Best Defense (1984)

Starring: Dudley Moore, Eddie Murphy, Kate Capshaw, and George Dzundza
Grade: B-

Just so you know, Dudley Moore and Eddie Murphy never share a scene together.


The film has two separate plots that are two years removed from each other but are connected because of the results of what happened first. The main plot takes place in Seal Beach, California in 1982. Here, we see lazy engineer Wylie Cooper (Moore) help develop the “DYP-gyro” targeting system (Double Yaw Processor) for the U.S. Army’s new tanks. The other timeline is Kuwait in 1984. This is where we see US Army Lt. T.M. Landry (Murphy) drive the busted tank in the desert, as he deals with the decisions made on the tank two years prior. When reading this summary, keep this in mind because the film consistently switches between these two different storylines.

Starting in Kuwait in 1984, Landry has sex with some random woman off base. Next, we go back to Seal Beach, California in 1982. Wylie Cooper tries to have sex with his wife Laura (Capshaw) before work, but she’s not really feeling it. Eventually, they start to get going, but the mood is killed pretty early because of Laura. Even so, it’s time to go to work anyway. Generally, Laura is unhappy with life at the moment. Wylie tries to stay positive, but his family is struggling. Their house is poorly structured (the front door falls off the hinges when they’re about to leave), and they’re not very well off. Before Laura goes to work at her catering business, she also has to drive their son Morgan to school and Wylie to work every day because they only have one car. Meanwhile, Landry is driven back to the U.S. Army base in Prince Ali’s Camp Damsah. The camp is a military advisory group for Operation Sandstorm. Landry gets in the locker room late but doesn’t have a care in the world. None of other soldiers who are stationed at this camp care either, as they all are seen messing around. Back with Wylie and company as they drive, Wylie fixes a toy he made for Morgan and gives it back to him. Laura asks about the demonstration Wylie is having at the plant today for the new U.S. Army tank. The defense contractor he works for in Dynatechnics has to present the very important “DYP-gyro” mechanism as the main piece involved in this tank. Basically, the success of the entire place is depending on this thing to work. According to Wylie though, it still doesn’t. When Laura questions him about it, he says he’s joking to calm her down, but he’s serious. Despite this, he’s pretty content about the whole thing. Laura is more worried about it than he is.

In Kuwait, they are setting up to field test one of their XM-10 annihilator tanks in front of other members of the Kuwaiti government to try and sell it. The speaker calls it one of the most “sophisticated” and “state-of-the-art supertanks” around. Landry will be driving it with two members of his crew, Ali and Sayyid. As they get to the tank, one guy falls off of it before even getting in because pieces of it are already coming off like nothing. Landry doesn’t think anything of it though and continues on with his job.

Laura pulls up to Wylie’s work to drop him off but wants him to be honest with her. She doesn’t want him to lose another job because she can’t afford to move again as her business is too important. Wylie doubles down and says everything is fine, but Laura still isn’t very convinced. She makes it clear to him that if he loses this job, he doesn’t come home. At the field testing, Landry and his crew begin to drive around to show off the tank to the buyers, but parts continuously break off. Then, the tank malfunctions and veers off course by itself. It destroys the stage the buyers and the speaker are on, and it destroys the sheik’s car. As Landry asks aloud who would build such a piece of shit, we cut back to Wylie entering his workplace. There, all of his co-workers want nothing to do with him because the company is in shambles, as his department’s inability to make the DYP-gyro work has all but confirmed they’re going under. People are getting fired, things are getting repossessed as Wylie walks by, and people are snubbing him to his face. Even so, he doesn’t seem to care. After a few threats from more co-workers, he once again says the mechanism will work for the demonstration. Wylie is stopped by Clair (Helen Shaver), his supervisor for the DYP-gyro. She is under a lot of stress and makes it clear how important this project is and storms off. Following this, Wylie walks over to his friend and colleague Steve (Dzundza), and they joke around and talk about how hot she is.

