Back in the 80’s and 90’s this was a flick I remember watching several times and was the first film I came across that was directed by Ritchie Cunningham, and that was a revelation to my young eyes. This was before I was of age to have experienced either Night Shift or Splash by Howard, the Gung Ho director credit might be my earliest memory of movie trivia.
Given the number of times I saw this it still became a bit of a fuzzy memory with only a couple of moments really being accessible. A re-watch reaffirms that Gung Ho is such a lightweight comedy without much in the way of memorable moments. Aside from Keaton’s fun, if problematic, performance.
Gung Ho is a simple culture clash comedy about a closing car manufacturing plant outside Pittsburgh that attracts the investment of a Japanese corporation. The manager from Japan comes to the small town based around the factory in an attempt to pick up production by installing work ethics and approaches that work in Japan to increase efficiency. Morning exercise routines, a pride in their work ethos and a company first approach are to be imposed. Michael Keaton becomes an Employee envoy to improve relations with management.
I mention Keaton’s performance as I have issues with it, bear in mind that I am a huge fan of Keaton. Certainly there is an enjoyable leading role here which depends heavily on Keaton’s trademark cheeky qualities for humour. However, there is a notable level of obnoxious jock in there that keeps the audience at arm’s reach. The narrative does not address the characters’ failings enough to persuade me that he has learnt his lessons throughout the runtime and is happy to let a little blind luck save his bacon.
During the 80’s there was a trio of curly haired wise guys who could play the role with ease, Keaton, Tom Hanks and Steve Guttenberg. All of which would have nailed it, however, for the gentler nature of the film, I think Guttenberg’s lovable qualities would have been a concrete winner. Keaton was perfect in Night Shift and the mania has been diluted here but not enough to keep any narcissism out of the character.
Mimi Rogers played the poorly developed love interest, called upon when needed. The character is there entirely to inflate Keaton when needed and whilst Rogers puts across her wise words perfectly there is little behind the character. There is evidence of some other romantic complication in the past when the character of Heather is mentioned. This creates a reaction from Rogers, however, we know very little and there is one fleeting glimpse of her with a line from Keaton to his buddies that leads to more intrigue. This relationship woe is resolved quickly later in the film but only to pump up Keaton’s character’s ego.
The real star of the film is Gedde Watanabe, a manager from the Japanese company who invests in the local factory. Watanabe, a familiar face in 80’s comedies, is beautifully over the top and sneaks away with a few of the scenes from Keaton, much like he did on Hanks in Volunteers. Watanabe gets to be wacky, sympathetic and physical in the role and creates a fully rounded character who the audience can root for a little more than Keaton’s cocky clown.
Rounding out the cast are George Wendt, John Turturro, Sab Shimono, Rodney Kageyama, Patti Yasutake and Clint Howard. All of which serve well in their roles. Howard’s father has a notable role as the town Mayor and future Jurassic Park chew toy Martin Ferrero would pop up as a Trade Union leader.
You know how fun a comedy is when a good portion of the film takes place in a smoky hall with Trade Union style debates. Sometimes the film feels like it could be based in modern day as negotiations rarely seem to go anywhere. Outside of this authentic look of the meeting there is little to mention with the film’s shooting style, it’s quite bland and pedestrian. Montages are used for factory work and the trip to Japan with simple setups to capture the action and visual gags. The odd shot does impress here and there.
The film also runs the risk of being accused of being lightly xenophobic. On the one hand the Japanese are portrayed as slave drivers and intolerant. Whereas the Americans, hopefully with an element of self-mockery, are portrayed as beer swilling layabouts who, whilst they appreciate the job they refuse to admit that any country can perform better than America and expect the factory to continue to run in the way that failed previously. Resentment sets in and there are some awkward scenes of bullying. There is no denying that these attitudes can exist, it just doesn’t feel comfortable in a comedy and done for laughs… anymore.
Later in the year a sitcom based around the events of the film arrived and lasted almost half a season. Most of the Japanese cast including Watanabe returned, however, his character has a slightly different name. Michael Keaton did not return and was replaced by Scott Bakula from Quantum Leap and Jennifer Edwards taking over from Mimi Rogers. I have not seen the show and I don’t remember it in the listings at any stage here in the UK during the late 80’s.
Gung Ho makes a bit of sense on paper and whilst it initially has some xenophobic flourishes it all works out before the end and everyone grows together. There is no doubt in my mind that the factory failed in the weeks after this story but we aren’t there for that. I guess I like it okay, but there are many funnier comedies from the 80’s and this really doesn’t have anything to recommend as a re-watch.
Poster art is refreshingly well done, taking a majority of the cast and putting them together. The hand drawn offering is what I am familiar with from the video cassette I owned.