Home > Reviews > My Thoughts: A Shock to the System (1990)

My Thoughts: A Shock to the System (1990)


A Shock to the System, a pic about an under-appreciated ad man who sets out to exterminate everyone who serves as a roadblock on his path to success, is a fun watch, but little else.  The comedy is generally to my taste–pitch-black.  Michael Caine is, honestly, in one of his best five roles of all time.  Swoosie Kurtz, as his domineering wife, and Elizabeth McGovern, as a beauty at the ad agency where he works, are both fine.  Peter Reigert, as the youn’in whose destined to get the promotion Caine’s character deserves and yearns for, is quite funny.  So what’s missing?

After a second viewing, I’m certain that the script just doesn’t hold together.  There are brilliant scenes of dark comedy followed by pedestrian sequences of cat-and-mouse police games.  The ending, far too predictable, isn’t nearly as over-the-top as it should be.

I do know one thing, though:  nothing that goes wrong is Michael Caine’s fault.

Caine is a completely unique actor who can play any role, no matter how ludicrous, with an expression so debonair we know there is always more going on than meets the eye.  That’s why he’s consistently funny.

In A Shock to the System, Caine doesn’t start out as a conniving prick, just as he didn’t seem to be so sly in the opening frames of Sleuth.  He’s always been the guy in his office who treats secretaries nicely, despises layoffs, and is loyal to his superiors.  People wrongly think he‘s an easy mark.

But, he gets religion right quick.  His wife (Kurtz) is a miserable, materialistic bloodsucker obsessed with only her exercise bike and bitching and moaning about not having enough money to piss away on useless trinkets.  When Graham’s old boss takes (read: gets forced into) early retirement, he thinks he’s a shoe-in for the old man’s executive position.  Yet, his boss-to-be (Peter Reigert) is young, smarmy and ruthless–that is, he’s a perfect fit for the “promotion” Graham Marshall has been coveting for several years.  Graham’s then left out in the cold and scarily glum.

And murder is the only cure for his blues.

We enjoy Caine as an actor, and so, when he decides to go about killing all of those who stand in his way to the top, we cheer for him.  We cheer for him until the bitter end because he is simultaneously charming and sinister.  In the best scene in the film, after Graham figures out a way to off his wife with the use of a short-wired basement light fixture, the police call to inform him she’s left Earth for greener pastures.  His rapid response is pure genius.

Graham’s reaction, after being denied the promotion he thinks he deserves, is likewise brilliant–especially when he finds he’ll be sharing an office with his new boss‘s assistant.  The subtle humor of this scene and Caine’s tremendous outburst that follows contrast with his actions later in the picture that are too dramatic (and predictable).

At a certain point, the movie stops pushing the envelope comedically and becomes an average battle-of-the-intellects chase picture.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that things’ll become complicated by the appearance of a detective who, as played by Will Patton, is clearly no match for Graham Marshall in the brains department.


This glaring mistake in the handling of Patton‘s detective character kills the movie’s flow.  Because the cop is an obvious dope, a guy with a hard-on for crudely solving any sensational case that drifts across his desk, we know he lacks the chops to catch Graham.  If the ad-man’s killings themselves are hilarious and ingenious, the ways in which Graham avoids getting caught afterward are blah.

And his quick affair with McGovern’s character, while it has its moments, is likewise rushed.  She finds the skeletons in his closet all too quickly, thus making their romance minimally involving.  She seems very smart in a couple of scenes, but proves to be duller than Patton’s detective when it matters most.  When she tries to “fool” Graham and turn him in, she fails on a massive level.


Because it’s established midway through that Graham Marshall is the superior intellect in the picture, there’s never a question of whether he’ll get caught after that point.

Regardless of these shortcomings, there is one real reason to actually put this one in your Netflix queue: Michael Caine.   His acting rivals the work he did in films like Sleuth and Hannah and Her Sisters.  When he’s on screen, make a point of looking in his eyes.  In the opening minutes, there‘s a misty innocence as he tries to be the exec everyone loves.  But eventually, when he’s had just about enough of the climbing-the-corporate-ladder bullshit, it’s easy to see the Charles Manson lurking beneath his Don Draper ad-man persona.

At the end, we’ve had the biggest laughs while just looking at his face, or listening to his dry monologues.  The other jokes, the ones that are supposed to make us laugh the loudest, are sometimes less effective.

Worst of all, McGovern, Patton & Co. never come close enough to messing up Graham’s game, and that drains the picture of required suspense (and some humor).  It sucks to watch a movie that makes its lead character so quick and the rest of its cast so comparatively dense.  It’s a relatively good watch, but considering the talent involved, one can’t help but look at A Shock to the System as a missed opportunity.

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