The Comeback Trail is a cheesy, intermittently charming comedy caper elevated by the strength of its cast.
A remake of the 1982 comedy of the same name, it stars Robert DeNiro as Max Barber, a small-time movie producer in 70s Hollywood. Max’s new nunsploitation movie, Killer Nuns1, is being protested and even his naive nephew Walter (Zach Braff)2 thinks it might be time to call it a day.
Unbeknownst to Walter, as most things are, Max owes money to Reggie Fontaine (Morgan Freeman), a movie-obsessed gangster who lists all the ways he could kill Max with reference to classic cinema.
An idea comes to Max when, on a set visit orchestrated by former protege James “Don’t call me Jimmy” Moore (Emile Hirsch)3, the movie’s star, Frank Pierce (Patrick Muldoon)4takes a fatal tumble off a rooftop. Jimmy walks away with a huge insurance payout and he need never shoot a reel of film. All Max needs then is a patsy of his own whom he can cast in his new Western, insure, then bump off.
Cue Duke Montana (Tommy Lee Jones), a washed-up cowboy actor reduced to doing informercials for secondhand car lots and whose hobbies include Russian roulette. When Max and Walter first stumble on him, he has a gun in his mouth. Where Walter sees a liability, Max sees an opportunity. Unfortunately for Max, Duke seems to be pretty much unkillable.
Writer-director George Gallo, Jr.5 focuses on somewhat contrived set pieces, like the trained horse that Max tries to weaponise against his leading man, but is at its best when it doesn’t spell the joke out. The fact that the office for Miracle Motion Pictures, Max’s company, is clearly under a flight path is a nice, uncommented-upon touch.
The roles are well within the actors’ wheelhouse -DeNiro hees and haws6, and Braff, now 46, is well-versed in playing the naif – but it’s Jones who provides The Comeback Trail with its best moments.
Jones, the craggiest man alive, radiates decency and so scenes of Duke overcoming peril, be it facing down a bull or surviving a collapsing rope bridge, have a certain majesty to them. He sells the conceit that Max, almost despite himself, may have lucked into making a classic.7
The Comeback Trail works when evoking the power of cinema; less so when trying to balance the tonal discrepancy with the fact that Max is clearly, as one character puts it, a “garden-variety psychopath”8.
Aiming for Get Shorty by way of The Producers, The Comeback Trail is too focused on moviemaking for the former and, simply put, not funny enough for the latter. That said, it’s a starry, breezy 105 minutes that viewing algorithms and the Sky Cinema audience alike are both bound to appreciate.
The Comeback Trail is now available to stream on Sky Cinema.
- Really? “Bad Habits” was right there.
- Clearly just delighted to be working with DeNiro. And who can blame him?
- Who it’s still weird seeing in things after, well, you know…
- Whose polo neck, floppy haircut, and penchant for doing his own stunts suggests the character might be a riff on Tom Cruise. Which is a reference, I guess.
- He wrote Midnight Run, has a story credit on the first Bad Boys, and his directorial career seems to revolve around keeping Morgan Freeman in work. Between this, The Poison Rose and Vanquish, they’ve worked together three times in three years
- He lets the flat cap and ‘tasche do most of the character work
- There’s a subplot about Duke trying to reconnect with his lost love, who he broke up with at the height of his career due to her race, but the movie doesn’t know quite what to do with it.
- When Pierce plummets to his death, Max’s first reaction is to turn on his heel, grin self-satisfiedly, and quip, “That’s lunch”