Amid much fanfare, beloved "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson finally retired in 1992, after three decades as a late-night institution. As every devotee knows, Carson had a stunted career as a movie actor, and on TV he would occasionally joke about his less-than-memorable influence on the
big screen. It seems only fitting that his chosen successor, convivial smart-aleck comedian Jay Leno, also have a celluloid skeleton rattling around his closet, and so it was that the 1989 Leno vehicle COLLISION COURSE was hauled out of storage and onto home video the same year Leno took Carson's
parking space. It's a workaday buddy-cop comedy, though the storyline is almost interesting in spite of itself.
Detective Tony Costas (Leno) is a convivial smart-aleck cop in the car capital, Detroit. When an old pal from the force is mowed down by high-powered ammunition in a junkyard, Costas bucks the system and investigates the case personally. It turns out that maverick auto executive Derek Jerryd
(Dennis Holahan) has kept his company afloat via a partnership with underworld boss Philip Madras (Chris Sarandon). To give Jerryd's new car a technical edge, Madras bribed a Japanese businessman to sneak the revolutionary new "Kodama Motors" engine prototype into the US, but the smuggler died at
the hands of Madras's strong-arm henchmen. Madras is now searching the Motor City for the hidden engine prototype, and so is investigator Fujitsuka Natsuo (Pat Morita), an elfin Tokyo lawman with orders to bring back the valuable hardware--or else. Costas and Natsuo form the usual uneasy,
bickering alliance as they chase down the bad guys, turning from rival cops into cross-cultural pals.
COLLISION COURSE's formulaic premise is bolstered by the clash between East and West, explored, however shallowly, by screenwriters Frank Darius Namei and Robert Resnikoff. The courteous little Natsuo is referred to disparagingly as "Tojo," "Honda," "the Kamikaze"--and that's just by the police.
But if anything the tale implies criticism of the Yanks, who are racist, rude and boundlessly violent (one of the villains is a gun-happy survivalist who keeps a live grenade next to his plastic Jesus). There's one scene--meant to be funny but extremely uncomfortable to anyone familiar with
Nippon-hating Detroit--in which Costas and Natsuo chase a baddie into a blue-collar bowling alley, then find themselves surrounded by angry working-class roughnecks who commence a beefy debate with Natsuo over global economics and protectionism. This moment concludes with the standard
action-comedy setpiece of a slapstick fistfight, with lots of acrobatic camera sweeps as the soundtrack blares one of the film's many non-hit songs.
Leno, who had smaller roles in the earlier SILVER BEARS and AMERICAN HOT WAX, comes across as an immensely likeable guy, comfortable in front of the cameras and quick with his line readings, but he doesn't exactly set the frame on fire. Maybe it's the comedian's habit of letting his tongue hang
out during the chase scenes, or a silly running gag making him a ladies' man when the plot has no romance, but he brings no extra juice to a screenplay that sorely needs a jump-start. The likeable Noriyuki "Pat" Morita has a pat role to play, the standard inscrutable-oriental type given to
Confucian-style remarks like "Destiny bring us together." An amusing but too-rare insight into his character is that whenever the placid, polite Natsuo phones home to Tokyo his superior vigorously berates him as a worthless bumbler; Natsuo listens stoically on the line, playing it cool for the
benefit of the American cops watching uncomprehendingly. Natsuo describes himself as one of the very few Japanese who knows no martial arts (a dig at Morita's KARATE KID movies), but in the ludicrous ending he foils the heavies with a superhuman kung-fu kick of a sort unseen since the days of
The real star of COLLISION COURSE is Detroit itself, here a sparkling and funky urban setting. The climax manages to involve the famous Detroit Grand Prix, a motor race with a track that wound right through downtown (in the years since this was made it relocated to nearby Belle Isle). The rest was
filmed at the DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group studios in Wilmington, North Carolina. There was trouble on the assembly line for this $13 million production, which went through no fewer than three directors--John Guillerman, Bob Clark and Lewis Teague--before completion. But COLLISION COURSE
stalled when DEG declared bankruptcy, and was truly a day late and a dollar short by the time it made its debut on home video. (Violence, substance abuse, profanity.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: PG
- Review: Amid much fanfare, beloved "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson finally retired in 1992, after three decades as a late-night institution. As every devotee knows, Carson had a stunted career as a movie actor, and on TV he would occasionally joke about his less… (more)