JUSTICE TAKES FLIGHT.
A CASE AS DEADLY AS THE ALASKAN WILDERNESS
Well, I can't honestly say that I'm a John Denver fan. I feel the need to state that right up front before I review Higher Ground, a curious made-for-television oddity from 1988 starring the popular folk singer that almost inexplicably has seen the light of day on home video thanks to Sony. I grew up hearing John Denver - and I certainly have no animosity toward him. My parents had that Best of John Denver record album which seemed ubiquitous at the time, the one with him smiling in the woods with his dog on the back cover, and so I heard the guy's signature saccharine hits like "Sunshine On My Shoulder" as I grew up. I'll admit that "Take Me Home Country Roads" has some punch and energy, but as a whole, his music was all a bit too sunny for my tastes.
And that's what makes Higher Ground such an odd little piece of Americana. It takes an older John Denver, keeps his enthusiastic optimism, and re-casts him as some kind of peacekeeping ex-FBI agent solving a murder in Alaska. It's just so . . . off, in a way.
Denver plays Jim Clayton in this 96 minute TV flick. Clayton's approach to taking care of criminals is to be all mellow and try to convince them to lay down their weapons when he confronts them (Clayton turns to this approach at least three times in the film). His FBI colleagues are of a different persuasion, preferring to gun down armed bad guys - and after 20 years of service, Clayton rather suddenly decides he doesn't fit in anymore and gives up his career in law enforcement. He takes his plane up to Alaska to work for his old partner Rick (Martin Kove, the bad guy from the Karate Kid movies), who runs a small air freight business with his wife and son.
So, to fill out the time, we get a lot of footage of small planes flying low along the Alaskan wilderness and stock clips of various animals roaming or soaring about. Anyone who knows the tragic circumstances of John Denver's death in 1997 will be struck by the irony of this film. (Denver died alone in a small plane crash - a fact used to such a sinisterly effective dark humor manner in the original Final Destination.) Clayton reunites with Rick and his family just long enough for him to want to stick around after the guy gets murdered by ultra-evil Bill McClain (Richard Masur), a bootlegging land developer. After Rick's burial, Clayton tries to clear his old partner's name and take care of his widow and son (rather tastefully, the movie sidesteps any overt romance between Clayton and the widow - although it is vaguely implied by the end of the movie). Along the way, he has to win over the ebullient local police, led by Lt. Smight (played by an overbearing John Rhys-Davies).
Denver is just not the right person for this kind of role. He constantly returns to his aw-shucks happy persona that he brought to the stage in the 1970s (replete with several thumbs-up signs throughout the course of the movie), which makes the few action scenes where he takes out bad guys with his fists rather silly-looking. And while Higher Ground's script, penned by Michael Eric Stein, feels like a vintage episode of Magnum P.I. set in Alaska and stretched out by an additional 45 minutes, I have to admit that this movie isn't nearly as bad as I would have thought it would be. Higher Ground has an '80s charm that's undeniably quaint. The bad guys are over-the-top bad in a Lethal Weapon sort of way - and Denver's wardrobe consists of rainbow-patchwork shirts that are amusing (and I got a kick out of his too-big '80s sunglasses and gigantic mobile phone).
As I said at the start, I'm not a fan of Denver's music per se - so it's tough for me to judge whether Denver fans would really like this or not. The theme song to Higher Ground is sung by him, and it's played seemingly in its entirety during the opening credits. It's rather mellifluous with some tritely uplifting lyrics. There's a scene during the film where Denver pulls out a guitar and joins in with Alaskans for a sing-along that has much more punch to it. Surprisingly, though, that's it in terms of Denver performing music - Higher Ground plays it mostly straight throughout.
This is made-for-television territory, but it's not all-that-bad. The best I can say about Higher Ground is that it has a retrospective novelty, considering its small aircraft theme and star, and how the two tragically merged in real life. It's worth a rental, if you're curious.
Sony presents Higher Ground in full screen with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio that obviously reflects its original television broadcast. The image didn't look too bad given its time period - though don't expect sparkling details. It would have been nice to see the landscape shots in widescreen with more clarity, but oh well.
Two language options are available here: English and French. Both are in Dolby Digital 2.0, with the English track serving as the default. It's a fairly lackluster mix - perhaps not surprising considering the movie's television roots and time period. Dialogue is always clear, though. Optional subtitles are also available in English and French.
A Previews submenu offers trailers for Rent: Filmed Live On Broadway and Open Season 2. That's it for extras.
Higher Ground, a 1988 made-for-television movie, isn't anything to write home about - but it does have the novelty of folk singer John Denver starring as an ex-FBI agent seeking justice for the murder of his ex-partner. Denver smiles a lot, gives the thumbs up a few times, and even (unconvincingly) takes down a couple bad guys. It's all the scenes of him flying small planes, however, that engender an ironic undertone considering the tragic events of his death. That and some nice shots of Alaskan wilderness make this enough of a curiosity to warrant a look. Rent it.