A worthy villain for the Harts and some spiffy Australian locales smooth over this bunglesome retread mystery.
By Paul Mavis
The penultimate Hart to Hart reunion movie, Hart to Hart: Harts in High Season, premiered on The Family Channel on Sunday, March 24th, 1996. As I’ve written before, I missed all of these Hart to Hart reunion movies when first aired…but what did I watch that night? Looking back at some old TV listings for that Sunday 23 years (!) ago, I surely skipped Beau Bridges’ boooooorrrriiiiiing amnesiac TV movie on CBS (should he pick Tess Harper or Pam Dawber? Oh Mary—what a dilemma…), and probably caught Veronica Hamel’s true-crime mystery on ABC (I had a thing for her ever since Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. Yep.).
(Mill Creek Entertainment has released all eight Hart to Hart reunion movies in a new DVD collection.)
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Certainly for family viewing, though, Harts in High Season would have been a viable option in those nostalgic, cable-friendly days of the mid-1990s. This time around, we have a solid villain in James Brolin to play off Powers and Wagner, while the Australian locales and of course, our charismatic leads, distract from the non-mysterious mystery and some surprisingly clunky direction.
In their private Lear jet, high above Australia, Jennifer and Jonathan Hart (Stefanie Powers, Robert Wagner) flirt and banter with each other as they lay out their next adventure: Jennifer is primed for a six-hour Wagner opus at the famed Sydney Opera House, and Jonathan is keen to purchase the world’s largest private game reserve for his animal-loving wife. Who’s the seller? None other than millionaire Elliott Manning (James Brolin), a former flame of Jennifer’s—in fact, he’s the man she was last dating before Jonathan came in and swept her off her feet.
Well…he-man hunter Manning has never forgotten that defeat. His financial empire is on shaky ground, and selling off the preserve at a premium price will afford him enough cash to scoot off to places unknown. He also wants Jennifer back, despite his having a relationship with beautiful assistant, Lisa Brandt (Ursula Karven). Jennifer of course is not in the least bit interested in cheating on Jonathan, let alone leaving him, so Manning has another plan: frame Jonathan for his own “murder,” with the help of his extremely large and threatening native guide, Tonga (Emanuel Yarborough). Will the Harts be able to clear Jonathan’s name? Will they get any help from mysterious restaurateur Bully (Simon Westaway)? And will they survive their final challenge: being hunted by Manning on his game preserve?
By this point in the Hart to Hart reunion movie timeline, I’ve pretty much quit expecting to see an actual “mystery,” or a plot that might fool me, or characters that might rise above familiar convention. And Hart to Hart: Harts in High Season did nothing to change that now-weary resignation. If you’ve ever read The Most Dangerous Game, or seen one of its myriad cinematic and TV adaptations and rip-offs, you’ll be clued into this movie’s finale the second James Brolin waggles his dyed eyebrows in front of all those stuffed animal heads. I guess that kind of slack approach is okay as long as the movie entertains—and Harts in High Season, does (in its fashion)—but again, I can’t help but wish someone had stepped in and delivered something solid for Wagner and Powers. After all…how many chances were they going to have to star in these reunion movies?
What’s with Harts in High Season’s biggest drawback: the tired direction? Helmer Christian I. Nyby II guided literally hundreds of TV episodes and made-for-TV movies over his 40+ year career (everything from those Perry Mason reunion movies everyone liked, to Emergency!, CHiPs, The A-Team, Diagnosis: Murder, and yes…my wife’s favorite (jesus): B.J. and the Bear). So if I can’t ask for something more than boring head-and-shoulders framing and A-B-C editing (I know it’s a TV movie with a short schedule and small budget—I get it), then can I at least get a veteran director to not mangle some potentially amusing, potentially exciting scenes?
Scripter Mart Crowley is back, and while he doesn’t exactly deliver a boatload of belly laughs (Wagner scores the biggest yock when abruptly leaving the opera, flatly telling the car valet: “It’s in German…they don’t tell you that, do they,”), Crowley does crib together some small-scale, genre-ready set pieces that should have presented obvious opportunities for the director to amuse and excite the viewer. How do we not see either the fake “death” of Brolin, or at least a sequence of his (?) body parts being found (a seemingly small detail, but a necessary visual anchor for the viewer)? The ferry boat sequence, where J & J drop off the ransom, has been used in hundreds of movies like this…so why does it come off so clunky here, with amateur night in Dixie staging (hysterically, everyone is supposed to be doing their thing on the sly…four feet away from everyone else doing the same thing).
Or how about a scene that could be worthy of Hitchcock: Jennifer distracting the cops with her spectacular legs, while Jonathan rifles a private report? Seems a natural, right? Nyby, though, apparently doesn’t know where to point the camera, nor how to tell Powers where—or what—to move (I know what…). As for the supposedly terrifying finale…things couldn’t get just a bit more physical, perhaps? After all, we’ve been primed for this big hunt showdown for almost an hour and a half—is it really going to end before it starts, featuring just shots of the principles running along outback paths, with the occasional cartoony obstacle stopping them (that gator gag lifted from Live and Let Die; Tonga’s unintentionally hilarious boomerang throw). Hey, I’m not asking for Indiana Jones…but I’m not willing to settle for Gilligan and Jonathan Kincaid, either (look it up).
Luckily, Harts in High Season has James Brolin along as the villain. A TV/movie vet on par with Powers’ and Wagner’s experience and stature, Brolin is always more enjoyable playing giggling psychos than his more staid outings (he’s a blast in exploitation titles Skyjacked or The Amityville Horror…and a bored, bearded stiff in something straight and romantic like Hotel).
Powers and Wagner benefit from having this kind of pro as their nemesis, with both actors noticeably upping their energy levels whenever Brolin is in the scene (Powers does well with poised, rising incredulity, fending off Brolin’s unwanted dinner date pass, while a quietly steamed Wagner is excellent in his two major confrontation scenes with the actor). If good Australian actor Simon Westaway had been given a bit more to do here (and had his twist revelation at the end been less predictable), his teaming up with Brolin would have given Harts in High Season an even sharper edge. Still…if Harts in High Season’s mystery can’t deliver, and its direction just lays there, we can at least enjoy the Australian scenery, and take a bit of pleasure in watching Powers and Wagner finally have an acting adversary worthy of their own skills.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.