Before watching the movie:
The first brief summations I read for this just say that the character is a veteran having a hard time coming home and getting into “trouble”. Which also describes First Blood. A slightly more involved summary mentioned that he ends up in a criminal heist for the mob, which I can certainly see being played for laughs or drama, and in fact, the book this is based on was a serious drama, but this is a dramedy because the studio insisted that Richard Pryor do comedic scenes. I think it will be interesting to see Pryor do as much drama as the suits will allow him to.
After watching the movie:
Eddie Keller gets captured in Vietnam in 1967 and spends six years in a POW camp holding out against Viet Cong abuses, denied any letters in or out, and refusing to sign the war crimes confession statement they keep pressing on him for better treatment. Near the end of the war, when his friend and cellmate Vinnie gets put in the solitary hotbox for so long he gets fatally sick, Eddie finally offers to sign in return for getting medical treatment. One of the last POWs out, Eddie learns on the plane home from his Veteran’s Affairs handler Col. Powers that he’s a father of a girl his wife had shortly after he shipped out. After receiving a hero’s welcome at home, Eddie is reunited with his wife, who confesses to him that she became involved with another man while Eddie was away, and moreover, she and the other man tried to expand Eddie’s bookstore and bankrupted it. And that Eddie’s mother had a stroke and is in an expensive convalescent home. Soon thereafter, the back pay Eddie was supposed to get is tied up in red tape long enough that the army finds out about Eddie’s signed confession, creating an even bigger delay. Having lost his family and his business and unable to get a job, the money he was promised, or even a bank loan, there aren’t many more options left to Eddie within the system. But when the bank he’s trying to get a loan at gets held up by some out of luck vets, Eddie starts to get some ideas of his own.
“Heist” was a bit of a stretch, and “for the mob” is only 2/3rds correct. Vinnie gets involved with mafiosos, but he’s never working for them. It’s also only in the third act. The story is not the heist, the heist is the climax of the story about the misfortunes of a Vietnam soldier. Where First Blood was mostly about mental illness and the scars of being tortured as a POW as seen by a man whom the system had already failed (John Rambo is a vagrant at the beginning of the story), this is more about the practical experience of being actively failed by the system. I think everything after Eddie returns home happens over the course of a week. Maybe from the mixed tone, the mental trauma is downplayed here. There’s a scene where a dental technician can’t get Eddie to wake up and the Asian-American doctor wakes him by turning on a drill and waving it at his face, and I thought there was going to be a flashback moment where Eddie is scared awake and looks up and sees a face not unlike his tormentors and panics, but it’s just a haha funny moment where he grumbles about being awakened.
I wouldn’t call Pryor’s performance high drama, but he proves himself more than a funnyman here. He conveys serious frustration and despair well, and can show tense, muted fear when needed. But I don’t think he ever reaches a completely raw moment, or has a memorable serious line delivery. That could be from direction and executive intervention, but he’s certainly doing his best to respect the material when he’s allowed to.
Unfortunately, I don’t have all that much to say about Eddie’s new girlfriend, Toni. Toni picks him up at a bar, recognizing him as a good guy down on his luck and there’s a bit of a spark between them, so she asks him out. And then Eddie finds out she’s the most expensive prostitute who frequents the bar. They end up going out anyway, but it’s a constant point of tension between them.
Even though the comedy is subdued and the drama is kept from being too up close, I don’t feel like the tone is uneven or that the story is done a disservice by having funny bits. The comedy doesn’t come from the tone, it usually comes from Eddie making wisecracks in order to keep from breaking down, so it humanizes him in a way. Rambo is (more in the sequels) the man we want to be in adversity, but Eddie is the man we probably become.