Castor’s Underrated Gems- Volunteers (1985)

Tom Hanks. The man voted to be the most trustworthy man in America. If the World War III phone was by his bedside, the country could rest easy. Finding someone who actively dislikes Tom Hanks would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Err, then again….the late Gene Siskel in his review of ‘Bachelor Party’ called him “smug” and “unfunny”. Outside of that wildly controversial opinion, most people are in consensus that Hanks is a national treasure. But his string of powerhouse award winners wasn’t the wellspring from once he spawned.

In 1985, Hanks had concluded his screwball, transvestite run on “Bosom Buddies” and he was considered a comedic actor after ‘Splash’, ‘The Man with One Red Shoe’ and ‘Bachelor Party’. Before he earned respectability in the early 90’s, he was still jogging through consecutive farces. One of which is the subject of this article and one that isn’t fondly reminisced about. However, I’ll contend that it supersedes its middling plot with rat-a-tat zingers, side-splitting jabs at elitism versus philanthropy and chortling spoofs of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’.

If Siskel was referring to Hanks’ role as Lawrence Bourne III as smarmy and arrogant, that’s the intent. This isn’t the amiable Hanks we’re accustom to today. He’s a cavalier degenerate with a gambling vice and weakness for female seduction. In fact, Hanks’ innovation is a bourgeoisie Maine accent. He might as well be smoking a pipe by the fireplace while reading Forbes. However, as self-aggrandizing as Bourne is, Hanks can sling a droll, Catskills one-liner (To the thug about to pulverize him at graduation – “Please don’t leave. I want you to sign my yearbook.”) and he eventually thaws into an altruistic individual.

Director Nicholas Meyers isn’t lionized for his farcical wavelength and he doesn’t revolutionize the genre but he widens his scope for the actor’s buffoonery to play magnificently. He evens juggles back and forth between satire and outright parody (a superimposed map during a car chase results in Bourne piercing through a physical copy of it).

‘Volunteers’ also reteams Hanks with his ‘Splash’ co-star John Candy as the alliterative Tom Tuttle from Tacoma. At this point, Candy was polishing his loquacious-motormouth shtick (perfected by ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’) and he bounces off of Hanks’ dry wit supremely. One milestone for Hanks in this film is that it introduced him to his future bride Rita Wilson and their chemistry oozes from the screen even if their meet-cute on the plane finishes with a slap to the face of the chauvinistic Laurence.

Before he was a topic of idolatry, Hanks was an undeniably accomplished comic thespian. Only Hanks could be condescending about the Thailand natives not recognizing a hair comb and still deliver a chuckle. To this end, ‘Volunteers’ is vintage Hanks frivolity sans the Oscar buzz, it’s snappy and slaughters some sacred cows about the Peace Corps and who it attracts.

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