The executives, along with President of Dynatechnics and ex-astronaut Frank Joyner (Peter Michael Goetz), show up and Clair greets them. This is where it is explained that the DYP-gyro will be used to guide the surface-to-air missiles on the XM-10 supertank. The demonstration goes on as planned, but the DYP-gyro malfunctions and fails in front of everyone. After work, Wylie and Steve go to a bar and Wylie tells him he’s going to lie to Laura about the test. Obviously, he’s feeling down, but he can’t even argue with Laura referring to him as a casualty of the defense industry because of him having to constantly move all over the country to take different engineering jobs over the last decade. Once Steve goes home, a man named Frank Holtzman (Tom Noonan) approaches Wylie and introduces himself after overhearing their conversation. Frank has been an engineer for twenty years and tells him it’s the company’s executives who are at fault for ruining their lives. As Frank goes on a bit of a rant, Wylie tries to move to a table to get rid of him, but Frank follows and talks about how he’s with some people now who are willing to pay him what he’s worth for the ideas he has. Then, he asks Wylie if he sees a larger blonde man by the bar. He does see him, and Frank says he’s supposed to meet this guy in the bathroom and the man is a captain in the KGB. As Frank continues on explaining vaguely how he’s in a lot of trouble, Wylie tries to excuse himself but is stopped. Frank says that whatever happens to him, it won’t be true, implying he may be killed. Wylie passes him off as a crazy person and goes to pay his check. When he’s at the front of the bar, Frank puts a disc into Wylie’s briefcase and leaves to meet the blonde guy. Wylie sees this, grabs his briefcase, and inquisitively tries to find Frank after coming face-to-face with the blonde guy, with them staring at each other.

Wylie exits the back of the store to see Frank being shoved into a car against his will.

The next day at work, Wylie tells Steve rival company Digical Technologies’s guidance system is almost up and running, and they probably have the tank contract in the bag. They lost. As they talk and get close to throwing in the towel, Wylie sees the disc from Frank in his briefcase because he apparently didn’t look inside his briefcase at all the night before following the scene at the restaurant. He inserts it into his computer and leaves to go get coffee for him and Steve. Steve watches the monitor and notices the 3D diagram of the DYP-gyro appearing. When Wylie comes back, he is congratulated by the entire office because these disc solutions may have fixed the DYP-gyro completely. Clair admits in front of everyone that she judged Wylie too early and was wrong about him being burned-out and lazy. Wylie is still confused at the praise he’s getting until Clair points out how no one thought to abandon the stabilizing platform and “going to the floating ball” but he did. She calls him a genius and even makes some flirtatious comments on the way out of his office. Now, the whole office sees Wylie as a minor celebrity because he “saved” the company, with one co-worker saying he saved her life. Wylie takes credit for it out of shock but as soon as everyone leaves, Wylie asks Steve what is going on. He shows Wylie the computer program he uploaded, so Wylie comes clean about the whole thing to him. He quickly explains to Steve in private that the disc is Frank’s. As Clair gets ahold of Frank Joyner and brings him in to tell him the good news, Wylie wants to come clean with everything and admit this isn’t his design. Reminding him that hundreds of jobs are at stake, Steve takes the file from Wylie and puts it on another computer, with Wylie chasing him. Then, Steve changes the name of the company involved and changes the “Project Engineer” section by removing Frank’s name and putting Wylie’s.

Wylie tries to wrestle him off the computer until Joyner and Clair enter the office and they stop. He tries to explain how he found it, but Joyner and Clair keep interrupting him, with Joyner saying he’s going places. Basically, he’s just forced to go with it. When Laura picks Wylie up after work, Joyner tells her directly that Wylie is single handedly responsible for saving the company. At home that night, Wylie tries to come clean with Laura, but they are interrupted by a phone call. It’s Joyner. He calls the house to tell them he bought Wylie a car since he saw they only had the one. As an excited Laura and Morgan go outside to look at it, Wylie’s guilt starts to really set in. He gets another call. This time it’s from Steve, and he tells Wylie to turn on the news. There, it says “Digical Technologies senior systems engineer Frank Holtzman died of an apparent suicide”, but they are not ruling out the possibility of foul play. Obviously, this raises huge suspicions from Wylie because of what Frank said before he died about the KGB, but Steve wants him to look on the brighter side of things. No one is alive to refute the claims that he came up with the way to fix the DYP-gyro. He can change the trajectory of his life. Wylie isn’t focused on this though because he’s still very worried that people could come after him like they did Frank. The next day at work, they have another demonstration for the DYP-gyro to test the solution on “Wylie’s” file, and it works. Clair complements Wylie on everything afterwards, as they observe the details of it all on the computer. As she bends over to look at the monitor, Wylie places his hand on her back and slowly brings it down to place it on her ass. She quickly stands up, but the nervous flirting between the two becomes more and more obvious.

