While it would be exaggerating to describe this conspiracy thriller as a massive waste of talent, it’s fair to say that the luminaries involved in the project should have been able to generate something more exciting. After all, stars Marlon Brando and George C. Scott both had Oscars to their names by the time they costarred in The Formula, and director John G. Avildsen had recently scored a major hit with Rocky (1976). Even the movie’s deep bench of supporting actors is impressive: John Gielgud, Marthe Keller, Richard Lynch, G.D. Spradlin, Beatrice Straight. Yet The Formula is talky instead of thrilling, and the mano-a-mano faceoff between the top-billed actors that’s promised by the film’s poster never really materializes. On the bright side, The Formula is a handsome-looking movie that benefits from intricate plotting and (no surprise) skillful acting.
Written and produced by Steve Shagan, the picture begins with a prologue set in Germany during the final days of World War II’s European action. A Nazi general is entrusted with a shipment of valuable papers that Third Reich officials hope to trade for protection after Germany falls, but U.S. soldiers seize the shipment before the Nazi general can escort the papers to a safe place. Next, the movie cuts to the present, where LAPD Detective Barney Caine (Scott) begins investigating the murder of a former LAPD chief. Caine uncovers connections between the dead man and oil magnate Adam Steiffel (Brando), and he also links the dead man to various mysterious people in Europe. Despite skepticism from his superiors, Caine treks to Germany and discovers that the dead man was part of a conspiracy involving a World War II-era formula to convert coal into oil. The ramifications are huge, since replacing petroleum as the world’s primary source of fuel would change the global economic map. Intrigue follows as Caine chases leads with the help of Lisa Spangler (Keller), a German model whose uncle has a tragic connection with the conspiracy.
The premise of The Formula is interesting and workable, so the problem with the picture is one of execution. Nearly all of Caine’s investigative work takes the form of personal interviews, and there’s a numbing repetitiveness to the way people get shot and killed by unseen assassins immediately after giving Caine vital information. Worse, since the hit men never seem to aim at Caine himself, there’s not much real tension. By the time the movie climaxes in a lengthy (and surprisingly casual) chat between Caine and Steiffel—one of only two scenes shared by Brando and Scott—a general sense of lethargy has taken hold. Still, nearly everyone contributing to The Formula does solid work, from the way Brando hides his character’s evil behind an avuncular façade to the way composer Bill Conti accentuates scenes with robust flourishes. However, because the story never reaches a boiling point, The Formula ends up feeling like an episode from a well-made TV detective show, albeit with fancier actors and more elaborate location photography.
The Formula: FUNKY