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For, Friday, May 1, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: The usually more dramatic Robert Redford takes a side trip into light comedy with this frothy farce and acquits himself nicely. Though the film is somewhat forgotten, ‘Legal Eagles’ has earned a Blu-ray upgrade from Kino Lorber and fans will probably be happy to see (or discover) it. My review was published in the Deseret News on June 22, 1986.

There are aspects of “Legal Eagles” that are overblown and a bit too epic for what is essentially a light comedy, and that was also something of a problem in Ivan Reitman’s last film, “Ghostbusters.”

And this romantic comedy/thriller/mystery tries to do a bit too much, and the whodunit is far too easy to figure out. But Reitman can demonstrate a subtle comic touch when he wants to, and “Legal Eagles” amiably moves along with some hilarious moments and fair number of suspenseful ones as well.

This is an ’80s version of “The Thin Man,” with a touch of “Charade,” or perhaps more correctly the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy classic “Adam’s Rib.” In the latter, Hepburn & Tracy were on opposite sides of the legal system, defending and prosecuting, respectfully, ditsy Judy Holliday, who was accused of murder.

In “Legal Eagles,” Robert Redford is a prosecutor reluctantly teamed up as co-counsel with defense attorney Debra Winger to defend ditsy Daryl Hannah of murder.

Needless to say the film relies heavily on the chemistry of the three stars, along with their individual comic talents, and each one of them delivers. In that regard, “Legal Eagles” soars.


Daryl Hannah, left, Debra Winger, 'Legal Eagles' (1986)

The film opens with a fire in an art studio during the late ’60s, a fire that destroys (supposedly) a number of important paintings and kills the artist. His 8-year-old daughter survives, however, and grows up to be Daryl Hannah. When next we see her it is 1986 and she is accused of stealing a painting from the man who saved her life as a child. Winger is her defense attorney.

That’s just the first step in a complex mystery that involves the Manhattan art world and an interesting romantic triangle, as prosecutor Redford is approached by Winger to help clear Hannah of the charge. Before long, Hannah is also accused of murder and Redford is implicated in a scandal.

Redford and Winger meet in the courtroom early in the film, a very funny scene that has her trumping up a zany defense for an obviously guilty client, giving us the essence of each character.

Redford is very funny, doing double-takes, stammering when in a compromising situation, keeping his professional cool in the courtroom and sparring verbally with Winger. In some ways he is reminiscent of Cary Grant, who also honed his comic skills to great heights at the peak of his lengthy movie career but was equally at home with drama.

Winger is a marvel, utterly believable in a role that requires her to sidestep glamour (glamour is Hannah’s department here) and play a restrained, inventive professional woman who relies on her wits to get herself out of sticky situations, but who isn’t afraid to be slightly off-center herself.


Robert Redford, left, Brian Dennhey, 'Legal Eagles' (1985)

Both Redford and Winger deftly reveal the human side of their characters, too, the blemishes and weaknesses, especially in a hilarious series of scenes where both are suffering from insomnia in their respective apartments. (Redford’s especially delightful doing a late-night rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain.”)

Hannah is also good, as an eccentric artist who may or may not be capable of the suggested mayhem that surrounds this film (much of it involving fire). Her eccentric persona is perfect for the character of a New York performance artist and she really does keep you wondering about her guilt or innocence.

There are also a number of fine character actors at hand, most notably Brian Dennehy, Terence Stamp and Roscoe Lee Brown.

There’s no question that Ivan Reitman could use lessons in how to tone material down instead of build it up, especially evident when the movie excels in its quieter moments. But he does know movie comedy and manages to pull some terrific work out of his stars.

One could quibble, I suppose, that “Legal Eagles” isn’t in the same league with the ’30s and ’40s classics it resembles but who’s to say what film historians will be saying about this picture in 30 or 40 years.

By any standard, “Legal Eagles” is a lot of fun, and this is summer, after all. It’s rated PG for violence, a couple of profanities and implied sex.