The Film: The Ref (1994) Buy it from CHUD!
The Principles: Ted Demme (Director). Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis, Richard Bright, Raymond J. Barry, Glynis Johns, Robert J. Steinmiller Jr., J.K. Simmons, Christine Baranski, Adam LeFevre, B.D. Wong, etc.
The Premise: When a down-on-his-luck criminal gets more than he bargained for when he takes a family hostage on Christmas Eve.
Is It Good?: No, it’s GREAT. Gus (Denis Leary) is a burglar in the midst of scoring big when we drop in on him at the start. He breaks into a mansion’s safe and starts pilfering the jewels. Naturally, things don’t go well. In a desperate attempt to escape, he holds a woman at gunpoint in a convenience store. They go back to her car where her husband is waiting and Gus demands that they all go back to the couples’ home. Unbeknownst to Gus, at least for a short amount of time, this couple (Spacey, Davis) are going through severe marital issues. Even at gunpoint, they are screaming at each other about inane shit in the car. It’s really no wonder he doesn’t shoot them, but then we wouldn’t have a movie, now would we?
What follows from here on out is an onslaught of familial arguments that Gus is forced to mediate while he waits for the heat to die down and his partner to contact him with an escape route. Things get even more complicated when their delinquent son arrives and it is revealed that the husband’s family is en route for dinner. Long story short, Gus keeps the son tied up on the second floor as an insurance policy and is passed off downstairs to the rest of the family as an unconventional marriage counselor.
Why is it excellent? The cast and the writing. Leary, Davis, Spacey, and Johns (as Spacey’s mother) are the obvious standouts, but there really isn’t a weak performance to be found among the core cast. As for the writing? Do you have family members who you love, but just irritate the ever-living shit out of you on a regular basis during the holidays? Do you ever wish you could just cut loose on them and tell them how you really feel, cutting through all of the bullshit and lies? This is your film. Leary gets to say everything you have always wanted to and eventually the rest of the cast fall in line as well.
In addition to the core story, we also get some side sequences involving the aforementioned delinquent son and the inept police force. It seems the spawn of our “loving” couple has blackmail thing going on with one of the instructors (Simmons) at his military school involving said teacher in…compromising photos. As for the fuzz? This is a small town where virtually nothing happens. While the inept deputies seem to appreciate this, their bored leader (Barry) seems rather irritated by this…but not as much as he is with the seemingly-stuck up community he is charged with protecting. Basically, he couldn’t give two shits about catching anyone.
Is It Worth A Look?: I have yet to come across someone who doesn’t at least casually enjoy The Ref. Most seem to love it and rightfully so. It is one of my all-time favorite comedies and I always revisit it this time of year. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better Christmas-themed film to unwind with during all of the holiday madness that we all experience in various different ways.
Random Anecdotes: The original ending involved Gus turning himself in, but it tested badly with audiences so they reshot it. Ted Demme later admitted that he regretted this decision.
Demme and Leary chose this project after working well together on Leary’s stand-up film, No Cure For Cancer.
This was the first film to come out of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer’s production deal with Disney.
It goes by the title Hostile Hostages in some countries.
Cinematic Soulmates: Ruthless People (1986), Judgment Night (1993), Bad Santa (2003), and Horrible Bosses (2011).