Company Business

On paper, Company Business looks promising. It's written and directed by Nicolas Meyer (the man responsible for two of the very best Star Trek movies), stars Gene Hackman (one of the world's finest actors) and is one of the first post-Cold War movies to take a look at the complicated relationship between the United States and Russia. Sounds like it might be worth a watch, right? Maybe it is, but only if you're interested in a striking example of a movie where nothing works the way it's supposed to.

Hackman plays Sam Boyd, a former CIA operative who now spends most of his time doing shady freelance missions for big corporations (a caper that plays out over the film's opening credits finds him attempting to steal marketing secrets from a cosmetics company). One day, he learns that the CIA wants to recruit him for one last job. It's a secret mission, and they need somebody who isn't officially on the government payroll to take care of it. The job seems simple: Sam is supposed to escort recently captured KGB mole Pyotr Ivanovich Grushenko (Mikael Baryshnikov, The Turning Point) to a prisoner exchange in Berlin (which has just been reunited). Ah, but when Sam and Pyotr arrive, they discover that something is amiss, and decide to go on the run until they can get things sorted out. Meanwhile, both governments begin wringing their hands.

Up to this point, Company Business is a fine, frisky little thriller. Hackman's early scenes are a fun introduction to the character, he generates some enjoyably playful chemistry with Baryshnikov, and the “prisoner exchange gone south” sequence is a tense bit of filmmaking. Shortly after, however, the whole movie starts to fall apart: continuity becomes messy, the film's interesting bits of character development disappear, the tone ping-pongs all over the place (sometimes it's a grim thriller, other times it's a broad farce), plot holes begin emerging left and right and things become increasingly confusing with each reel. What happened?

A whole lot of things, apparently. Behind the scenes, Company Business became a nightmare for almost everyone involved. The constantly-shifting political climate in Europe led to one revision after another, as the filmmakers struggled to find ways to make their movie feel current and relevant. This led to a chaotic production process, and the fact that no one got along made things worse. Hackman had tried to back out of the movie shortly before production began (he was feeling weary after shooting three movies back-to-back-to-back), but stayed on to avoid being sued by MGM. He fought bitterly with Meyer on a regular basis (“My bouts with Hackman just about wrecked me,” Meyer wrote), and his exhaustion shows in his performance. Baryshnikov hated the movie, and refused to do publicity for it. Meyer called it “a catastrophe,” and felt the movie was so compromised that he recycled elements of its plot in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (a much better movie about Cold War tensions, albeit a metaphorical one).

Predictably, Company Business flopped at the box office. It made back only a tiny percentage of its $18 million budget, and was generally regarded as a misfire for all involved. It's a deeply unsatisfying movie, but a slightly more interesting one if you imagine the chaos unfolding between takes.

Company Business

Rating: ½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 1991