You could use a lot of colourful adjectives to describe Jeff Kanew’s Gotcha! (1985), but the one word that keeps rattling around in my brain is “frustrating.”
The film’s quality undergoes so many peaks and valleys throughout its hour-and-forty-minute runtime that you swear it was put together by a bunch of an out-of-touch movie executives who were throwing everything at the screen to see what sticks.
While this movie does feature some genuine highlights, Gotcha! never really ties its disparate elements into a cohesive whole and just comes across as a naked attempt to kick-start a new spy-comedy franchise at Universal Pictures.
The film stars Anthony Edwards as Jonathan Moore, a UCLA student who visits Europe with his roommate in a hormone-driven quest to lose his virginity.
After meeting a mysterious older woman named Sasha Banicek (Linda Fiorentino), Jonathan gets wrapped up in an international espionage plot that involves the KGB, the CIA and a top-secret film cannister that both groups are trying to get their hands on.
The script also establishes early on that Jonathan is an expert paintball player—a fact that doesn’t come into play again until the very end of the movie.
Gotcha! is a difficult film to talk about, since it goes all over the place and undergoes such rapid shifts in tone. Heck, even some promotional material at the time admits to this fact, with the announcer of this TV spot not even knowing how to classify its story for prospective moviegoers.
This uneven focus comes to pass in the movie itself, since the filmmakers don’t do a great job of balancing the “spy” and “comedy” aspects of the story, especially during the opening 30 minutes.
Throughout that entire stretch of time, the broader espionage plot is never mentioned or even hinted at. Instead, Kanew is mostly content with just rehashing the same kind of raunchy, coming-of-age hijinks that he rode to box office success in 1984 with Revenge of the Nerds.
This weird plot structure actually reminded me a lot of Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), which randomly switches from being a neo-western to a supernatural-horror film without any significant foreshadowing to speak of.
And while Gotcha!’s transition from light comedy to full-on spy thriller is similarly jarring, the film at least finds its footing in its second act, thanks in part to Fiorentino’s compelling performance as the romantic lead.
Even though the material she’s given is pretty suspect, Fiorentino still manages to pull off the conflicted femme fatale archetype remarkably well.
Not only does she adopt a convincing Eastern European accent, but Fiorentino also navigates a lot of complex emotional ground with ease, so much so that you actually wish the movie was centered around her point-of-view.
Instead, all we’re left with is Edwards’ dweeby college student, who is meant to be the audience surrogate, but comes across as too whiny and milquetoast to really excel in that role.
The filmmakers try and compensate for this fact by making Edwards’ character a crack shot in paintball, although that comes across as a blatant attempt to cash in on a cool new sport that was gaining popularity across North America at the time.
Still, Edwards and Fiorentino at least have good chemistry together, which helps prop up all the cloak-and-dagger stuff that dominates the movie’s middle section.
This part of the film is also complimented by some great use of on-location shooting—including stops in Paris, Berlin and the Spandau Citadel in Germany—that briefly tricks you into thinking the narrative is leading to a thrilling conclusion.
Unfortunately, once the action returns to America in act three, the filmmakers start to fumble the ball again when it comes to cultivating a consistent tone.
Even though the serious spy story is supposed to be ramping up at this point, screenwriter Dan Gordon can’t help but insert these little comedic digressions that bring the pace to a grinding halt.
Jonathan’s parents believing that their son is a drug addict (when he’s actually being chased by the KGB) might have been a funny joke for the beginning or middle of the story, but it has no place in the film’s final 30 minutes when the audience should be laser focused on the looming climax.
However, that’s not to suggest that Gordon can’t put together a well-constructed joke, since the film is sprinkled with several gags that made me laugh out loud.
One of my favourite scenes involves Jonathan telling off East German customs officials after he endures an invasive strip search crossing Checkpoint Charlie.
But for every genuinely funny moment like that, you still have to sit through a bunch of scenes that just don’t land, especially when the Edwards is left to his own devices and has to single-handedly rise above the screenwriter’s lesser material.
One of the worst examples of this comes early on in the story, where Jonathan tries to order drinks in a Parisienne café without a strong grasp of the French language, and proceeds to chew out the waiter like that’s his fucking problem.
For some reason, Gordon decided to make the waiter the butt of the joke in this scenario and not the Ugly American, a decision that hasn’t aged well in the 36 years since the movie’s release.
In fact, Gotcha! is full of a dated elements that might turn modern audiences off depending on their appetite for 1980s aesthetics and culture.
While the film’s heavy synthesizer soundtrack and Cold War politics are fairly inoffensive, its cavalier attitude towards drawing guns in public places might turn some heads in 2021.
Obviously, there is no way Gordon could have predicted the future prominence of mass shootings in American life, but it’s still distracting to see his characters brandish weapons at a prominent university campus (in broad daylight) without bystanders so much as batting an eye.
The filmmakers were also really banking on the newfound popularity of paintball being a reliable marketing tie-in for this movie, since Edwards repeats the line “Gotcha!” so many times that you think he was auditioning for a commercial.
Historical hindsight aside, my biggest takeaway from watching Gotcha! is that it could have been a genuinely entertaining spy-comedy with some light restructuring and a couple tweaks around the edges.
But as it stands, the film is largely a frustrating exercise in mediocrity, with little kernels of greatness popping to the surface every now and then.
However, Gotcha! contains plenty of out-of-left-field zaniness that made it worth watching at least once, including one of the funniest movie title cards I’ve ever seen.
Corner store companion:
Prana’s Fuji Premium Salty Mix (because unlike this movie, you can pick out the parts you like and consume them separately)
-Release date: May 3, 1985
-Budget: $12.5 million
-Box Office Gross: $10,806,919 (domestic)
-According to IMDB, Gotcha! is the first major film to feature the sport of paintball in a significant fashion.
-The writes of the NBC spy series Chuck paid tribute to Gotcha! by reusing the name “Sasha Banicek” for another character in the Season 2 episode “Chuck vs the Seduction.”
-On top of containing several nods to James Bond, Gotcha! actually came out in theatres a couple weeks before the 14th entry in the franchise, A View to a Kill, was released.
-The music for this film was composed by Academy Award winning conductor Bill Conti, who is most famous for scoring all six Rocky movies (and for creating the series’ iconic theme song “Gonna Fly Now”).
–Gotcha! belongs to a short but prestigious list of films that have exclamation points in their titles. This group includes: Safety Last! (1923), Oklahoma! (1955), Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), Oliver! (1968), Airplane! (1980), Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992).
-Musical highlight: “Gotcha!” by Thereza Bazar (this kick-ass theme song plays over the movie’s opening and closing credits)