Originally published in 2010 at Forces of Geek
Somewhere beneath Gotcha!’s layers of misogyny and xenophobia, hiding under the tedious pacing and repetitive scenes, there’s a sleek, exciting Cold War-era spy thriller yearning to breathe free.
Released in 1985 and directed by Revenge of the Nerds’ Jeff Kanew, Gotcha! centers around Jonathan Moore (Anthony Edwards), a UCLA student and aspiring veterinarian. He’s got his work cut out for him, as UCLA doesn’t offer a veterinary science degree, but let’s not quibble about the small stuff—Gotcha!’s problems are bigger and broader than Jonathan’s chosen career path. In any case, the sole point of this veterinarian business is to establish that one of Jonathan’s professors keeps a gun loaded with animal tranquilizers in his classroom; as Chekhov might say, the tranquilizer gun introduced in the first act will almost certainly be used to take down a ruthless KGB agent in the third.
Jonathan has two main fields of interest: Trying to shed his virginity, and running amuck around campus shooting his fellow students with a paintball gun. It seems like reckless madness now in this post-Columbine era, but schools really used to do this: My high school held a fundraising tournament in which students stalked each other through the halls in between classes, armed with suctioned-tipped dart guns. Jonathan is uncannily skilled at this game. He’s got crackerjack aim! He dangles from rafters and hides in bushes to stalk his prey! Surely, you think, this is exactly the sort of character trait that will come in handy later on, while he’s being hunted by KGB agents across Europe.
You would be wrong about that.
In between splattering his peers with paintballs, Jonathan chats up a succession of snippy big-haired coeds clad in awesome belted sweater dresses. He goes down in flames every time. Free life tip, Jonathan: When you approach a woman who doesn’t know you and ask her out, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when she turns you down. No matter how cute you are—and Edwards is plenty cute here, with his big eyes and his fluffy blonde hair—women are not obligated to date strange men.
Jonathan and his roommate Manolo (Nick Corri) have grand plans to spend the summer in Europe. In a wholly superfluous scene, Jonathan visits his wealthy parents (Alex Rocco and Marla Adams), who urge him to get a summer job instead. Jonathan insists on going to Europe. Next scene: Jonathan and Manolo arrive at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport.
I did mention the pacing problems in Gotcha!, right?
Here’s the good news: Paris circa 1985 looks great: fresh and vibrant and chic. I half expected to see Duran Duran sauntering through the background, en route to filming their “View to a Kill” video at the Eiffel Tower. The entire film is exquisitely shot, with great attention paid to the sumptuous European locales. As a mid-Eighties travelogue, Gotcha! has much to recommend it.
Here’s the bad news: Jonathan and Manolo are so hell-bent on behaving like a couple of entitled American jerks, and the film is so hell-bent on dredging up every hackneyed European stereotype, that a lot of the juice gets sucked right out of the scenes. If you’re going to base your humor on an overplayed stereotype (the French are bad drivers! French waiters are snotty!), you’d best bring some freshness to it. Gotcha! doesn’t even try. It presents the unvarnished stereotype (Look at that French taxi driver, driving so fast and recklessly! Look at that snooty French waiter, snickering at Jonathan’s pronunciation of “Pernod”!) and expects to receive laughs.
Sometimes the dumb humor hits (Manolo: “Everyone is speaking French.” Jonathan: “I know! It’s like a second language to these people!”); more often, it grates (Manolo, upon spotting a busty Frenchwoman: “Look at those Eiffel Towers!”). At one point, Manolo poses as a, ah, terrorist to seduce a hot Swedish chick… whom he abruptly dumps once he discovers she’s actually Swiss. Manolo has standards, man.
Jonathan encounters a beautiful Czechoslovakian-born American citizen named Sasha (Linda Fiorentino), who, bizarrely, claims to find him charming. With her short, spiky hair, her cowl-necked sweaters, and her oversized geometric earrings, Sasha looks like a Patrick Nagel print come to life. Fiorentino delivers her lines in a monotone and bristles with icy contempt for Jonathan even while flirting with him, and she’s still far and away the most interesting and vibrant character in the entire film.
Sasha, who is in her mid-twenties, tells Jonathan, “I like boys who are seventeen, eighteen. I do not like hairy chests.” Between this and Vision Quest, in which she plays a twenty-something drifter who seduces high-school student Matthew Modine, Fiorentino carved out an odd little niche for herself in her early career: the bombshell cradle-robber. In no time at all, Sasha helps Jonathan shed his troublesome virginity. Cue a montage of their whirlwind romance, in which they ride bikes and drink wine and wander through flower markets; there’s no shortage of montages about falling in love in Paris out there, but I’m willing to bet this is the only one scored to an Eighties power ballad.
