I always feel as if I have to go into defender mode when it comes to Royce. I can understand why people might avoid or criticise the film, and those who have seen it always give it its dues. Royce is an acquired taste and most will take to it when given the chance.
The main obstacle for the audience to engage is the casting of James Belushi as the central character, Shane Royce. Jim, as I will call him from here on, proved to be a terrific actor in his own right early in his career, take Salvador (1986) or Thief (1981.) As the years rolled on Jim featured predominantly as second fiddle in forgettable comedies and this became hard to shake. Casting Jim as Royce, a Bond-style superspy, was a very creative decision and, for the most part, fits. There is another side to Royce, the “For a guy with such a cool job, I should be doing a lot better with women” side is almost the same as Dooley, Jim’s character in K9 (1989), arguably his biggest hit. So there is terrific justification for the casting.
Royce is not as serious a movie as it could have been and this is why it works so well. Jim brings a huge amount of colour to the character, quipping at every opportunity – some of them are even funny! It helps the audience see past the budget restrictions and lightweight script and ups the family adventure level to a respectable Saturday evening watch.
A secret organisation of spies called Black Hole has, due to budgetary cuts, been made defunct. A handful of the spies band together and plot to steal some nuclear warheads in Ukraine. Additionally, they kidnap the son of the senator responsible for the spies being out of the job to ward off any attempts to stop them. Royce is offered a role in the scheme, however declines, escapes an assassination attempt and sets out to save the senator’s son and the world from nuclear Armageddon. An adventure that will see Royce mount a prison break, infiltrate the villains hideout, evade capture, be captured, escape, save the kid, secure the weapons and … not get the girl.
The cast of Royce is what makes things impressive. The late, great Miguel Ferrer is our villain, playing less of a dick than in Robocop and Deep Star Six, but still dick-ish enough that you are routing for Royce to take him down. Peter Boyle plays the head of Black Hole, giving Royce his orders. Chelsea Field pops up in a couple of scenes as Royce’s ex-wife, a complicated but funny relationship that could have spiced up proposed sequels. British actors Christopher Fairbank, Michael Halsey, Ralph Ineson and Anthony Head make up the majority of Ferrer’s crew practising some eyebrow raising ‘Merican accents.
Royce relies heavily on leftover hardware from the Yugoslav war. Jeeps, trucks and helicopters populate the climax, as so many movies utilised in the mid-nineties. Various locations across Hungary and Ukraine were used, looking drab, cold and colourless. However Royce is all about the scrapes, chases and tussles. Jim proves that he is more than game to partake, leaping and running about doing the lion’s share of his own stunts, he looks like he is having a blast, and this helps inject the film with the required energy.
The film is shot without any real pizzazz and director Rob Holcomb, a TV movie veteran, doesn’t make much of an effort to impress the audience. From time to time there might be a shot that feels like it was designed for the trailer to get viewers, whilst others, like Belushi charging out of a bush to pounce on a taxi driver, is especially poorly done. However, I guess the production was pretty cheap and time was an issue, so don’t check the gate and print!
Royce was initially intended to be the start of a TV Movie franchise, a series of 90 minute movies designed for network broadcast. It’s a shame they only managed one and lament the idea it was the casting of Jim as Royce. Had movie of the week veterans Rob Lowe, Greg Evigan or Tom Selleck played the lead, I don’t think it would have resulted in a better film. In fact I think audiences would be more likely to tune in out of curiosity to see Jim as a spy.
Goldeneye was released the following year and something of a spy fever was setting in. Royce might have been a bit ahead of the trend, or perhaps it was trying to cash in on the lengthy delay between License to Kill and Goldeneye. However, one of the more successful and progressive elements of the humour in Royce was having Belushi’s Roger Moore-esq attempts to win over the ladies fail over and over.
Royce arrived in the UK on VHS and my local Blockbuster (called Xtra Vision in Northern Ireland) had quite a few copies. Within weeks they were on sale for a few pounds. I’ve seen Royce more times than the average viewer, it’s funny, a little silly but most of all, fun! A decent family movie that arrived a few years too late and Jim as a superspy is worth the watch!
There isn’t a dazzling assortment of poster art for Royce, mainly variations on the same formula, pushing Belushi as your friendly hero and some explosive action. It works, effectively giving a good impression of what to expect. Ferrer is missing and this would have completed it.
Happened upon these stock images from Shutterstock. Nibbling at the toes of Bond…
A DVD of Royce is hard to come by, I have an import from Europe that sticks with the broadcast 4:5 aspect ratio, I can’t imagine this was filmed in widescreen.
However, I reckon Jim would be a blast on an audio commentary if a boutique label was looking.