Beyond the shadow of a doubt, Richard Pryor was one of the funniest comedians of all time. The ironic thing is that if you were to watch any of Pryor's movies that are not his concert films, you would never get a sense of how funny he really was. There is no denying that films like Bustin' Loose and Brewster's Millions were a tremendous waste of his comedic talent. But what's even more ironic is that Pryor was usually at his best as an actor when he was in films that were more serious. Director Paul Schrader's Blue Collarremains one of Pryor's finest moments on screen (his comedy concerts not included), and showcases him as a versatile performer. Pryor would never star in a film as good as Blue Collar, although he would get other opportunities to showcase his abilities as more than just a comic, including 1982's Some Kind of Hero.
Adapted from James Kirkwood's book, Pryor stars as Eddie Keller, a soldier in Vietnam who manages to get captured at the very beginning of his tour of duty. Held captive in a North Vietnamese POW camp, Eddie resists all attempts by the NVA to sign a confession stating he is a war criminal. But when his best friend and fellow prisoner Vinnie DiAngelo (Ray Sharkey) becomes gravely ill, Eddie agrees to sign the confession in order to get the dying man medical attention. When the war is finally over, Eddie is released from the POW camp where he has been held for six years, and he returns to the United States to a hero's welcome. But his happiness is short-lived when he discovers that his wife has taken up with another man and the two of them have lost all of his money and his business. On top of that, he discovers his mother has had a debilitating stroke, and is now in a convalescent home that is threatening to kick her out if he can't come up with the money that is owed. And as if all of that wasn't bad enough, the Army does not want to give Eddie his back pay, because of the confession he signed.
Released from prison after all these years, it soon becomes clear to Eddie that his life is not all that much better. At least in prison he had the fantasy of life back home to keep him alive, but the harsh reality of life stateside is pushing him to the breaking point. When he meets Toni Donovan (Margot Kidder), a hooker with a heart of gold, Eddie finds a brief respite from the unfortunate circumstances he has found himself in. Desperate to get the money to cover his mother's medical bills, Eddie decides to take drastic measures, which find him in a situation where he must deal with a group of unscrupulous mobsters.
Some Kind of Hero has enough problems that it will never be a great film. For one thing, it never finds an even balance between the comedy and the drama. The story itself is more of a drama, but the script, adapted by Kirkwood and Robert Boris, tries clumsily to accommodate Pryor's comedic ability. The result is a film that can feel awkward and forced that is only compounded by Michael Pressman's direction, which has that flat, generic sense of style that is rampant in films of the 1980s.
Pryor does a good job with the material, but he seems miscast much of the time. Eddie, as written in Kirkwood's book was a white man, younger than Pryor who was over 40 when he made the film. Hearing co-star Ronny Cox's Col. Powers constantly refer to Eddie as "son," even though Cox was only two years older than Pryor when they made the movie, feels awkward. Likewise, the relationship between Eddie and Toni never feels real, and Pryor and Kidder don't manage to generate much chemistry on screen.
All of that said, Pryor does have some great moments in Some Kind of Hero. One scene in particular, where Eddie is being interviewed by an Army psychiatrist, is especially effective, and hints at the balance between comedy and drama that could have been possible in the film, but was most often missed. Pryor seems to be generally interested in proving himself as being a capable actor who can do more than just comedy--as he did in Blue Collar and Lady Sings the Blues--but it feels as if the filmmakers never quite know what to do with him.