By Owen Gleiberman
Updated May 18, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

If following formulas were all it took to make a hit, Bird on a Wire would be a surefire blockbuster. Even in an era of paint-by-numbers moviemaking, director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, Stakeout) has pulled off a feat: He has made a film that’s 100 percent generic. It shouldhave been called ROMANTIC ACTION COMEDY.

The movie offers 1) Big stars coasting along on their usual shticks. Mel Gibson, in a performance that might be described as Lethal Weapon Lite, plays a crazy-but-lovable hunk who has been under the federal witness-protection program for 15 years — ever since he testified against a couple of corrupt drug-enforcement agents. Goldie Hawn, in another replay of her adorable-lovebug routine, is a corporate attorney who had a fling with Gibson back when they were hippies in Mexico. Gibson, as always, acts with charismatic ease. Even when he has to do something as stale as a gay-hairdresser routine, the actor’s jocular sweetness keeps the scene funny. Hawn, on the other hand, has become an insufferably precious performer — she bats her eyes at the camera like something out of a Walt Disney cartoon. The movie shoves these two lovable knuckleheads together and then asks, ”What’s to keep them from reuniting?” Simple. . .

2) They have different values now. Mel’s character, you see, is a former ’60s rebel who is Hiding From the World. He lives anonymously as a Detroit auto mechanic, but deep down he still believes in all those counterculture ways. (He even likes to sing along with ”Blowin’ in the Wind.”) And Goldie? She’s playing a yuppie — a woman Denying Her Past. This leads to the inevitable. . .

3) Cute bickering. See Mel insult Goldie! See Goldie insult Mel! The movie’s dialogue sounds as though it had come through a screwball-comedy processor — it’s one machine-tooled wisecrack after another. Still, we’re supposed to see that these two really care about each other. Why can’t they just put their differences behind them? Well, for one thing, they have to contend with. . .

4) Government thugs. You know these guys. They’re cold-hearted and nasty, they wear dark sunglasses, and they’re forever reaching into their jackets and briefcases to pull out. . .

5) State-of-the-art weapons. We’re talking tranquilizer dart guns and enough high-tech firepower to reduce downtown Manhattan to Beirut in about 15 minutes. When your enemies are brandishing toys like these, there’s only one way to keep the proper distance between you and them. And that’s. . . 6) Car chases. And motor-bike chases and helicopter chases. Never mind that the average moviegoer has sat through 197 of these smash-’em-up fandangos in the past year alone. The makers of Bird on a Wire are going to see that you get your money’s worth. Badham does introduce one innovative technique here: He has vehicles zooming at top speeds right up to the camera. Still, this raises a problem. Amid all the mayhem, how is the movie ever going to give you that feel-good feeling? Have no fear. Mel and Goldie, you see, aren’t just triumphing over their adversaries. They’re. . .

7) Rediscovering the ’60s! That’s right, and you can too — provided you see the movie and buy the soundtrack, which features an updated version of the Leonard Cohen classic ”Bird on a Wire” (so that’s what that nutty title is about!).

Bird on a Wire is far from inept-every one of those car chases is masterfully staged. Still, for most of two hours you’re pummeled with formula; it would be hard to name another movie at once so proficient and so dull. When a director as talented as Badham reaches this state of empty craftsmanship, who can say whether he’s working out of boredom or cynicism? At this point, there may be very little difference.

Bird on a Wire

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • John Badham