Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 10, 2003)
30 years ago, a movie about a massive terrorist attack on US soil probably sounded pretty far-fetched. Unfortunately, such a concept now seems far too real, and that factor should make 1976’s Black Sunday gripping and compelling. Unfortunately, the film largely fails to explore its subject in a satisfactory way.
Sunday starts in Beirut on November 12. We meet the members of a Palestinian terrorist organization called Black September. With Dahlia (Marthe Keller) in command, they plan a big attack on America, and she records a message that will run after this occurs. A disgruntled US military vet named Michael J. Lander (Bruce Dern) wants revenge on the US for their poor treatment of him after his experiences in Vietnam. He remains in America, so he’s not around when an Israeli counter-terrorist team led by Major Davis Kabakov (Robert Shaw) enters the Black September compound and takes out many of its members.
However, Dahlia survives and heads to America to continue the plan. Unfortunately for them, she couldn’t retrieve a tape recording she made that announced the plan, and Kabakov captures it. This gives him and his group some loose information about the plot, so he follows to the US to trail the terrorists.
The rest of the movie follows the plot. We see Dahlia and Lander attempt to bring things to fruition as they plan their attack on the Super Bowl at the end of January. Kabakov and his partner Robert Moshevsky (Steven Keats) try to figure out the identity of Dahlia and then find her and stop the plot.
Back when Black Sunday hit screens in 1976, I was nine and I recall I really wanted to see it. I used to love the disaster flicks that were all the rage at the time, and the film’s promos made it seem like it’d be an entry in that genre. I never was able to check out Sunday due to its rating; my parents figured nine was too young to take in an “R”-rated picture.
I doubt anything in Sunday would have corrupted my young mind too badly; the movie’s violence doesn’t seem especially traumatizing. However, I’m glad my parents didn’t let me see the flick just because it might well have bored me to death.
One might expect the current state of world affairs would make Sunday more tense and disturbing, but unfortunately, the film’s glacial pacing robs of it any power. Sunday is a fairly long movie, and it takes its own sweet time to go anywhere. The whole thing is essentially a cat and mouse chase, but both animals seem only barely interested in the pursuit, and the procedures move terribly slowly.
Really, it feels like the movie goes out of its way to extend things. Heck, the whole movie should have been nipped in the bud at the start. Kabakov corners Dahlia during that initial raid, but for reasons unknown, he lets her go. Shoot her there and that’s that!
But unfortunately, that would have made sense, and Sunday rarely displays any logic. Why’d Dahlia record a message in November that won’t air until the end of January? Solely so Kabakov can find it, to be truthful; there’s no sensible reason for this to occur in the real world. Many other artificial obstacles pop up along the way to draw out the chase, but these seem silly and pointless.
Even when the flick heads towards its big Super Bowl attack climax, it dawdles terribly. Director John Frankenheimer displays endless images of game-related activities for no apparent reason. Actually, I suppose he does this because they went to all that trouble to film at the real game so he wanted to make the most of the footage. That’s not a good reason for filmmaking purposes, and it causes the movie to drag terribly. Occasionally I started to fear we’d end up watching the entire football game, as Frankenheimer simply can’t tear the movie away from the contest.
There’s a good story at the heart of Black Sunday, but don’t expect to see it in this dull and tedious film. It moves exceedingly slowly and takes far too long to go anywhere. Even when it gets to that point, it fails to delve into its topic with any sense of urgency or tension. Too much of the movie seems obvious and the flick fails to ever become even moderately satisfying.