Sportsflicks: The Big Maim, or Two-Minute Warning

The OTHER 1970's disaster flick in which awful things happen at the Super Bowl is not good, but somehow better than the competition.
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The Super Bowl is America’s largest secular holiday; a time where half of America wants to see which Midwestern city Peyton Manning will name-drop, and the other half wonders if the Red Hot Chili Peppers will wear NFL licensed socks and little else in the cold New Jersey night. There will also be violent, terrified advertisements for lower-calorie beer and higher-calorie snack foods. Papa John's face will be seen, probably a lot. This is all us.

Super Sunday has been a big deal for almost half a century, but the game’s first golden era occurred the 1970’s, where the earliest wave of Facenda-n mythmaking was at its peak. The NFL had a winner on its hands, but was still decades away from micromanaging it to its present point, a lucrative and epically branded limbo so rote that I look forward to the USFL stock footage everyone has to use in commercials more than actual Super Bowl video.

Two different feature-length movies came from this era, during which the turbulence of the 1960’s and the anxiety of Watergate wafted over the Super Bowl. Black Sunday and Two-Minute Warning have divergent ways of focusing on what even today is unthinkable -- a major terrorist attack and a sniper assault, respectively, on innocent people and on the Super Bowl (or whatever the copyright-savvy filmmakers call it in Two-Minute Warning). In the abstract, this all sounds rather dark but not that bad: a moment of national consensus gone haywire and violent, and so all very 1970’s in that way.  

Black Sunday will get its due in this column, perhaps a little closer to Bruce Dern’s inevitable disappointment at this year’s Oscars. Two-Minute Warning, though, features the more legendary, more gravelly-voiced star of Will Penny, the incomparable Charlton Heston. It also features a plot similar to the point of plagiarism to Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 sniper-at-the-drive-in film Targets, although with a lot more cameos from ‘60’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s TV actors. Two-Minute Warning is less well-known than Black Sunday, and while both are pretty lousy, Two-Minute Warning is both the worse and the more watchable of the two.

Two-Minute Warning is also quite obscure, especially for a Charlton Heston disaster film. Even most of those who watched it growing up probably have not seen the actual theatrical release; for 1979’s TV release the filmmakers filmed enough scenes to get rid of most of the football-related bloodshed and replace all that unpleasantness with, um, an art heist. While James Olson, Michael Pataki and Paul Shenar, among others, are all fine actors, we’ll leave the play-by-play of this version -- in addition to a recap of the original George La Fountaine book -- to this fine article. They are, given that they are also mostly the same movie, quite different films. You probably don’t need me to remind you of this, but the ‘70s were weird.

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The viewer is supposed to identify with the potential victims in Two-Minute Warning, but there’s not much there there. One of the few African-American characters, a maintenance supervisor played by Brock Peters, is literally left for the dogs after being pressured into seeing just what the hell is going on and subsequently getting thrown off the Los Angeles Coliseum scoreboard. The killer, as played by veteran Jonathan Demme bit player Warren Miller, is feared but not heard; he may or may not have served in Vietnam, but as a white male American bad guy in a disaster movie filmed just after the fall of Saigon, everyone treats him as such.  

Two-Minute Warning lies a bit, and not only because the actual shooting spree starts with only one minute and twenty seconds left in, um, Championship X. You are led to believe that Baltimore quarterback Charlie Tyler is a lead character, but he is mostly in the film to justify his priest -- a more developed character, for what little that’s worth -- being in attendance. Actual quarterback Joe Kapp must’ve been disappointed in his diminished role, but he also won a Grey Cup, started in Super Bowl IV, was the winning coach of the 1982 Cal/Stanford Game and in 2011 fought fellow Canadian Football Hall Of Famer Angelo Mosca in one of the greatest Old Man Brawls of all time, so he’s probably fine.

He is also the most developed passer in the film. We don’t even get dialogue or even a few seconds of on-screen shaving for his opposing quarterback, Lloyd Braun. Braun is played by an uncredited actor and is mentioned as “the first black to start at quarterback in the championship.” What the mid-70’s lacked in tact, it made up in the passing skills of James Harris and Joe Gilliam, whose actual presence as African-American quarterbacks for winning teams paved the way for both Doug Williams’ role in Super Bowl XXII and the awkward bit of exposition that is Lloyd Braun. The first bit is more impressive.

