"Target" depends on a few sleights of hand, all transparent; so transparent that you quickly forget about what's wrong with the movie and focus on its strengths -- particularly a quirky, adventurous performance by Gene Hackman.
You find Hackman playing Walter Lloyd, living a quiet life in a Dallas lumberyard. He drives slowly in a late-model four-door; his son Chris (Matt Dillon) drives fast on a motorcycle. "Mom, we don't have that much in common anymore," Chris says to Mom (Gayle Hunnicutt). Urging the pair to bridge the generation gap, she flies off to Paris, where she is kidnaped.
Well, it turns out that Lloyd is not what he seems -- he's a spy who, years earlier, came in from the cold -- which doesn't come as any surprise. Gene Hackman a hardware salesman? Likewise, there's no surprise in finding that the girl who seduces Dillon turns out to be an enemy agent (in these movies, they always are), nor that Josef Sommer, as CIA agent Taber, is dealing from the bottom of the deck (by now, Sommer has become a kind of pure signifier of smarmy duplicity).
Much of the movie, in other words, rides on surprises that misfire; and much is just plain cliche'. German Spy No. 1 ("the Colonel") draws alternatively from an oxygen tank and a Russian cigarette; German Spy No. 2 ("Schroeder") doodles around in a wheelchair. And while there's no German Spy No. 3, I'm quite sure he would have an artificial arm.
Still, as long as we're stuck with something like Schroeder, it might as well be charismatic Herbert Berghof, a Viennese-born acting coach -- with his pale-fiery eyes and the crags in his face folding like a rock face in Monument Valley, he looks like one of the puppets from "The Neverending Story," and roars like one, too.
Likewise, the chases are hardly new, but rarely so neatly photographed (by Jean Tournier) or crisply edited (by Stephen Rotter and Richard Cirincione). And director Arthur Penn occasionally comes up with a striking image: Schroeder is introduced simply by his voice, as it echoes in a greenhouse (not usually a forbidding place); only slowly does he roll out of the darkness.
Penn makes supernatural demands on Dillon, shooting him in "60 Minutes"-style tight close-ups, giving him maudlin speeches that wouldn't fit in anyone's mouth -- no wonder he looks ridiculous. Dillon's best when he's almost goofy, worst when he whines; here, he whines. We're more than compensated, though, by Hackman, who has developed into one of the craftiest (and most craftsmanlike) of leading men. Hackman's growl sounds like a garbage disposal at full throttle; he has a touch of the spud-like physiognomy of W.C. Fields, and at the outset (while his secret is still his), there's something almost Fieldsian in his little waves and cheese-eating grins.
Once he returns to Europe, his old CIA stomping grounds, though, Hackman has to play both an action hero and a father (he's toting Dillon along); one's hard, the other warm, and that Hackman's able to do both convincingly, and seamlessly, is no small accomplishment. I've never seen an actor tuck so many attitudes into the wrinkles around his eyes.
Target, opening today at area theaters, is rated R and contains nudity, sexual situations, considerable violence and some profanity.