Published on October 16th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Best Seller 
Summary: This cheesy '80s cop thriller is like '48 Hours' if every ounce of humor were removed. Every police cliche is tossed in for good measure: tough talk, zero-consequence violence and guns that never run empty. Woods and Dennehy have no chemistry together, playing two cartoonish characters.
R | 110 min.
Director: John Flynn
Screenplay: Larry Cohen
Starring: Brian Dennehy, James Woods, Paul Shenar
Distribution: Orion Pictures
Box Office: $4,278,150 (#118 of 1987)
“Cop. Killer. Two sides of the same coin.”
No, that’s not the tagline for AMC’s short-lived series Low Winter Sun, it’s a line uttered by a psychopathic James Woods in the 1987 crime thriller Best Seller. Buried beneath about 1,000 miles of cop-flick clichés and Casio keyboard-esque soundtrack is a story about duality — and how greed can get the best of anyone.
Until Die Hard came around and blew everyone’s collective mind in 1988, R-rated action cinema of the decade mostly consisted of buddy pictures like Beverly Hills Cop, Stakeout and Running Scared. These movies were funny and exciting, while also somehow being firmly vacuum-sealed into the ’80s. Best Seller manages to only get that last part right.
Where 48 Hours had Eddie Murphy & Nick Nolte and Lethal Weapon had Mel Gibson & Danny Glover, Best Seller gives you the thrilling partnership of Brian Dennehy & James Woods — and let me tell you, I’ve seen more exciting pairs of blue jeans.
Dennehy’s character Dennis Meechum is an aging Los Angeles police sergeant-turned-best-selling author. His acclaimed book Inside Job is a non-fiction account of the 1972 armed robbery of a police evidence lock-up. In the fracas, several officers were killed by the assailants, but Meechum survived after stabbing one of them. Woods plays a mysterious man named Cleve — one of the robbers — who catches up to Meechum in 1987 and claims to have a great idea for the author’s next book.
There’s no chemistry between these two otherwise dependable actors. Best Seller is what 48 Hours would be if Murphy’s character were a bloodthirsty killer and if Nolte’s character lacked the confident demeanor to pull off a tough guy routine. Dennehy throws his weight around a lot but we never feel like he’s in control. While watching the movie, you just get the feeling he’s going to end up playing the fool.
Both guys are believable in their roles, especially Dennehy because of his stature alone. Playing a mild-mannered authority figure is what he was born to do because on top of being about the size of a refrigerator, Dennehy always maintains a trustworthy look. On the other hand, Woods has made a career of playing characters you wouldn’t trust even if you caught them on Christmas Day dishing out meals at a soup kitchen for homeless veterans. Each fits their character in the film but there is just nothing exciting about them together — the whole thing feels like a drag race between two Kias.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Best Seller is that it is completely dated right from the start — mainly because of its ghastly score. Jay Ferguson, who composed the instantly memorable theme from the U.S. version of The Office, layers this movie’s soundtrack with an orchestra full of fake instruments. The opening theme overstated and packed with synthesizer (not cool Vangelis-style dark synth but rather the kind that makes you cringe and think of parachute pants), but even after nearly two hours of cheesy keyboard riffs, you still haven’t heard the musical low-point of Best Seller.
After this bloody, violent and stoic-toned film reaches its closing credits, an ending theme song sneaks up and takes this thing to a whole other level of ’80s mawkishness. “Perfect Ending,” performed by legendary crooner Ben E. King, may go down as the most excruciating closing song I’ve heard. “It’s a perfect ending / Our story’s complete,” King wails as the audience can’t help but wonder if the person that wrote the tune ever even read a draft of Best Seller. “We ran out of choices / So we joined forces,” those blasé lyrics end up being the most appropriate of the song.
Clichés line this film but I do have to give screenwriter Larry Cohen (Phone Booth, The Stuff) credit for possibly creating one of his own. In the film’s opening scenes, a group of bandits are seen wearing Richard Nixon masks as they pull off their holdup — and while this has become a go-to costume for movie “crooks,” the only instance I could find of it being used before 1987 was in 1982’s Airplane II: The Sequel for a one-off gag.
Cohen’s script makes it pretty obvious to the audience that Dennehy’s writing career has stalled, upping the ante — and desperation — for his next manuscript. Best Seller keeps the audience interested early in the picture, particularly when Cleve is introduced. At first, we aren’t sure if he’s real or a figment of Meechum’s imagination because he seems to appear and vanish in a blink, dogging the veteran cop like a phantom conscience. But that interest is snuffed when we realize Cleve is just a flesh-and-blood prick.
From here on out, we are blasted with every police genre cliché in existence, including a number of scenes in which Dennehy grabs a thug and commands him to “SPREAD ‘EM!.” Macho music plays while a bunch of bad guys run from the cops, stopping every few feet to trade gunfire and yell profanities. And if you like realistic violence, stay away because whenever someone is hit with a bullet, they go flying backward as if they were shot with a cannon. Also, everyone is killed by a single shot, even if the shooter is using a silenced pistol from 50 yards away.
The set design is as trite as the script, with fog and steam somehow finding its way into every scene that involves a shootout. One scene between Dennehy and Woods takes place in a dank, fog-filled shipyard and the aesthetic is so boiler plate it reminded me of the scene from Breaking Bad when Walt sets up a meeting in a junkyard and Jesse tells him he’s seen too many movies. One of those was probably Best Seller.
Underneath the clichés, Best Seller is a story about that very popular theme of 1980s cinema: Greed. Cohen’s screenplay gives us a story about the trappings of greed at both the corporate and personal levels. Cleve’s former job was as a hitman for a multinational corporation, taking care of its “assets and liabilities” so the bottom line would be increased. Meechum goes against his by-the-books code in cooperating with a known killer because it may help him write another best-selling book. All the major players in the film are also worried about their public image, with even the cold-blooded Cleve fretting about how sympathetic he will be portrayed in the prose.
Woods plays Cleve with his usual cool but the character turns cheesy in a hurry as soon as he starts dropping one-liners after each kill. In one actual scene from Best Seller, Woods shoots a guy in a bathroom who’s in the middle of washing his hands; he then walks over the body and pulls the toilet’s lever, saying to no one, “You forgot to flush.”
In some ways, I feel like Best Seller was just unlucky. It made a paltry $4.2 million at the box office, likely because audiences felt like they’d already seen this one several times before. At one point in the film, Meechum sits down after an intense chase and mutters, “I’m getting too old for this shit.” That line was likely meant as a throwaway but because it was Danny Glover’s catchphrase in Lethal Weapon — which came out six months earlier and made $65 million in theaters — it sounds an awful lot like a blatant ripoff.
In fact, if Meechum’s best-selling book were anything like this movie, he deserved to be arrested for plagiarism.