction; that’s all the film requires. Part of what made this film a tad more enjoyable than Deathtrap was the awareness I was watching a Lumet film and all the mystique, which surrounds that. A Shock to the System‘s TV movie-of-the-week feel doesn’t actually bother me. In fact it’s another element of the film that increases its fun.