Sasha’s job as a courier requires her to take a trip into Berlin, both East and West (1985, remember), to pick up a package. Jonathan agrees to go with her. It soon becomes apparent Sasha is up to no good: She’s a spy for an unknown agency, who hooked up with Jonathan hoping his innocence and naiveté would help her maneuver through Soviet-occupied East Germany undetected. Not a bad plan, really, but next time maybe she should pick up someone smart enough not to mouth off to the East German border guards.
Upon arriving in East Berlin, Jonathan asserts his American right to be an ass to the East German populace, while Sasha meets with shady characters and runs afoul of gun-toting Russian spies. Before getting captured by the KGB, a distraught Sasha manages to get a message to Jonathan that he should leave the country immediately. Jonathan crosses back over to West Berlin without Sasha.
Throughout the film, Sasha tells Jonathan repeatedly—and the audience is meant to believe this—that he’s a nice guy. We see no indication this is true. A nice guy, upon leaving his girlfriend behind in a hostile country in the custody of enemy agents, would perhaps take a moment or two to feel badly about this, and would maybe experience some pangs of concern about her fate. Not Jonathan. Upon reaching the relative safety of West Berlin, he flips East Germany the bird (yes, I do mean that literally) and cheerily hightails it to the nearest Burger King, where he makes a big assy show of telling the cashier he only wants to eat American food. Hey, Jonathan? This is exactly why the rest of the world hates us.
Back in West Berlin, Jonathan finds himself chased by the aforementioned gun-toting Russians, whereupon he hitches a ride back through East Germany to Hamburg with a good-natured punk band. They serenade him with a rousing rendition of Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” and smuggle him past the border guards by disguising him in heavy eyeliner and black leather; in too-rare buoyant moments like this, the film almost rises to its potential.
From Hamburg, Jonathan makes it safely back to Los Angeles. He discovers a mysterious roll of film Sasha slipped into his luggage before her capture. He then goes to his parents’ house for dinner, where he gives them a detailed play-by-play of the entire plot of the film to date. Then he calls the FBI to tell them he’s being pursued by evil Russians. The FBI tells him it’s out of their jurisdiction and advises him to call the CIA instead. He asks for the CIA’s number. The FBI suggests he call Directory Assistance.
Aaaand the pacing just slipped from “slow and erratic” to “mind-numbingly tedious.”
Jonathan shows up at the CIA’s Los Angeles office to hand over the film. Before he can do this, he spots Sasha deep in conversation with a couple of CIA operatives. It’s never explained how Sasha, whom the audience last saw being brusquely strip-searched by the KGB in East Berlin, made it safely to Los Angeles. Jonathan doesn’t seem to care how this came about—he’s too busy feeling used and betrayed at the revelation that Sasha works for the CIA—and clearly the audience isn’t supposed to wonder about it, either.
Manolo rounds up members of his street gang (yeah, Manolo’s in a gang, who knew?) and distracts Sasha’s CIA cohorts while Jonathan meets with Sasha in secrecy. There’s nothing quite as delightfully goofy as the way gangs were portrayed in 1980s films. Skin-tight jeans, slicked-back hair, black leather jackets, bandanas wrapped around various body parts… iI’s like the filmmakers watched Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video and assumed it was a gritty documentary.
Sasha finally comes clean to Jonathan: She’s an American-born CIA agent named Cheryl Brewster, and the roll of film contains vital intelligence. When the Russian spies pop up on campus to retrieve the film, Jonathan snarls, “They’re on my turf now!” and finally—finally!—gets to use some of those crazy sharp-shooting skills we saw in the opening sequence, a very long hour and forty-five minutes ago. He breaks into the veterinary sciences classroom, steals the dart gun, and successfully fends off the Russians. Let’s hear it for that American can-do spirit!
In the tag ending, a newly-confident Jonathan, realizing his problems with women are nothing that can’t be solved with a dose of sexualized violence, approaches one of the snippy coeds who’d rejected him earlier and shoots her in the ass with a tranquilizer dart.
It’s a meandering, exasperating film with an oddly toxic spirit. Still, in spite of the flaws—the venom directed toward foreigners and women, the stultifying pace, the loathsome hero—it’s impossible to entirely dismiss Gotcha!, as it captures an interesting moment in history. The tense political situation of Cold War-era Europe combined with the oddity of West Berlin, a walled-up modern metropolis sitting smack in the middle of Soviet-occupied East Germany… this is fertile ground for a cool spy thriller. It’s a shame Gotcha! couldn’t get out of its own way long enough to tell a great story.