Dir. by Michael Ritchie - 1 hr. 35 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
Fletch may live, but save Chevy Chase playing the lead character, this film doesn't have a ton in common with the first film. And the things that it does share, I kind of wish that it didn't. "Fletch Lives" is a sequel to "Fletch," and carries over having the main character dressing up in disguise and giving outlandish names, as well as a tone that undermines the detective story angle of the films.
We find Fletch (Chevy Chase) in the middle of another undercover investigation, this time in an Italian restaurant that appears to be funneling mob money (these things aren't very clear, nor is the reason why Fletch, a writer for a Los Angeles newspaper, is doing the sort of thing that the police ought to be doing). After getting the evidence he needs and returning to the office, Fletch discovers that he's inherited an estate in Louisiana from a long-lost relative. He immediately quits and heads south to claim his property. Unfortunately, he finds himself under pressure and in the middle of some larger plan designed to separate Fletch from his property.
Good detective series make you want to return to a specific world, and having completely failed to establish a world that anyone would want to re-visit in the first installment, most of "Fletch Lives" is set in a small Louisiana town. This is a step in the right direction - at least, this provides a cast of very specific characters to play off of that don't require a lot of explanation. Although Los Angeles could provide the same, that wasn't taken advantage of in the first film. Here, before Fletch even at Belle Isle, he has a "Song of the South"-type dream sequence while flying there, complete with animated animals. Once in Louisiana, there's a band of inept Ku Klux Klan members, slow-talking, gentlemanly lawyers, good ol' boys, lazy help, bikers, holy rollers... everything you'd find in a Lego "Southern Living" starter kit. That's okay, this is slightly more comedy than detective story, so comedic tropes help out matters.
Also, "Fletch Lives" takes a half-step in the right direction regarding the tone of the film. It's still not successful, and I think that Chase's portrayal of Fletch as just becoming a little more dickish when under pressure doesn't work, but the other characters have a little more room to breathe. A couple of them actually get the chance to run with the ball - R. Lee Ermey plays Reverend Jimmy Lee Farnsworth (a Jim Bakker stand-in, and released the same year as "Full Metal Jacket," which blows my mind), and Randall "Tex" Cobb plays a hirsute thug who introduces himself by letting Fletch know that he's in jail for "molesting a dead horse." And Cleavon Little has a decent role as the apparently dim-witted Calculus Entropy. The Fletch character plays a lot better when people are able to either play along or against him, and it's a shame that nobody figured that out until film #2 in the series. Also, by embracing a running joke (the brakes on Fletch's inherited pink Cadillac don't work, so he always ends up stopping by running into something inanimate), it's clearer that we're meant to laugh (and not take Fletch's seeming unawareness of danger at face value).
I think that "Fletch Lives" is a better film than "Fletch." The funniest material is light years ahead of the highs of the first film (the Bibleland material in particular), and I wasn't as actively annoyed by the problems with the second film, either. But it's still not a good film. As a comedy, it's okay at best, and as a detective story, there's little suspense. I don't know if it's a script issue or an acting issue, but the fact that Chase as Fletch never seems the slightest bit concerned about whatever is hanging over his head doesn't play as a devil-may-care attitude, it simply undercuts all dramatic tension (and not in service of anything else more important, either). If a guy's got the opportunity to dress up as a maid or with false teeth, why would an audience care about anything, either? Fletch clearly doesn't take anyone else seriously, but in a way that removes the villains' fangs. Seeing as how both director and star made the same mistake in two films running, it looks more like a mutual inability to tell this sort of story than a fluke.
2 / 5 - TV