dir. Marvin J. Chomsky
I grew up loving James Garner. Although I didn’t really see too many episodes of his star-making show Maverick, I loved the fuck out of his Maverick-esque feature Support Your Local Sheriff! (how can you not love a movie with an exclamation mark in the title?). Although I would later become obsessed with the genre, gobbling up every horse opera I could find, Support Your Local Sherriff! was the only Western I cared about as a young’un. James Garner was the personification of cool as far as I was concerned. Garner didn't have to engage in any violence to achieve his goals; he simply outsmarted his enemies, waiting for the buffoons on the wrong side of the law to make asses of themselves.
Looking back on it all I can see what a safe, TV form of cool Garner represented. He was a smug, sometimes dickish, charmer, to be sure, but his characters rarely wrestled with any moral conflicts, internal struggles, or demons. He was just there to be cool—not so much James Dean or young Brando cool, but rather hep-English-teacher-who-doesn't-mind-if-you-occasionally-swear-in-his-class cool. There was no menace beneath Garner’s laid-back surface. His early persona was basically that of a neutered Clint Eastwood.
Although he occasionally worked in less breezy pictures (motherfucking The Great motherfucking Escape, motherfuckers), his characters were never anything other than unambiguous, demon-free, straight-shooters. And so it was with great excitement that I read the synopsis to James Garner's mid-eighties revenge picture Tank: Garner's Sgt. Maj. Zack Carey uses his personal Sherman Tank to fuck shit up proper when hard-ass, racist, small-town, Southern Sheriff Cyrus Buelton (G. D. Spradlin, of course) uses trumped-up weed charges to put Zack's son Billy (C. Thomas Howell) on a prison farm. Damn, a chance to see Garner unhinged. I gotta get me a piece of that.
Fuck, how misleading this premise is. Going into this picture, I had doubts that the smooth Garner could pull off such a role. Apparently, I wasn't the only one. The film's script rarely veers far from family-friendly territory. Although Tank occasionally aims for Rambo shenanigans, it never lands further than Major Dad (yeah, I went there). Indeed, the whole affair feels like a made-for-TV movie. I guess it's not surprising, considering the film was directed by TV veteran Marvin J. Chomsky and stars such TV personalities as Shirley Jones (as Zack's wife LaDonna) and Jenilee Harrison (as prostitute Sarah).
In the opening, Garner's lifetime military-man Zach transplants his family to a new military base in Georgia. Because this family is so used to a life on the road, moving from base to base, it adjusts quickly to the new environment. Zach, however, is upset that the base's bar is a trendy, New York-esque, disco-fied dance palace (yup). Zach opts instead to go to a neighborhood redneck bar. Things soon turn sour when Zach chats with whore Sarah. Sarah's pimp, Deputy Euclid (James Cromwell), is none too pleased with Sarah's inability to entice Zach to bang her. He slaps her and Zach slaps him. As with Brian Dennehey in Rambo, the law in this town don't take too kindly to military types. Now unless Zach wants to to fuck the Deputy's prostitute, he best be on his way.
When Sheriff Cyrus learns of Zach's uppitiness, he decides to fleece the major of $10,000. When Zach objects, Cyrus plants a shit-load of weed in Billy's locker. Although much of the rest of the film is suited to Garner's style, this section is where Garner's laid-back demeanor really works against him. Garner pleads with Cyrus to let the boy go. Cyrus responds by implying that when Billy gets put on the prison farm, the young boy will be repeatedly raped. With the slightly peeved, yet nonchalant, attitude of a man who's been told he's been bumped from first class to coach, Zach responds with, "Ok, you made your point." That's it? No screaming? No burning with rage underneath the surface, stare-down? No threats to eat Cyrus' babies? Sure, in a later scene, Zach threatens to destroy Cyrus, but he still fails to elicit anything more than annoyance when reciting the line.
As is obvious, Zach has no choice but to give the man the shakedown money. When Zach tells his wife of the situation, she decides to take matters into her own hands by sending a lawyer to talk to the sheriff. Because Cyrus specifically told Zach not to hire any lawyers, the Sheriff throws the law-talking guy in prison. Oh yeah, he also puts Billy on the prison farm. Stuck with no other options, Zach decides to go with the big guns...that is the guns attached to his motherfucking Sherman tank. Hell yeah, that's what I'm talking about. Now it's time for some action.
Except, not really. Although Zach does use the tank to blow up a few cars and roll through the empty police station (which is admittedly awesome), his actual goal is to rescue his son and transport him across the state line to Tennessee where he can get a fair trial. Because real-life incidents of people running amok in tanks have not been so PG, I guess I was expecting something a little darker with Tank. Instead, we mostly get a really slow chase. Hey filmmakers, here's the thing about tanks, their heavy firepower and destructive capabilities make them ideal for action scenes. Their slower-than-a-snail pace? Not so great for chase scenes.
As is usually the case with situations where crazy men use tanks to destroy the main hub of a city's telephone system and cause untold property and vehicle damage on their way to prison-breaking their alleged drug-dealer sons, Zach becomes a folk-hero. Wait, what? Tank has taken the movie crime of using background characters as cheerleaders for the hero and upped it to an insane degree. Hey, filmmakers, just because we are supposed to root for the main character doesn't mean everyone else in the film should as well.
Now here's the realistic version of Tank. Zach learns that his son has been placed on a prison farm. He feels hopeless. There's no way to save Billy. After sitting naked on his toilet seat for two hours while holding a loaded gun in his mouth, Zach decides to turn his anger outward. He does a shitload of crystal meth, grabs his tank, and heads downtown. With no regard for life or property, Zach plows through multiple houses on his way to the police station. Before he can reach his target, the military launches an assault on his vehicle, setting it ablaze. The burned Zach flees his tank and is shot dead in the street. The horrified townspeople, upset by the death and destruction caused by this psycho, use the media to hurl invectives at the remaining members of the Carey family. Assuming a false identity, Zach's widow moves to another town where she can hope to live the remainder of her life in peace...or whatever semblance of peace can be found for a widow whose only remaining son is stuck in prison.
You know what? On second thought, I kinda like the movie version better.
Despite all its faults, Tank is not without its saving graces. Indeed it is redeemed by two things: the nipples bouncing beneath the tank-top of the bra-less Jenilee Harrison as she fires a machine gun from atop the titular tank. [Side note: I noticed that Imdb listed "nipples visible through clothing" among the various plot keywords for Tank. Hey, Imdb, can you pretend not to cater solely to fifteen year old boys? Second side note: Imdb, how can you compile a list of movies with "nipples visible through clothing" and not include Caddyshack? Cindy Morgan's bra-less-ness in that film is the stuff of legend.] Seriously, though, Tank is not an unentertaining picture. Regardless of whether he's suited for this film, it is undeniable that James Garner is one charming motherfucker. It's always fun to watch him.