Once in a while a film full of stars, loaded with promise and equipped with a wide release plan, will come and go without making so much s a ripple in the zeitgeist, lost in the infinite growing back catalogue of cinema. Sometimes, these flippant dismissals are warranted; other times, they’re confounding. Occasionally, but rarely, there is a specific reason that upended a film’s fate. Many movies simply fall victim to time, shoved out of the limelight as more powerful and celebrated works eat up the ever-shrinking bandwidth of our cinematic history.
Sure, there are films that never see the light of day; there are B-movies and schlock and midnight movies that most audiences never know exist; that’s not for this space. To be forgotten, the film must have been known, at least to a certain degree. It had expectations that were never met. Big stars, competent marketing, a promising young director, a legendary auteur… these were the films given their moment in the multiplexes, and for whatever reason seemed to disappear from the collective consciousness.
And, most important of all, these are great films we should no longer overlook.
In the early 80s, the already-great-and-powerful Steven Spielberg watched a short film, Proof, from a USC student named Kevin Reynolds. Spielberg was impressed by the young filmmaker and so moved by what he saw that he offered to step up and finance a feature-film adaptation. Proof was merely an extended sky-diving sequence with a group of college buddies, inspired by stories from Kevin Reynolds’ own life. Reynolds took that skydiving sequence and built an expansive adventure story, and an emotionally engaging coming-of-age fable, around it on all sides. Characters were added and the underlying message was given timely, emotional resonance. The title was changed from Proof to Fandango, and thus the tumultuous filmmaking career of Kevin Reynolds was officially underway.
An aspiring actor named Kevin Costner was still looking for his breakthrough in the early 80s when he auditioned for Proof. The California native had seemingly caught his big break in 1983 when he nabbed the crucial role of Alex in Lawrence Kasdan’s boomer blockbuster, The Big Chill. Alex was a friend whose suicide is the catalyst for the entire story, where college friends reunite and reignite their lives. In the end, however, all the flashback scenes featuring Costner’s part were cut from the film; Kasdan was apologetic, and promised Costner a plum role in his next film.
Meanwhile, Costner auditioned for Proof, but Reynolds passed. Now the film was a major studio production, however, and it needed handsome young actors; Costner made perfect sense as Gardner Barnes, the de facto leader of this particular group of rabble rousing college grads. In the early days, before the weight of ego and the cynicism of the industry seemed to break Kevin Costner’s spirit, he was a wiry, energetic, fast-moving performer, and his energy is what gives Fandango a heartbeat.
Fandango drops us off in the middle of graduation night, 1971, at the University of Texas. Gardner Barnes and his band of merry men have just graduated and are celebrating at their ramshackle fraternity house (every set in the film is art directed to the hilt, heightened to give the film a sense of boundlessness). It’s the last day of their youth. Gardner’s received his draft papers for Vietnam; so has his best friend, Kenneth, played by Sam Robards. Kenneth is also engaged to wed in mere days, but his draft duty upends everything. He decides to escape his upcoming nuptials and head to the Texas/Mexico border with Gardner to, as it’s obliquely explained, “dig up Dom.”
Gardner and Kenneth hit the road, trying to fend off fate, with two more in tow: a hulking, helpful, almost silent bookworm, Dorman (Chuck Bush), and a rich friend they don’t really like named Phillip, played by Judd Nelson. Phillip is going to Vietnam as well, but he has money and he has connections, so he will be fine; he’s on the outside of this group looking in, and he doesn’t help things with his incessant bitching. The quartet heads south, fast and furious in Phil’s teal 1959 Cadillac, and the bulk of Fandango centers on three crucial set pieces along the road to the border.
The first setup involves a train and the aforementioned teal Caddy, and it’s an early indication that Kevin Reynolds could direct terrific action and build suspense. The entire sequence is buzzing with tension, and the release at the end is absolute gold. The second sequence is from the source film, a wild skydiving set with dozens of moving parts that, again, is never confusing and never disengaging. It’s remarkable how Reynolds keeps all the plates in the air for an action set piece that runs upwards of fifteen minutes of screen time.
The denouement is a wedding, and I won’t say where or with whom, but after being run through an impressive gauntlet of youthful adventures, the peaceful celebration that springs up through the help of the local community is a charming payoff. Along the way, Reynolds builds on emotions and pulls us into the immediacy of the mission, and the reason for its existence. And still, there are times where Reynolds allows the film to breathe, for Kenneth to lament his decision to abandon his wedding, and for he and Gardner to think long and hard about the fork in the road that’s inching ever closer.
Fandango is unwieldy and sometimes sloppy, but it’s the coming-of-age film almost every young filmmaker has to get out of their system. As Gardner tells the uptight Phillip, sometimes you have to skirt responsibility until the last moment, because one day you will be old, and regret will be the only emotion you’ll feel. “There’s nothing wrong with going nowhere,” Gardner says, “It’s a privilege of youth.” It’s all about nostalgia, and a longing for the careless nature of being 19, 20 years-old… and how fleeting these years ultimately are. It’s an emotion with which anyone can identify, and despite it’s outlandish reaches, the universality of these kids and the way life changes once college ends transcends generations.
Steven Spielberg didn’t like the movie. He disliked it enough, in fact, to remove his name from the credits, one of many sabotages and misfortunes which Kevin Reynolds would endure over his career. Fandango was dropped in theaters in January of 1985, and nobody went to see it. That summer, Lawrence Kasdan made good on his promise with Costner and gave him a central role in his western, Silverado. It was a hit, and Costner was off and running, but for my money Fandango is more of an indicator as to the type of carefree detachment Kevin Costner would employ in his great early roles.
Six years after Fandango, Reynolds and Costner would team up once again for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a messy and bizarre adventure that raked in the dough in the summer of 1991. It also planted the seeds of dissent between Reynolds and Costner, whose ego was beginning to get the better of him in the years after his big Dances with Wolves Oscar night. That ego completely sabotaged the duo’s next film, Waterworld, an infamous disaster that ended Reynolds and Costner’s relationship for almost 20 years; the two finally buried the hatchet and reunited for the 2012 TV miniseries Hatfields and McCoys.
Fandango may lose points for some in its willingness to go beyond what could be perceived reality, or realistic expectations, or realism regarding the situations with which these characters find themselves. That’s the point. This is a weekend foray, once more into the breach for young men with uncertain futures, men who may never see each other again for the rest of their lives, men whose lives may not last much longer, and it’s Kevin Reynolds throwing everything at the wall. He’s mixing memories with music and adventure, the carefree energy of youthful endeavors, and by the time the end credits roll and Blind Faith begins singing “Can’t Find My Way Home,” I could feel this movie deep down in my heart. That’s rare.
Fandango is my favorite discovery of 2020, and Steven Spielberg has never been more wrong.