Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider) has quite the comfortable lifestyle as a successful businessman, married to a potential Los Angeles Assistant D.A. Barbara (Ann-Margret), and enjoying the diversion of a mistress for the past few months. But model Cini (Kelly Preston) is not all she seems, and when he goes to see her at the apartment he has set up as a love nest with her, Harry has a nasty surprise. Seconds after walking through the front door, there is a gun at his head and he is politely ordered to sit and watch this video presentation someone has made for him, revealing his activities for blackmail purposes...
Elmore Leonard may have written countless books and sold even more, but his legions of fans had their reservations about the films which adapted his work, accusing them of not being as faithful as they would like. For 52 Pick-Up, this was actually the second adaptation of the novel, the first one being the Cannon plea for religious tolerance The Ambassador which featured a lesser amount of the Leonard original when it became more distracted by Arab-Israeli relations. Evidently seeing a chance to get maximum value out of the property, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, leaders of the company, hired the writer for a more exacting version.
The results did not satisfy everyone, but for a Leonard adaptation in the eighties it was better than it had any right to be, and much of that was down to the curious mix of the slick and glossy and the outright sleazy that director John Frankenheimer conjured up, a tone that might have planted this right down in the middle of this decade, but for many that was the appeal. Helping were a collection of very fine performances, with the trio of villains a vividly offbeat selection of individuals, willing to go as far as they could to secure one hundred and five thousand dollars from Mitchell, split evenly between them - a plot point which Mitchell utilises to his advantage.
He doesn't want to go to the police, you see, and his bending over backwards to prevent the law finding out the actual nature of his troubles offers much of the impetus for keeping watching. He does tell his wife he's been having an affair (a very well-acted scene), but when it comes to handing over the cash he gives the bad guys a bunch of newspapers, fooling them and raising their ire. Is Mitchell incredibly stupid or is his determination to hold onto what he has now someone wants to take it away from him actually very admirable? That's a question which preys on the mind as the plot unfolds, and no matter how this is resolved those uncertainties linger in a work which bravely follows its logic to an inescapable conclusion.
Not that it looks like that before the conclusion arrives, as while Scheider could be many an ageing tough guy actor hired by Cannon during their heyday, here whether he's taken leave of his senses or not brings about tension. As for those evildoers, each has a memorable quirk which lifts this out of by the numbers thrillers: Robert Trebor is the scuzzy but increasingly nervous strip club owner, Clarence Williams III is a particularly scary psychopath (watch for the teddy bear scene) and John Glover, the ringleader, a weirdly affected but undeniably sinister pornographer who considers Mitchell's personal fortune just the thing to see him through lean years to come. But their target is just as devious, and after seeing their snuff video featuring Cini he makes up his mind to outwit them by playing one off the other. Also appearing was Vanity, quite a way from The Last Dragon, and indulging in some of the plentiful nudity (actual porn stars show up too), another example of the seedy tone. But this is surprisingly, if ambiguously, effective. Music by Gary Chang.