If Ken’s other film Mortal Kombat had me a bit apprehensive going into it, I was pretty excited about this one – a political thriller based on the same book as Dr. Strangelove (and released the same year), but with a totally straight rather than satirical take on it. It’s been years since I’ve seen Strangelove, and that’s probably good, as it gave this one a chance to stand on its own with little comparison.
At the height of the Cold War, a bomber squadron in Alaska mistakenly gets the message to drop nuclear bombs on Moscow, and thanks to all the fail-safe systems built into their protocols, there’s basically nothing the government, even the president, can do to stop them. It’s a nightmare of automated military orders gone wrong, of paranoia-driven conspiracy theories run amok, and the dangers of an overly efficient war machine.
I’ve never been too motivated to see out the later Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau vehicles, despite being a fan of both of them in their earlier years – unconscious ageism? Probably. Anyway, I should’ve expected these two to play well off each other, given their respective talent and proven chemistry back in the ’60s, and they do. In a way, watching this felt comfortable, because even as John (Lemmon) and Max (Matthau) feud and play tricks on each other, it’s clear the two actors are having a bunch of fun just hanging out together on screen again.
It’s winter in Minnesota and they’re having a heat wave, or so the oft-repeated song keeps telling us, but John and Max spend their days bundled up ice fishing and chatting with bait store owner Chuck (an always-wonderful Ossie Davis) and their nights ogling new next-door neighbor Ariel (Ann-Margret). And if you thought these two grumpy old men were old and grumpy, wait until you meet John’s dad (Burgess Meredith), a 94-year-old firecracker whose frankness embarrasses John as if he were still a teenager.