After work, there is a press conference headed up by Joyner. Wylie and his family are present. Joyner makes it official that Dynatechnics has been awarded the contract to build the guidance system for the XM-10 annihilator tank. Wylie is singled out for the brilliant “work” he’s done in front of everyone. Though he still feels guilty, the showering of praise towards him starts to hook him a bit. He even makes flirtatious eye contact with Clair, who is really starting to look interested in him. Unbeknownst to him however, the blonde man who killed Frank is there at the conference as well, and he has his sights set on Wylie. Now, this careless engineer is about to find himself in a heap of trouble that not only threatens his life but also his relationship. Meanwhile, Landry is stuck wandering through the desert two years later as the tank Wylie is responsible for continues to screw up.

My Thoughts:

Best Defense is a lot more entertaining than many would have you believe. As a Dudley Moore fan, I’m always amused by his antics, the goofy undertones of his movies, and the creativity surrounding certain productions he’s involved in. Best Defense is a good example of all of this and is consistently amusing, as Wylie Cooper’s acceptance of a lie spirals out of control to the point where he’s involved in the FBI’s cold war with the KGB over a situation he was involved in seemingly by accident. Unfortunately, this film is a prime example of how studio interference can change a movie entirely. After the test screenings went poorly as a standalone Dudley Moore feature, the decision was made to add in a white-hot Eddie Murphy. This isn’t a bad idea on paper because the chaos that could stem from these two comedy superstars in their primes should yield hysterical results. Though the two couldn’t be more different in their star personas or comedic styles, they knew how to get laughs. Putting the two together is sure to create some type of magic. With someone as hysterical as a young Eddie Murphy to play off of, this decision could have turned Best Defense into a smash hit. However, the problem was with how they wrote Murphy into the story. They didn’t even try to mask the fact that they added his role much later in the production process. They just put him in an entirely different scenario and hoped he could say enough quips and insults to Kuwaiti citizens that he would salvage the other half of the movie.

Despite being the secondary star who was looked at as the savior of the movie, Murphy’s parts were so loosely connected, his inclusion turned into a letdown when it should have been a film-saving decision.

As I said in the summary, Murphy’s subplot takes place two years after the main plot, and it fits like a square peg in a round hole. The final product felt majorly fragmented as a result. Instead of one involving storyline about how these two men affected each other from different parts of the world over corporate decisions being made, the movie felt like two completely different stories slapped together in hopes that people would just accept it because of the star power. It’s a shame because this could have worked. This is what bothers me the most. The lack of creativity involved in the screenwriting is what failed the product of Best Defense as a whole. Dudley Moore’s sex-depraved Wylie lying and lazily accepting things as is until he’s cornered and threatened was a very amusing storyline. Eddie Murphy’s T.M. Landry getting stuck in a malfunctioned tank designed by the company Wylie worked for is a funny situation but putting the two together made for a very disjointed experience. Honestly, both stories have potential as separate movies, especially Landry’s. Seeing a young Eddie Murphy having adventures in Kuwait as an inexperienced soldier trying to navigate himself through the desert before finding himself directly in the middle of the Iraq invasion is a great idea for an action comedy. I’m not saying it would be as good as Stripes, but it could have been close had they made this idea its own thing and actually took a second (and possibly third) look at the screenplay. Sadly, Murphy’s inclusion was a massive, missed opportunity.

He was right. The script was trash regarding his character.

Besides the tank’s basic structure falling apart on him when he needed it most, there’s nothing really that funny going on with Landry, despite how hard Murphy tries to make it work. Besides a few lines like telling a Kuwaiti stranger making a joke at his expense that “You should be in Vegas instead of the real Sahara” and his exclamation of “I’m from Cleveland!” while trying to downplay his involvement in the incoming war, there’s nothing really to write home about regarding his sequences that were supposedly written in to “save” the movie. They didn’t give him anything to do. If they added a little more humor or action and maybe an extra subplot revolving around his trek in Kuwait, this could have worked as a very layered action comedy, especially considering how they pretty much had carte blanche to do whatever with Murphy’s character. They could’ve put him in HUNDREDS of crazy situations involving the military, Kuwait, or Iraq. All you have to do is think a little bit outside the box. Maybe his crew members get into a fight over a girl, and Landry has to deal with internal problems with them while trying to navigate through the situation involving the tank going haywire. Maybe they run out of gas at one point and have to travel into a nearby town. While there, they have to deal with some on-foot action as they are attacked by the citizens of Kuwait who want nothing to do with America’s help, with Landry’s attempts at helping only making things worse. What if the belly dancer he was banging in the opening of the movie was an officer of the Kuwaiti military? She gets mad he didn’t call back, and it results in her threatening action towards him over his radio while inside the XM-10 tank.

