These are heady days for sport in Hollywood. Rocky has become the first film about sports to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Chris Evert has worked her way to the top of Burt (There's a Broken Heart for Every Light on Broadway) Reynolds' rankings, and now the Super Bowl has been utilized as the centerpiece for a hot new disaster film that's entitled Black Sunday.
Black Sunday's plot concerns the plan of Arab guerrillas to bomb the Super Bowl, thus "striking where it hurts Americans most, where they are most at home." As those of us who have followed the Minnesota Vikings are aware, bombs are no strangers to the Super Bowl, but this one, delivered by a mad former U.S. Air Force pilot flying America's security blanket of the sky, the Goodyear blimp, is calculated to send all 80,000 in attendance in the Orange Bowl to kingdom come. Black Sunday was originally a potboiler novel by Thomas Harris, but it works better as a movie because it's chock-full of sky-high special effects, chases, blood-and-guts and exotic global intrigue.
The characters are barely humanoid, the dialogue is substandard when not downright cliché ("I don't know why, but I think I'm going to let you live," he said, withdrawing a gun from the bad guy's mouth) and even the tiniest plot nuances are never resolved by any: thing less than red-blooded murder. But, as they say, that's football. Black Sunday is not meant to be about characters. It is about old-fashioned movie monsters—except that the one here rises out of world politics instead of Tokyo Bay.
The cast does rather well, the script notwithstanding. Bruce Dern, as the balmy blimp pilot, is a fine crazy, despite a tendency to lapse into Jack Nicholson impressions. While Dern's Palestinian mistress, Marthe Keller, is not nearly so convincing, she wields a mean machine gun, and that is the bottom line here. Robert Shaw plays an Israeli agent with a peculiar guttural brogue, but this unknown dialect fortunately fails to mar the marvelous primeval intensity that Shaw brings to the chase. And it is sure a good thing for us dumb Americans that Shaw is around to save us, because at least since the business at Entebbe, Hollywood has decided that the only clever folks roaming the globe are Israelis. (The Arabs are the second most clever, although they are diabolically misguided, to be sure.)
Some of the minor figures are also well played. As an NFL team owner, one Joe Robbie fills the part with just the right amount of the petty selfishness so common to owners, and as a television executive, one Robert Wussler shows an almost instinctive ability to express the despotic narrow-mindedness that TV bosses so regularly display.
But enough of kudos for the actors, professional and amateur. The real success of Black Sunday belongs to Director John Frankenheimer, an old pro at this sort of violent suspense (The Manchurian Candidate). Whatever the movie's shortcomings, it has just the right tone. Film Editor Tom Rolf's constant cuts from wily villains to brilliant hero to bumbling football-crazy Americans are always sharp. The football sequences, shot by NFL Films at the 1976 Super Bowl, are inserted in effective counterpoint to the grotesque guerrilla scheme. And by making the football merely incidental to the plot, Black Sunday chillingly illustrates what easy targets our huge stadiums could become for the madmen of this world.
A final note about football and disaster films: O.J. Simpson, bidding to become the poor man's Shelley Winters in this low genre, popped up recently in another catastrophe epic, The Cassandra Crossing. Simpson may or may not be as good a running back as Jimmy Brown, but one thing's for sure: he is Brown's equal as an actor. O.J. is an engaging, nice-looking fellow who emotes at the level of rent-an-expression. He is deluding himself terribly if he believes he has any serious future as an actor. (Has anyone seen Jimmy Brown lately?) It would be sad if Simpson departed football prematurely on that premise, because Hollywood will surely drop him like a hot potato as soon as his football name value expires.