You’re almost always asking for trouble when someone from the commercial or music video world helms a feature film. After all, filming an entertaining ninety minute narrative is a heck of a lot harder to pull off than a thirty second soda spot. If you don’t believe me, just check out “Alien III.” If you’re still not convinced, then take a gander at this underachieving number by Dan Brown, a commercial producer for the largest advertising agency in the southwest.
Owen Mercer (a promising Jonny Mars) has witnessed a shoplifting. His report impresses the investigating officer, who makes the offhanded remark that Owen might make a good detective. A couple hundred bucks later, and Owen’s P.I. badge arrives in the mail. He meets Ed Hayes (Bill Wise,) the mayor’s whacked-out security guard, and takes the opportunity to pick his peer’s brain. Ed, in turn, takes the opportunity to sell Owen a roomful of expensive surveillance gear.
Now loaded for bear, Owen digs into his first “case,” which is really just an excuse to obsess over the attractive Catherine Walters (Julianna Sheffield, late of the funky swing group “8 1/2 Souvenirs”) to the point where he’s stalking her. Inevitably, Owen overhears more details of her dating life than he should and, distraught at losing the woman of his dreams before he’s even met her, goes over the edge. All this sets the stage for a horribly bungled assassination scene climax; a sort of “The Manchurian Candidate” finale gone wrong.
“American Detective” resembles a long student film masquerading as a feature film. The performances are decent enough – Bill Wise could make a dictionary reading funny – and the screenplay is occasionally amusing, if predictable and devoid of much heft.
The most disappointing thing about “American Detective,” however, was how bad it looked, starting with its non-existent art direction. This thing was shot in about four bland locations; a hallmark of a no-budget student affair. As for the photography itself, well, we’re talking fundamental problems, here. Simple locked-off shots drifting in and out of focus. Heads awkwardly scrunched way off to one side of the frame. Distracting, rapidly flickering shadows from overhead ceiling fans. And so on.
In the commercial world, you’ve only got thirty precious seconds to sell your product, so each on-screen second has to be meticulously crafted. Few films can match that demanding standard, unless the director is, say, a Kubrick, so I never expected a million dollar Pepsi Super Bowl commercial. Good thing, because “American Detective” is a plain old can of store brand Grape Soda.