What if when Landry finally gets to his destination and is immediately asked to save those troops, he has to take a team inside a building discreetly at first? Then, it could lead to a better action-packed ending, leading to him getting back into his broken-down tank when they’re at risk of losing. This final stand could then result in the tank finally working for him and saving the day much like how it was presented in the film. More importantly, how about instead of the two stories being separate, what if it happened during the same timeframe, with Dynatechnics already completing the tank and sending it out for the field test for Landry to drive? Then, Wylie is the one who sees the problem with the DYP-gyro and has to communicate through phone, video messaging, or whatever else to try and save Landry’s life because he knows he was one of the key figures in fucking up the mechanism and he wants to fix it. This way, they could still avoid reshooting the whole movie if the two stars are just communicating on the phone or whatever else because you can film them separately. After this, you could have Wylie fighting his own executives as they try to pass it off as a military issue now that they’ve sold it, as Joyner wants to wash his hands of the mess completely. Though this would change a lot of the structure of the movie, it would give Landry’s inclusion in the story much more importance and make Wylie more of a likable person with a conscience. You could still include the FBI and KGB activity to add to the humor, but it would just take a few rewrites to change their motivation in regard to this version of the story.

Do you see what I’m saying? There are so many possibilities to make the Landry scenes something, but they chose the most boring route possible in placing him in the action. They just lazily insert the character in the heat of the desert, have several scenes of things breaking and the characters complaining and yelling, and just assumed this was good enough. Even the action sequences regarding the tank were boring. This is the problem. If you gave Murphy something meaningful to do, it would’ve actually meant something to the film as a whole. Sadly, with the way things turned out, Best Defense will always be remembered for Dudley Moore outperforming Eddie Murphy, which might be the only time this statement has ever been said. I can say this confidently though. Moore is very funny throughout. He’s such an uncaring jackass that you can’t help but laugh at the situations he finds himself in. He’s very relatable too. He’s lazy, he’s tries to stay positive and make the best of things, and he’s basically the personification of someone being content with life. If anything, this only angers his agitated wife Laura, played by Kate Capshaw. Here, she doesn’t scream as much as she did in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but she’s just as annoying. She sees Wylie’s lackadaisical style and can’t stand it. Right from the beginning, you can tell she’s unhappy and wants a better life. As a little in-joke, it’s almost as if Capshaw doesn’t even want to be there, as you can hear her hum the Indiana Jones theme to herself in the car at one point.

Regularly, Wylie gets treated like shit by his co-workers, is yelled at by his wife, and is looked at like the bane of people’s existence just for stepping into the room, but what’s so entertaining is him just laughing it all off. He knows he’s fucked, he knows the company is screwed because of his inability to do his job well, and he knows life isn’t great, but his lack of seriousness in response to all of these factors makes him a genuinely amusing and likable protagonist. He just goes about his day, does the best he can, and doesn’t mind making jokes to his friend and co-worker Steve because they both know they’re dead in the water regarding the DYP-gyro. It’s really funny watching the two discuss Clair’s obvious hotness and engaging in locker room talk as they joke around, knowing they have a demonstration ahead of them based entirely on something they built and could decide the future of the company. They just don’t care, and Moore’s Wylie is so entertaining going about things with no plans in mind. There is a level of sweetness regarding Wylie that isn’t capitalized on enough as well. By the third act, his marriage crumbles because of him trying to chase Clair and his only idea of salvaging things is to fix the DYP-gyro because it could affect whoever has to drive that tank in the near future. This isn’t enough to save the character however in the eyes of the audience. Though I liked that Wylie went up against his company and threatened to blow the whistle if they didn’t let him fix things, there still needed to be an epilogue of some sorts to show where he ended up in his personal life, as this was more important to us anyways.

Adding to my list of suggestions to fix Best Defense, what if Wylie came to the realization that he is unfit to be an engineer for defense contractors and instead uses his abilities to become a toymaker? They tease this throughout, with his best character trait being that he’s a good dad who has more interest in making toys for his son Morgan than working hard at his job. What if he decided to pursue this full-time, became happy, and was able to win back his family in a “Six Months Later” sequence? It would have righted the wrongs of the character by admitting his faults and overcoming it, it would create a life for his family where they can be happy and fulfilled, Laura could forgive him for screwing up, and it could end with them all living happily ever after together. For Wylie to walk out of the movie eyeing Clair on the way out and they smile, it’s as if they try to justify Wylie’s cheating and that these two have some special unspoken bond. This is not the message that should be sent at all. None of the character arcs ended on the right note with the way things played out. When you think about it actually, a lot of Moore’s movies try to find a way to justify cheating or having multiple partners during a relationship. The real Moore did have four wives after all, so do with that what you will.

