Director Hal Needham undoubtedly has the common touch, but "The Villain" proves that it's not necessarily infallible. A cartoonish Western fqrce in which Kirk Douglas, in inept badman, struggles to intercept Ann-Margret, an unsatisfied vamp, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, her studly but hopelessly naive protector. "The Villain" is the sort of dumb comedy that never smartens up.
"It's possible that kids will derive some random kicks from the slapstick stunts and stubbornly sustained air of facetiousness, which begins with Douglas trying to jump a moving train and mistiming his leap. To rub it in, he's given a literal horselaugh by his horse, who's portrayed as the brains of the team.
At that knuckleheaded level, "The Villain" is certainly more picturesque and marginally more amusing than "The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again," but that's not much of a recommendation.
Schwarzenegger has been hired to escort Ann-Margret back safely from the town of Snake's End to the mine of her prospector pa, Strother Martin. Her attempts to seduce him are invariably blocked by his monumental squareness. Trying again one night by the campfire, she purrs, "What do you have in mind?" Schwarzenegger looks momentarily puzzled, then eagerly replies, "You wanna hear some knock-knock jokes?"
"The Villain" is an ideal Western spoof for people who would gladly spend all night listening to knock-knock jokes.
In 1977 Needham made a triumphant jump from ace stuntman to ace commercial director by stylizing a live-action chase comedy. "Smokey and the Bandit," in ways that wittily recalled a Roadrunner cartoon. Last year Needham confirmed his flair for good-humored, unpretentious entertainment with "Hooper."
But where "Smokey" played like a happy, spontaneous accident, "Villian" plays like an academic exercise. Perhaps a little wonderstruck by his own success, Needham appears to be straining to reassure himself that he actually did what he thought he did a couple of years ago.
Ultimately, there's not much conviction behind the kidding of Western cliches that supposedly inspire the film's burlesque. Belatedly, the filmmakers seem to realize that they've made Schwarzenegger act like such a sap that it might be more appropriate to pair off Douglas and Ann-Margret. Unfortunately, the fadeout is a poor spot for a new start. The continuity also suffers from a sheer scarcity of funny situations. There's Douglas falling from a great height, being dragged along the ground, almost blowing himself up and being pursued by a papiermachie boulder. When these themes are exhausted, they're repeated less effectively a second and third time.
Needham is developing a bad habit of undermining the pictorial impact of stunt sequences by fragmentary depiction. Shifting angles arbitrarily, he deprives us of a comprehensive fluid image of the stunt itself. And while "Smokey" suggested a cartoon without resorting literally to cartoon trick effects, in "The Villain" Needham tries and fails to impose a gag that belongs to the cartoon realm of illus ion: Douglas paints a false tunnel entrance on the side of a mountain, Ann-Margret and Schwarzenegger drive their buckboard right through it, then Douglas can't get through it. The playful impulse behind this trick is ingratiating, but Needham hasn't established the humorous context that would allow him to get away with it.
Maybe Needham should consider straight Westerns or attempt a fresh entertainment in the brawling, rousing tradition of Gold Rush Westerns like "The Spoilers" and "North to Alaska." One of his best touches in "The Villain" is the recreation of a frontier main street so congested with traffic that crossing the street seems a high adventure.
Ruth Buzzi and Jack Elam have stepped right out of "The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again" to assume similar bit roles in "The Villain." Mel Tillis doubles as a stammering telegraph clerk and the Country & Western vocalist on the soundtrack. Paul Lynde does his enunchy shtik while costumed as an Indian chief mad for feathers and turquoise jewelry. Even Foster Brooks turns up to emit a few boozy hiccups. Somehow it doesn't come as a surprise to learn that the screenwriter, Robert C. Kane, has been earning his living writing for "Dean Martin's Celebrity Roasts." CAPTION: Picture, Kirk Douglas and Ann-Margret in "The Villain"