He can get away with anything.
A forgotten gem from the glory days of Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope studio, The Escape Artist captures that early-Spielberg sense of childhood wonder combined with hints of old-fashioned Hollywood. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (Twin Peaks, The Passion of the Christ) took over the director’s chair for this, giving the entire affair a sense of lush fantasy. Only instead of a kid with an alien, we have a kid with a deck of cards and some lock picks.
A young boy named Danny (Griffin O’Neal, April Fool’s Day), dressed in a snappy blue suit, confidently walks into a newspaper office and announces to the editor that he’s an escape artist. He says he’s there to issue a challenge to the local police, to test how impenetrable the lockup cells at the station are. The cops and the press take Danny up on his offer, and he’s soon handcuffed inside a cell, all alone, with one hour to free himself.
Then, the clock turns back and we learn what brought Danny to this point. The son of a deceased famous escape artist, Danny has developed his own admirable sleight-of-hand skills, which he uses to get in to and out of trouble. He runs away from home to stay with his aunt and uncle, who run a bizarre mind-reading magic act at a nightclub. While exploring town, Danny runs afoul of Stu (Raul Julia, Addams Family Values), the corrupt mayor’s corrupt son and all around troublemaker. Up to his usual tricks, Danny pickpockets a wallet from Stu. Said wallet actually belongs to the mayor, and is stuffed with money that doesn’t belong to him. This sets in motion a chain of events that ends up with Danny willingly trapping himself inside a police cell. It’ll take all of his skills to escape from this one.
The kids’ fantasy element is in full force here. Danny strolls around town, wowing cute girls with magic tricks and going places he shouldn’t by lockpicking doors and cracking safes. It’s almost like a superhero film, with magic tricks serving as Danny’s powers, helping him solve any sticky situation. This might look like a lot of fun, but it stretches credibility. There’re no consequences to his running away from home, there’s barely a mention of any training he had to go through to do all this, and school? What’s that?
The character is supposed to be 11, but I wonder if the film might have improved if Danny were older, say around 17 or 18. Danny steps out of the comfort zone of living in his grandparents’ house, and into the daunting new world of the big city. It’s a maturing, eye-opening experience, especially when he ends up threatened by Stu and his thugs. This seems to speak of leaving youth behind and running face-first into the brick wall of adulthood. But because Danny is so young, it doesn’t quite work. And it doesn’t quite work in a lighthearted Home Alone way, either, because the film takes itself mostly seriously. The trouble and the danger Danny gets into feels real. When Stu’s thugs rough up Danny, they really rough him up, and Stu himself holds a knife up to Danny’s neck at one point. If Danny were a few years older, this wouldn’t be as disturbing. It would fit in better with the concept of someone facing the harsh realities of life on his/her own for the first time.
Despite these concerns, there are also plenty of reasons to recommend the film. Several of Danny’s tricks are done in one long take, to remind the viewers that O’Neal is really doing the sleight-of-hand, as opposed to special effects. Raul Julia is great, as always, playing a character who might be a true villain, or who might just be a rascally mischief-maker. A few venerable Hollywood legends show up in small roles, including Dezi Arnaz as the mayor and Jackie Coogan as a magic shop owner. There’s also the overall setting. Deschanel brings his cinematography background to the table, giving the whole film a soft, timeless look.
The film looks pretty, but there are some scratches and flecks in the transfer, likely due to its age, but it’s just enough to be distracting at times. The audio fares better, especially where the score is concerned. As for extras, Deschanel offers an excellent commentary track, covering everything from technical details, anecdotes from the set, and elements of the story. He’s joined here by producer Barrie Osborne, who went on to produce Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, and magician and technical advisor Ricky Jay. For the real tech-heads out there, a text piece about the soundtrack restoration is included, but I think you need a degree in electronics and sound design to understand it.
Just who was this movie made for? I’m not sure. It’s a little too adult to be a kids’ movie, and yet it’s just “kiddie” enough that it can’t pass for a full-on drama. It’s an odd tone, one of a children’s movie not intended for children. There are cute antics, but there’s also corruption and violence. Overall, it’s well made and entertaining, but because it’s also unusual, we recommend trying it out with a rental before you buy.