Classic Film Review: Excess Baggage (1997)

By Anthony Moretta

I don't know many people who have seen this movie. When mentioned, I get the typical "with Alicia Silverstone?" reply. Yes, and Benicio Del Toro and Christopher Walken. Directed by Marco Brambilla, and written by Max D. Adams, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (with an uncredited re-write by Aaron Sorkin according to IMDB), Excess Baggage came and went with little attention and eventually died on video store shelves, which is where I found it.

You won't come across many positives when scouring conventional review outlets for this and that may mislead you into thinking it's not worth a couple of hours of your time. I'm not going to defend my opinion of the movie. I love it. It's always on my ever-changing list of favorites. That's only to say that I don't pay much attention to critics' reviews. They can sour a film or hype it beyond reasonable expectation, and, either way, taint your own viewing. In fact, 1997 is a good movie year to explore this a bit. That was the year of Titanic, buoyed by a critical love affair and box office spectacle. It won a shitload of awards, too. But 1997 also featured Cop Land, L.A. Confidential, Jackie Brown and Grosse Pointe Blank. All superior films. And those are just what I can remember at the moment. So, I say Titanic can go fuck itself. Now, let's talk about a real good flick like Excess Baggage.

Here's the set-up:

Emily (Silverstone) fakes her own kidnapping in order to win the attention of her rich neglectful dad, Alexander (Jack Thompson). Vincent (Del Toro) is a professional high-end car thief, who jacks Emily's BMW with her bound and gagged in the trunk. Alexander calls in Emily's caring and shady "Uncle" Ray (Walken doing his best Walken), an unflappable ex-military man who handles Alexander's dirty work. It's fair to say that Alexander has made tons of money less than legitimately. Ray is tasked with finding Emily and bringing her home while the cops try their awful best to track her as well. Ray suspects from the go that the kidnapping may not be what it seems and heads out on the accurate assumption that Emily is staging the whole thing.

Vincent and Emily formally meet at his dockside warehouse when she bangs on the trunk to get out. In a panic, he handcuffs her in the bathroom while discussing what to do with his tool of a partner, Greg (Harry Connick, Jr.). They decide it's best to drop her off somewhere far and move on with business. Vincent does just that, leaving Emily on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, although she tries her best to stay with him. After learning that the warehouse has burned to the ground (from a cigarette Emily inadvertently tossed into a rag bin) and his operation uncovered, Vincent drives back to Emily and begs her to call her dad and squash any notion of his involvement in the kidnapping. He can't risk an unseemly charge above the car theft trouble he's already in. She doesn't cooperate and Vincent gets her a motel room and leaves again.

Charming his way into learning Vincent's whereabouts from a friendly diner waitress (played by the great Sally Kirkland), Ray finally catches up with Vincent at his hideaway home. With the help of a .44 Magnum, Ray persuades Vincent to take him to Emily while holding onto $200,000 that has to be refunded to a local gangster for the cars that went up in flames. Emily ditches Ray's rescue attempt and is back on the run with Vincent. Together, they meet up with Greg and are taken hostage by a couple of henchman trailing the cash. In between, Emily and Vincent fall for each other and despite Alexander's disinterest, they eventually break free from the gangster's goons with Ray's help.

From what I read, much of the focus upon its release was on Silverstone's follow-up to her mega-hit Clueless (1995). She reportedly co-produced through her newly-formed production company. And Del Toro wasn't free of comparisons with his launchpad performance in The Usual Suspects (1995). None of that interests me here. Excess Baggage stands on its own in performance and style. It's a whimsical crime movie in the same vein as 1973's awesome Charley Varrick. Where that flick was carried by Walter Matthau's comedic sensibilities, the brimming romance between Silverstone's bratty motormouth and Del Toro's twitchy thief with a heart tempers the hard edges, and provides a platform for straight-up fun.

There's an obvious attraction from the moment Emily and Vincent meet. They're quick to bicker like an old-hat couple and swap moments as the aggressor. When their attraction becomes affection, the film ups the stakes and momentum. The characters always seem to be self-aware, but ready and willing to lose themselves.

Vincent tries his damnedest to keep cool in the face of Emily's brashness, but he has no intention of being the older sensible adult in this ride. He has to save his own ass from the mess that she created. His jerky mannerisms and eternal squint are meant to control the lashing that bubbles throughout, which both he and Emily know she deserves.

Emily is young and resourceful. She may not have thought through the consequences of her plan, but she won't be pushed into any decision or reaction that isn't completely hers. This is her coming out party. Even if her dad rather close a business deal than be sure of his daughter's safety, she's not going to pretend pout or play for pity. She's a girl with the come-on of a woman who has traveled a thousand heartbreaks, but doesn't have a boyfriend. Silverstone kills it. Watch her super sexy nod when asked if she's going to have be dragged out after she refuses to get out of Vincent's classic Aston Martin. And the way she asks him by the lake if he likes her tummy and her laugh after a drunken night together is irresistibly flirty and inviting, with a careless confidence that echoes the love-laced lips of an old femme fatale. I haven't kept up with Silverstone's career, but she is way cute. And not just camera cute. I saw her in New York City some years ago and it's all good in real life, too.

To hammer the point that their relationship drives the picture, Brambilla opts for static shots when focused on other characters. The scenes between Ray and Alexander are cold and washed in grey, with nothing but ambient sound. The close-ups, pans, dollies and push-ins are reserved for the leads. Although the intermittent pop songs playing over do get in the way and the ending is a little Hollywood mush, they're just more clues into the reasons why we should be watching and why the characters are doing what they do on screen. The best part of the soundtrack is John Lurie's jazzy, dance, ska-blues compositions.

Screw the critics next time, take a chance and be surprisingly entertained. Roger Ebert likes this movie and that's pretty swell.

Anthony Moretta is from Brooklyn, NY. His writing has appeared in Out of the Gutter and his independent film project Travels is currently in post-production. He's also developing an original comic book series and writes about '70s crime films at Goodbye Like A Bullet.