Even so, in a harmless movie like this one, it especially doesn’t feel right that his character went about things the way he did without trying to make up for it. Though Wylie’s professional mistakes are important to fix in the grand scheme of things, his mistakes that ruined his personal life should always supersede it in importance. Disregarding the latter takes the soul out of the movie.

As I mentioned before, the goofiness surrounding this picture and how the web of lies snowballs into this huge conspiracy where Wylie is forced into helping the FBI is very funny. The film never takes itself too seriously either, evidenced early on when they run out of protective glasses for Wylie during the demonstration, so they just give him these flamboyant Elton John sunglasses to wear. There’s so many of these funny gags sprinkled throughout and it really makes for a joyous experience. Truth be told, I don’t know why the test audiences didn’t like the Moore-led parts of the movie that forced the studio’s hand to bring in Eddie Murphy. I really enjoyed these scenes. From the innuendo and double entendres when flirting with Clair, the great slapstick, the rapport between Wylie and Steve, the cocktail party in general, the hotel scene where the FBI bust in, the almost failure of the drop in the parking lot, to Wylie’s first interaction with wildcard Jeff, the film is consistently entertaining. Jeff is the biggest surprise. He’s this blonde killer described as a KGB agent and at first glance, we assume what the character is probably going to be, a Dolph Lundgren-like bad guy. However, David Rasche takes the supporting role into a completely different direction, adding to the wacky comedy of the story because of the character’s total unpredictability and bizarre behavior going from absolute menace to quirk-filled weirdo in an instant. In what could have been a one-note role, he was a revelation that stood out and only intensified the outrageousness of Best Defense in all the right ways. What we thought was going to be a silent, intimidating bad guy turned out to be a cartoon character masquerading as a twisted salesman with a gun! It was a welcomed and unexpected inclusion that almost stole the show for the few scenes he was in.

Moore played off him to perfection too and was even funnier when trying to react normally to the man’s random outbursts and general excitement. When Jeff tries to tell him with his creepy smile, “If you’ve seen me outside of a business situation, you’d really like me”, you can’t help but laugh.

Of course, this scene and the one following it gives us twenty minutes of the most entertaining chunk of the film. Wylie accepts the $10,000 payment as the first 10% and scrambles back to the hotel room in a panic to try and get Clair to escape with him. He knows he’s in trouble and they have to leave immediately, but as soon as she drops her clothes and starts kissing him, he immediately changes his mind and says “Fuck it” in one of the most “Dudley Moore” moments of the movie. When the FBI busts in with Joyner and Steve, I was cackling. Everything happening during this sequence was pure chaotic gold. Wylie’s reaction to the mess was fantastic too. Taken into a separate room, he is basically forced into helping the FBI once they tell him he can be tried for treason since he accepted the payment from a foreign agent on classified information if he refuses. Following this, he goes back into the main room tells the rest of the group “Well, I’ve done some soul searching and have decided to help because it’s the kinda guy I am”. Again, this was absolute gold. Then when Clair tries to step in, he tells them they should have her go instead as he’s being pulled away. It’s hysterical. How you can walk away from this film and not at least enjoy the hell out of this sequence is beyond me. The inclusion of more outrageous coincidental happenings during the very important drop with Wylie and Jeff, with Wylie being mugged in the parking lot and members of the Inter-American Police Conference deciding to intervene during their tour, the mayhem is so much fun to watch unfold, and Moore handles it well with his incredible comic timing and delivery.

Once Wylie is put into the ambulance as Laura and Clair fight over him, I literally thought in my head with a smile, “What a shit show”. For a comedy, a statement like this is a major compliment.

Not having the stars of the film interact at all is a tough sell. Depending on how you handle it though, you can get away with it. For instance, Courage Under Fire is a good example of making it work. In Best Defense however, it did not. It had potential, but the mishandling of Murphy’s inclusion in the writing and direction took away what could have been a game-changing decision that could have made this a massive hit with audiences. Instead, his inclusion is what brings the movie down. If they found a way to incorporate both actors in one timeline, this could have worked, but a serious lack of creativity and care regarding the subplot ruined the potential of the movie. Best Defense will go down as an underrated comedy gem where we got to see Dudley Moore and Eddie Murphy in the same movie for the first and only time. Though the story still has its problems, and the plot and character arcs are nowhere near as satisfying as it needs to be, this movie still possesses a lot of genuine laughs and is very entertaining considering all of the circumstances and interferences it faced.

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