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Chris Nashawaty hips you to ''his'' movie

Chris Nashawaty hips you to ”his” movie: EW’s senior writer lets you in on the secret of ”A Shock to the System,” starring Michael Caine

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Michael Caine, A Shock to the System
Michael Caine: Corsair Pictures/Kobal Collection

Chris Nashawaty hips you to ”his” movie

There’s at least one movie that you think of as ”yours.” You know what I’m talking about: the film that you’re absolutely convinced is better than 99 percent of the dreck that’s out there, and yet for some inexplicable reason no one seems to have seen but you. You may even be a little possessive about it. Part of you is dying to tell everyone you work with to rent it; another part wants to keep it all to yourself like that obscure indie band from Burkina Faso. Your movie doesn’t have to be some arcane Lebanese art-house flick or Swahili slapstick comedy. It could just as easily be a studio movie that somehow has fallen through the cracks. Like mine…

Mine is 1990’s A Shock to System, a wicked black comedy starring Michael Caine. You can find it at Blockbuster or on Netflix. And yet I’m constantly surprised that so many people whose movie IQs I respect have never seen it. Very much a movie from 1990, A Shock to the System has traces of Wall Street, The War of the Roses, and The Player; the female lead is played by Elizabeth McGovern (hard to get more 1990 than that); and it assumes of its audience a deep hatred for ”yuppies” (remember them?). Best of all, it features one of Caine’s best — and most deliciously, sympathetically evil — performances.

Maybe now’s a good time for a disclaimer: I’ve always been a big sucker for Michael Caine. In my mind, the guy can do no wrong. Even when his films are less than good (Jaws IV: The Revenge, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, Victory), he’s always more than watchable. He’s the Teflon Cockney. Crap that would stick to other actors just seems to slide right off him, leaving him smelling fresh as a daisy. And when Caine is good, there’s no one better. Just try to imagine anyone else in Get Carter, The Man Who Would be King, Sleuth, or Hannah and Her Sisters. Impossible, I say.

In Shock, Caine plays Graham Marshall, a well-to-do advertising exec whose middle-aged, suburban existence is bearing down on him like a ton of bricks. His wife (Swoosie Kurtz) is a shrew, he’s worried he’s losing his sex appeal with the kinds of younger women who used to flirt with him, and, at the beginning of the film, he gets passed over for a promotion that everyone assumes will be his.

Instead, the job goes to a flashy, young sycophant played by Peter Riegert — the kind of pompous Drakkar Noir-smelling ass who wears suspenders, smokes expensive cigars, and can’t stop talking about his sexy girlfriend, his sailboat, and his country house. The big boss loves Riegert because he’s a young turk, he’s hip, and he’s fluent in meaningless corporate-speak. He’s the Future. Caine, meanwhile, is seen as a dinosaur. But he’s not about to lumber off to the tar pits quietly.

Caine fantasizes about killing not only his office nemesis, but his nagging wife as well. Why? Well, for starters, when she finds out that he didn’t get the promotion, she yells at him and the next day backhandedly apologizes by saying, ”I forgive you for failing, Graham.” Spurred on by his own jauntily sinister voiceover, Caine slowly descends into madness. He’s like the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down, only funny instead of scary. And soon he’s acting on his dark impulses.

What makes A Shock to the System so wonderfully subversive is how easily Caine gets away with his crimes. Like Tim Robbins in The Player, he’s broken the law, he’s taken lives, and yet he remains untouched. If anything, his conscience is cleaner, his sleep is sounder, after he has blood on his hands. It’s a tough balancing act for any actor to pull off — to be likable and a murderer at the same time — but Caine makes it look like a piece of cake.

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