Volunteers (1985)

Genres - Comedy  |   Sub-Genres - Adventure Comedy, Buddy Film, Odd Couple Film  |   Release Date - Aug 16, 1985 (USA)  |   Run Time - 106 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Nathan Southern

Splash co-stars Tom Hanks and John Candy shared screen credit for the second and only time in their careers for this overlooked but amiable adventure comedy, written by two Cheers scribes and set during the late Kennedy era. Hanks plays Lawrence Bourne III, a caddish, spoiled-rotten Yale graduate who evades bookies by stowing away amid a bunch of Peace Corps volunteers en route to Thailand. Upon arrival, he and two enlistees - a jovial engineer from Washington state (Candy) and a beautiful, plucky Long Island girl (Rita Wilson) - must commandeer the locals to build a bridge that will connect the two banks of a river. Over the course of the film, they also run into assorted nuts including Communist soldiers, an opium lord, and a gung-ho CIA operative (Tim Thomerson). This movie's poor commercial performance in the U.S. and subsequent obscurity surprised its creators. In his memoir, director Nicholas Meyer recalls that the production itself was an issue-free one, and suggests that the film's failure to catch fire with the public may have been a direct consequence of Splash's box office success in the spring of 1984. Then-nascent Tri-Star Pictures apparently sought a big summer hit in the vein of the Ron Howard film. They released Volunteers in August 1985, and mismarketed this R-rated picture to Splash's audience of teenagers and young adults - who were far too young to remember the early '60s. Meyer's deduction about the reasons belying the movie's failure may or may not be valid. On the one hand, there are a handful of hilarious period references here (Candy trying to encourage Hanks with an inspirational quote by Albert Speer tops the list) and parodistic nods to old movies, including Casablanca, The Manchurian Candidate, and Bridge on the River Kwai - jokes that would have gone right over the heads of many young viewers in 1985. At the same time, though, most of the comedy that takes center stage in Volunteers isn't elite and cerebral period humor, it's old school shtick - and you don't need to have experienced 1962 to feel amused by Candy trying to pacify a hungry tiger or Gedde Watanabe's crazy mug posed in-between the frozen faces of severed human heads in a warlord's palace. Above and beyond the funny gags, the real curio and source of entertainment here is Hanks. For one of the only times in his career, he decided to cut against his typecast by playing a selfish, narcissistic, obnoxious heel. And even if his character's eventual metamorphosis into a nice guy is inevitable, the early scenes of Bourne gambling his life away to hoods, enjoying hanky panky with a gorgeous co-ed in his dorm room, and trying to seduce Wilson's character en route to Thailand have a satirical zip that feels refreshing. There is also real, sizzling chemistry between Hanks and Wilson, who have a couple of lovely earnest romantic scenes late in the film - so we shouldn't be too surprised that they married in real life not long after production wrapped. Though not any kind of a masterpiece, this is an extremely pleasant and enjoyable movie with its fair share of laughs. Fans of the leads should take a look.