The aforementioned priest, as played by Greg’s dad from “Dharma & Greg”, is there to administer the last rites to degenerate gambler Jack Klugman after he wins a bet that would save his life from Suge Knight-esque dangle-you-off-a-building gangsters, only to get gunned down before coming up. This has stood as a lesson to gamblers for generations: never sit next to veteran character actor Mitchell Ryan during a football game.

Marilyn Hassett, who would marry and divorce Two-Minute Warning director Larry Peerce, plays a woman in the center of a one-sided love triangle, eager to dump her current beau in favor of the husband from “Rhoda”, David Groh. David Janssen is free to pursue perpetual girlfriend Gena Rowlands in this movie, while Rowlands’ real-life husband John Cassavetes leads the SWAT team that will ultimately botch the entire operation, causing a panic whose stock footage will live forever as recycled detail in the nuclear attack scene from The Day After (which, coincidentally, was also written by Two-Minute Warning screenwriter Edward Hume).

Heston and Martin Balsam are on hand to try to keep things grounded, but they’re as doomed as Klugman. There is nothing for them to do but wait for the general level of character development to get to school-play standards, and figure a way for the lone gunman to go apeshit before the 1:33:30 mark. In so doing, the pair decide to divert the President’s motorcade and leave his seat empty, probably turning the bad guy’s planned assassination into a mere killing spree. The bit where they get their distinguished service medals was presumably cut from the film.

Stunningly enough, very few people -- outside of those trying to apprehend the sniper, at least -- notice there’s a guy on top of the Los Angeles Coliseum scoreboard, much less one who just headbutted a man to his death. Beau Bridges, whose then-wife has a cameo as pickpocket Walter Pidgeon’s henchwoman, finally adds two and two, but leaves his freaking wife and kids in the crossfire, only to meet with cops who think he is in cahoots with the sniper.

The Los Angeles and Baltimore teams are as generic as possible, largely because shooting crowd footage during the previous year’s USC/Stanford game made for a good cost-cutting measure. NFL/USFL journeyman quarterback Vince Evans and Simpsons in-joke Mosi Tatupu are somewhere in that game, as was star of the game Larry Reynolds, a freshman Stanford cornerback whose baseballing brother Harold we all know and love, and in some cases have been hugged by in weird ways.

A jarringly large number of actors whose films I’ve covered in this column are in Two-Minute Warning, including an uncomfortably tan Branscombe Richmond, Carmen Argenziano, and Dick Enberg. Pro Football Hall Of Famer turned recently-jobless WFL coach Tom Fears was a consultant on the non-Pac 8 football scenes and plays the Baltimore coach, while one Gerry Okuneff, a former UCLA linebacker who played an uncredited football player in the infamous John Goldfarb, Please Come Home, “leads” the L.A. team. Andy Sidaris, known equally for his role in directing Monday Night Football in its early years as for his late ‘80’s T&A action flicks (link SFW), appears basically as himself, though fortunately he’s mostly business here.  

Two-Minute Warning, in its original form, is a good half-hour shorter than Black Sunday, though it still feels almost as long as a three-hour AFC South game. There are many issues in this movie, from the way it pretends to weave plot lines together before setting all those strands ablaze, to its general lack of characterization. From what Two-Minute Warning says about guns, you’d have no idea whether or not Charlton Heston had any opinions on the matter, which of course he did.

An armed person with a semi-automatic weapon firing willy-nilly at any crowd is objectively horrible, although we as a nation tend to disagree about how exactly to prevent such an incident from happening and seem disturbingly unhurried about figuring all that out. Two-Minute Warning does not seem to have an opinion on the matter, honestly. It doesn’t really have much of anything a good film is supposed to have, beyond a bunch of stock footage, a bleakly promising premise, and peak-period Jack Klugman. In the 1970s, before the Super Bowl was the Super Bowl, that was apparently enough.


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