It’s hard to believe that there was once a time in cinematic history that Viper was deemed fit for theatrical release. The film fits into a weird place in both cinematic and American history. At the height of the Cold War and amidst a presidential election that ended up going to the Republicans, Viper pits a housewife against the United States government and a vast, poorly fleshed out conspiracy. However, it isn’t just the content that makes it surprising that Viper ever graced the big screen, it’s the execution as well.
Linda Purl does her best to sell the audience on a silly premise, but there’s nothing that can be done to save the film. A personal favorite moment of the film is after her husband’s car is engulfed in flame, all Laura Macalla can think to do is run circles around the car, squealing. What feels as though it should be heartwrenching is rendered ridiculous by poor direction and an ever poorer script.
At the heart of most of my issues with Viper is the sorry excuse for a screenplay. While it’s hard to be too inventive about such a tired genre as the spy film, Viper doesn’t even try. Where certain spy films embrace the clichés and are better for it, such as True Lies, Viper relies far too heavily on them to even pass itself off as satire or anything substantial. In the end, what could have easily been a smart CIA thriller ends up being more of an insult to the audience than anything else.
An example of this sort of disregard for the audience’s intelligence can be found with the villains themselves. Although introduced in the opening sequence, their ne’er-do-well outlook isn’t established until they double cross James Macalla, our protagonist’s husband. When they arrive at the funeral, they are all donning dark sunglasses, despite the fact that it is an obviously overcast day. The only way director Peter Maris could have made their dubiousness more obvious was if they had large mustaches that they could twirl maniacally as Macalla is lowered into his grave.
Unfortunately, the faults of Viper, clearly on display in the opening scenes, are not lessened by time. Instead, the movie seems to tread further and further into the depths of wannabe thrillers of yesteryear. While some people may enjoy the allure of Viper’s “awesomely bad” take on the spy film, the lack of character development and the overuse of clichés stop it from achieving even an honorary cult status. By the end of its 90-some minute running time, I found myself wishing I’d just rewatched the pilot of Alias instead.