Believe it or not, the vogue for retro-Forties comic book capers that gave us Dick Tracy (1990), The Shadow (1995), The Phantom (1996) and arguably even Batman (1989), was prefigured by Brenda Starr, a modest effort shot in the late Eighties but not released till three years later due to legal wrangles. Based on the newspaper strip created by Dale Messick, this opens as artist Mike Randall (Tony Peck) grumbles about toiling on the glamorous heroine day after day. Sick of his abuse, Brenda Starr (Brooke Shields) promptly turns on her shocked artist (“Bug off, buster!”) and promptly disappears into her latest adventure.
It’s a promising start, one that intriguingly recalls the closing scene in Brooke’s finest movie Pretty Baby (1978) where her child heroine turns the gaze on her voyeur and proves she was in control all along. However, as you’ll soon see, the whole post-modern angle goes nowhere.
Caught in the middle of a violent shootout between cops and a mobster on the run, ace reporter Brenda Starr not only lands her big scoop, but bags the bad guy too. Much to the annoyance of arch-rival Libby Lips (Diana Scarwid). Shortly thereafter, Brenda’s editor Francis I. Livright (Charles Durning) introduces her to handsome, one-eyed secret agent Basil St. John (Timothy Dalton). While sparks fly between them, Basil brings word of an ex-Nazi scientist, Professor Gerhard Von Kreutzer (Henry Gibson), who claims to have invented a miraculous new fuel powerful enough send man into space. He offers to sell his formula to the highest bidder. Hoping to land the formula for the United States, and the story of course, Brenda jets off to the Amazon where she tangles with KGB agents, deadly mercenaries and killer piranhas. Meanwhile, Mike somehow enters his own comic book world, hoping to convince Brenda to return, and is swept into her zany adventure.
One of the first comic strip heroines to be created by a woman, and still drawn by female artists to this day, Brenda Starr first reached the silver screen in the serial Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945) starring Joan Woodbury. Bond girl Jill St. John played her in a short-lived television series in 1976, followed by a failed TV pilot in 1979 starring former child star turned glamorous pinup girl Sherry Jackson. Shot in vibrant primary colours by Hammer veteran and ace cinematographer Freddie Francis, this incarnation of Brenda Starr suffers from static direction and a nonsensical plot that swiftly lapses into a series of frantic chases. Robert Ellis Miller was actually quite an accomplished filmmaker, with the affecting drama The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968) and the unjustly forgotten Hawks (1988) - which features one of Timothy Dalton’s finest performances - to his credit, but he seems ill at ease with such comic book material.
Which is a shame since Brooke Shields gives one of her more appealing performances as the feisty, flame-haired reporter who plays piano with President Truman (Ed Nelson), breaks hearts wherever she goes and has a hardboiled put down for every bad guy. Clad in outlandish costumes by Bob Mackie, she catches the tone pretty well and is ably supported by a suavely sardonic Timothy Dalton. No stranger to over-the-top comic book movies after he stole the show in Flash Gordon (1980), Dalton displays a deft comic touch but the film wastes similarly committed performances from Diana Scarwid, Charles Durning, Eddie Albert as a clichéd Irish police chief and Kathleen Wilhoite as Brenda’s tomboyish gal pal.
As many gags fall flat as hit their mark, but there is a certain playfulness and good natured innocence to the film that appeals. However, the inclusion of whiny Mike marks a misstep. The theme of an artist falling in love with his creation is interesting, but as written and played Mike is entirely charmless, making a nuisance of himself and encouraging Brenda to swear more so she’ll “loosen up.” When he demands she choose between him and St. John, frankly the outcome was never in doubt. Action wise it’s not up to scratch but a memorable sequence where Brenda surfs on a pair of crocodiles does amuse.