Looking Back: If Looks Could Kill (1991)

It’s hard to defend a movie like “If Looks Could Kill,” though I’m sure going to try. To preface this, I should remind readers under the age of 30 that, once upon a time, there was a red-hot TV superstar named Richard Grieco. I don’t mean to sound snarky. In fact, I liked “21 Jump St.” but loved “Booker,” Grieco’s teen-cop spin-off series that was highly touted on the Fox network. This was back in the days when the channel was new, not every state carried it and the offerings were crown jewels “The Tracey Ullman Show,” “Married With Children…” and “The Simpsons.” There were a few others that were noteworthy and didn’t make it, like “Werewolf: The Series,” “Herman’s Head” and “The Adventures of Beans Baxter,” but “Booker” actually went the distance. Grieco’s Officer Dennis Booker solved crimes and busted heads, though he mostly looked hot while strutting around Vancouver. This is what I remember best about the series, with its slick opening credits set to Billy Idol’s “Hot in the City.” Grieco was on the cover of every issue of Teen Beat for years and, let it be said, appeared headed for superstardom even more assuredly than his former “Jump St.” co-star, Johnny Depp. When his shot as a movie star came, the party ended pretty quickly.

It’s not Grieco’s fault that his film career never went the distance the way his TV stardom did. In fact, his two big vehicles, “If Looks Could Kill” and “Mobsters” (which I’ll cover in a forthcoming Looking Back) are quite enjoyable. In “If Looks Could Kill,” Grieco plays uber-cocky teen Michael Corben, whose high school class trip to France results in a case of mistaken identity. From the time Corben arrives, he’s mistaken by trigger-itchy operatives who believe he’s the OTHER Michael Corben, a slick secret agent. He’s wanted by a suave Bond villain-like character (played by Roger Rees) and his whip-wielding sidekick (Linda Hunt) as well as the inevitable love interest (Gabrielle Anwar, post-“Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken,” pre-Pacino tango). If it sounds ridiculous, it is, though it helps that this is a comedy.

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Grieco looks too old to be a high school student and appears to still be on “Jump Street.” It’s not a great performance but he’s amusing, if armed with way too many silly quips. Fred Dekker’s funny screenplay has a ball evoking the archetypes and scenarios of the spy genre, adding a dumb teen at its center. It works better than my clumsy synopsis, with even the establishing identity mix-up working better than expected. If “Inception” is 007 on the subconscious, then this is the high school fantasy variation, with odes to “Die Hard” thrown in.

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Roger Rees is a delicious villain, even in movies like these and Linda Hunt is always a hoot, as the kind of gal Oddjob or Jinx would have dated. There’s also Roger Daltrey (!), in too brief a cameo as a superspy (his sort of lip smacking tenaciousness is perfect for this movie). Of the many, overly attentive songs on the soundtrack, only Glenn Medeiros’ title song has any kick.

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William Dear ably directs this nonsense, with action sequences that are better than what you’d expect from the man whose prior film was “Harry and the Hendersons.” The editing is choppy and a stronger lead could have really made this work. Here, the movie carries Grieco instead of the other way around and he is all too obviously aware of his appeal. This is an enjoyably silly goof, though nowhere near as good as “Top Secret!” Val Kilmer’s Barry Rivers would have eaten Michael Corben for breakfast.

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