Review: The Escape Artist

Griffin O’Neal, son of Ryan and brother of Tatum, plays a budding young magician in the Francis Ford Coppola-produced The Escape Artist.

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The Escape Artist is one of three newly released Francis Ford Coppola and Zoetrope films, joining Hammett and One From the Heart, and has long been unavailable in the UK, last turning up on VHS in the mid-80s. A great opportunity to rediscover a lost classic then, or will the reason no-one has been rushing to release it become clear?

It’s the story of budding young magician Danny, the son of famous escape artist Harry Masters, who dreams of following in his deceased father’s footsteps but is held back by the family with whom he lives. When Danny runs away to the city to join his aunt and uncle’s vaudeville act he meets Stu, the spoilt and mischievous son of the corrupt mayor, and becomes embroiled in his less than lawful activities.

Danny is played by Griffin O’Neal, son of Ryan and brother of Tatum, who’s perfect casting as the cocky kid who at first dreams of standing in the limelight, but then uses his lock picking and sleight of hand skills to get back at the equally brattish Stu, played ably by Raul Julia. The rest of the cast is suitably eclectic too, with Teri Garr as Stu’s girlfriend, Desi Arnaz as the mayor and even M. Emmet Walsh turning up in a minor role!

Coppola’s Zoetrope produced the movie but it was Caleb Deschanel, best known for his cinematography in The Passion of the Christ and The Right Stuff, who directed. It’s not the most visually interesting film – bar the shot of Danny plunging head first into his father’s signature stage prop – and actually feels stuck in a 1950s time warp in terms of pacing, style and characterisation.

Made in 1980 but not released until 1982, The Escape Artist is an odd little film that feels considerably older than it actually is, and rather unsure at whom it’s aimed. Quaintly innocent, it’s good for families who want something that won’t cause offense in any way, however its young leading man, magic tricks and contrived set pieces suggests it’s more for children – except it often feels so old-fashioned many will probably tire of its made-for-TV style plotting.

The script is strange too, with everything outside of Danny and Stu’s relationship left under-explored and under-explained, Danny’s own motivation for his actions being brushed aside and minor characters just disappearing without explanation. It’s not difficult to follow, just a bit rushed at a touch over 90 minutes.

Sounds bad, right? Oddly it’s not and is a perfectly acceptable Sunday afternoon watch. The central set piece of a prison break and Danny’s mission to crack open a safe is good fun, and the magic tricks scattered throughout will raise a smile, plus there’s a classic score by Georges Delerue running throughout. If you dig deep enough there’s also an interesting underlying theme about a boy’s relationship with his father, and the quest for a surrogate when he’s no longer around.

The Escape Artist isn’t without its charm and if you’re in need of some good, clean old-fashioned entertainment that’s also got an interesting cinematic lineage, it’ll serve you well.

Review by Andy BoxallSee all reviews

Directed by: Caleb Deschanel
Written by: Melissa Mathison, Stephen Zito
Starring: Raúl Juliá, Griffin O’Neal, Desi Arnaz, Teri Garr
Released: 1982 / Genre: Drama / Country: USA / IMDB

Buy on DVD: DVD

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About the Author
Rather than saying one particular film holds the position of his favourite, Andy has a list of films that “click” with him, including American Graffiti, Videodrome, Grosse Pointe Blank, Ghostbusters, American Psycho and Suspiria.

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  1. Avatar
    DEZMOND Reply

    it’s interesting how the whole O’Neal family is in the film business and yet none of them actually has a memorable film 😉
    And I know you hate off topic things, Danzel, but I had a cat called Griffin once 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Scott Reply

    I think you enjoyed this slightly more than I Dan

  3. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    Of the Coppola films recently released this definitely sparked the most interest in me. Alas, I have yet to see it. Thanks for taking the time to review this one Andy.

  4. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    I recently revisited this film from my Blockbuster online account. I haven’t seen it since I was about Griffin O’Neals age. I always liked this film along with Cloak and Dagger when I was a kid. It was always on The Movie Channel.

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