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The Formula: Retro Film Review

The Formula is far from a perfect film, but it’s one that should be talked about.

Certain films get completely panned when they are released, but over time, their cinematic contribution and relevance becomes apparent to audiences. Most of the time, these films are overlooked due to subject matter that seems foreign in the climate of their release, when really, they were just ahead of the curve. A brilliant example of this is Sidney Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece, Network. I hail this as one of the top ten films to ever be put on celluloid, but the audiences of the 70s didn’t gravitate to this film like they do now. When revisiting John G. Avildsen’s 1980 picture The Formula, I began to wonder why, for so many years, audiences have disagreed with this film. Working on a high from directing his previous film Rocky, Avildsen pulled a Cimino with his next release, 1978s Slow Dancing in the Big City. But when it comes to The Formula, he was back on a high.

Technically, The Formula is a very brilliant film which set the stage for the next decade’s worth of entertainment. The over-lit, meta cinematography of James Crabe paved the way for an entire decade of action films. Looking back on his works, he clearly shaped everything about to be unleashed in cinemas and on MTV. John Carter’s editing became the seedlings of the MTV decade and aesthetic that was beginning to take shape. Gone were his documentary sensibilities; action was his new frontier. Conti’s score became a clear influence on the action films being produced overseas. Classical yet distinctly 80s, you can see where Tangerine Dream was about to get their influence from. This is no coincidence, as Conti was about to take over scoring the Bond franchise the following year with For Your Eyes Only.

It’s understandable to see why films from the 1980s are actively tried to be forgotten. The Director’s Era was over, thanks to greedy filmmakers who took for granted the freedom given to them by the studios. Studios were hoping for something as disastrous as Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate to reclaim the power they once held. Once they got their wish, the remnants of that now defunct decade of cinema – art, director influence, style – were swept under the rug once again. Studios paid critics left and right and the general masses fell victim to studio propaganda. Films like The Formula became virtually unknown upon their release. Still, some films broke through the studio’s influence. Raging Bull was a shining star in young Martin Scorsese’s filmography, and The Elephant Man brought David Lynch to mainstream audiences, but even those were shunned come awards season, pushed aside to make room for studio favorite Ordinary People. What was accepted a year earlier was suddenly gone, vanished like Marion Crane. In the year following, Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, and Burt Lancaster, heavyweights of the 70s, lost out on Best Actor to studio favorite Henry Fonda; the cache of method acting was fizzling out.

MGM/ United Artists

George C. Scott and Marlon Brando give the most underrated performance of both their careers. Audiences were growing tired of method acting during the period of this films’ release, or so the studios would have us believe. Both men’s ability to mold crime, fascism, neo-noir, democracy, socialism, police procedurals, wacky screenwriting, melodrama, and cultism into two completely different yet equally spectacular performances has me in awe every time. Avildsen somehow gets something out of the weakest part of the whole film – the screenplay – and directs to pin-point accuracy. How all of this worked together to create The Formula is beyond me, but I can see why it stayed a misunderstood film for so long. But it’s time to revisit an old gem, especially in this time of 80s pastiche. This is far from a perfect film, but it’s one that should be talked about. It had its fair share of horror stories on and off screen, but enough time has passed to hail this hidden gem a classic.

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