John Travolta and Kelly Preston go to Russia with love
DIRECTED BY DAVE THOMAS/1989
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MAY 9, 2023/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
“Where are all the video stores?? Why isn’t anyone jogging???” Because it’s 1989 and you’re in Russia, you big dummy! Not just Russia, but an active scale replica of an “all-American town” populated with dorky denizens who don’t know any better. They’re all Soviet spies deeply entrenched in training, just short of qualifying as legitimate sleeper agents. But as The Experts goes on, you might just be the sleeper.
The thing is, this small-town berg is a good three, maybe even four decades behind the United States it’s attempting to emulate. (“They don’t know what a VCR is, or a compact disc, or even a music video!”) In true ‘80s-movie fashion, what everyone there needs is some loosenin’ up! Permission to party hardy- and a couple of cool dudes to show ‘em how it’s done! That basically makes the spy town a failed cross between The Truman Show world and Pleasantville.
The cool dudes in question? Big city clubbing cats Travis (John Travolta, in rapid career decline) and Wendell (Arye Gross, never quite sure if he’s playing a full-on buddy or a second banana). With their pierced left ears, bolo ties, macho mullets, and too many layers of clothes, they’re the perfect coastal dupes to be lured to fake Russian Nebraska to open and manage a new club. They are just the trendy 1980s experts that the KGB needs in order to bring a much-needed infusion of hipness to their creepy encampment town. But will they let them have the freedom to do it right?
It soon becomes painfully apparent that no one in The Experts is much of an expert on much of anything. Travis and Wendell are “cool” to a fault (and too dense to immediately realize that they got drugged unconscious for most of the long international plane ride), and all the KGB top brass (including Charles Martin Smith as “Mr. Smith” and Brian Doyle-Murphy as “Mr. Jones”) never stop bickering with one another over things like Smith’s nightclub idea and the validity of this entire nutty project. The only thing that seems believable (even within the stretched internal logic of the screenplay) is that a government program would be as out of date as it is out of control.
With a domestic haul of only $169,203 on its $13 million budget, it’s safe to say that no one involved in the greenlighting of The Experts was any kind of box office prognosticating expert. For a movie that dropped darn nearly in the 1990s, everything about it looks, sounds and feels terminally Reagan-era. It’s only true saving grace in both legacy and onscreen is the presence of the late Kelly Preston, who plays an absolute knockout of a KGB agent who becomes Travis’ girlfriend. Although Preston shares an extended dance sequence with Travolta, she is woefully short-shrifted in this movie, a one-dimensional big-haired hottie allowed little-to-none of the intended intrigue that Preston is trying to portray. Today, The Experts is mainly remembered for being the project where Preston and Travolta met and fell in love. Whether that chemistry made it into the final cut is in the eye of the beholder.
The nightclub remodeling montage goes by so fast that they completely missed the opportunity to have John Travolta stroll up the street in syncopation with a bucket of paint. When the dusty old juke box that’s only good for totally square tunes from yesteryear like “(They Long to Be) Close to You” plays a glaringly modernized cover of “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, it’s safe to assume that not even the movie’s fat bankroll was enough to do as intended. (We all know that The Beatles’ songs licensing fees were impossibly prohibitive back then, but good grief, don’t hang a lantern on that). Why go to such lengths to use a then-old song like “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, anyway? Because the retro-trendy moment that early rock n’ roll was having in every Hollywood comedy (a trend long in the tooth by ‘89, but still…) outweighed the movie’s central notion that, to modernize is to be American.
For whatever reason, Paramount Pictures has opted to sink even more cash into The Experts, giving it a brand-new HD master, struck from a 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative. For what it’s worth, the image sure looks rad on this new Blu-ray version from KL Studio Classics. Even the film’s trailer gets a sweet new 2K presentation here. The label utilizes the movie’s original poster art, an image so unintentionally hilariously dated and so cheesy that it’s liable to trigger a lactose intolerant reaction in anyone who lays eyes on it. Going an unnecessary extra mile, that same image is doubled up on a cardboard slipcover that comes hugging the plastic case.
Director Dave Thomas (one half of the iconic Canadian sibling duo Bob & Doug McKenzie from SCTV and the comedy classic Strange Brew, which he also helmed) turns up in a new video interview to discuss making the film. Honestly, there’s far less handwringing than you’d expect. (“The project was well underway when I got to it…” is as close as it gets). Thomas shares one of his main tenets of comedy: Smart guys playing dumb guys is almost always funny. While I don’t doubt the intelligence of Mr. Travolta or Mr. Gross, the operative word there has to be “almost”. If it had been Bob and Doug McKenzie instead of these two guys within the exact same premise, The Experts might’ve worked. Might’ve.
Sizing this whole thing up, I’d shrug and say that there are too many layers of convoluted stupidity to bother fully recapping the plot- but that ship has sailed. Groan– I guess maybe I’m no expert, either.