A Shock To The System (1990) – A Review


A review of the 1990 black comedy A Shock To The System, starring Michael Caine, Elizabeth McGovern, Peter Riegert, Will Patton and Swoosie Kurtz

A Shock To The System 1990 Michael Caine John McMartin

Marketing man Graham Marshall (Michael Caine) feels trapped in an ever-increasing mundane life and the vigor that he once possessed is seeping away.

His wife Swoosie Kurtz has become an annoying burden to him, the suburban life he lives feels like a trap and he battles younger co-workers in the dog eat dog corporate structure. The only solace he has is a much longed for promotion to give him a much needed spark. But that spark is extinguished when Graham loses out his expected promotion to younger Peter Riegret, who has eyes to push the middle-aged Graham out to pasture, much like what has happened to his contemporary and friend John McMartin.

Graham’s attitude gets a surprising boost when he accidentally kills a homeless man in the subway. Fearing the repercussions of such a horrible act, he discovers the much needed sense of reinvigoration he craves when he faces no consequences for the death.

He then gets a very nefarious idea. He begins to plan how to eliminate all the obstacles that stand in the way of the life he wants. His magical powers of manipulation and invincibility soon wash over him as he executes deadly plots against those that are the cause of his misery. He becomes reenergized, manages to romance younger co-worker Elizabeth McGovern and makes his much deserved climb up the corporate ladder.

The only worry he has is will anyone find out is that he’s managing his dramatic life change through murder. 

A Shock To The System is a terrific movie! I originally saw it back on HBO. It had a very brief theatrical run and got most of its exposure from cable airings. Since then it has gotten lost in the shadows of Caine’s more popular and award-winning films and has become a bit of a hidden gem. It deserves much more attention than it’s gotten.

Michael Caine Peter Regent A Shock To The System 1990 black comedyDirected by Jan Egleson, it’s an extremely dark comedy that doesn’t shy away from what it wants to be. It doesn’t worry about having unlikable characters or getting on the side of murderer. It’s got touches of cynicism, some criminal activity hits the right tone and atmosphere, is wickedly funny and has a stellar performance by Caine at the center of it. I rewatched it a bunch of times back when it first hit HBO and ever since seeing it it has become one of my favorite films Caine has done and what I think is one of his best performances.

He’s cold, calculating, put upon, depressed, seething, trapped, vindictive, repressed, sarcastic, jealous… Caine is absolutely terrific in this!

I’m not going to get into the details of how Caine manages his makeover or how exactly he begins his series of eliminations and keeps his hands clean – a lot of the fun is to see how he disposes of his albatrosses. I will say that it’s gratifying to watch and you start to get as much joy as he does watching and hoping he can get away with all his nefarious acts. Despite being a murderer you feel as much delight as Caine does as he tries to hide his satisfied smile.

As we listen to Graham’s inner thoughts and he learns everything he wants is within reach by only committing some murders, he embraces his magical touch of being a powerful sorcerer. “The world has become his oyster. Now he was about to pry it open.” His life-force returns to him in full.

The film doesn’t generate much sympathy for Kurtz or Riegert. Some of the scenes they share with Caine that reinforce the deserved antagonism they’ve earned from him are beautifully done. There are very passive aggressive acts and flippant remarks that quickly get you on Caine’s side and are looking at them with the same narrow deadly eyes as he does.

Michael Caine Swoosie Kurtz A Shock To The System 1990They’re also extremely funny scenes! Caine begins a slow boil that you can’t wait to erupt and see him get some payback.

After losing his promotion, rather than being supportive and being empathetic, the best Kurtz’s money-loving wife can muster to him is, “Graham, I forgive you for failing.”

Ouch! It’s no wonder Caine unleashes his plan to dispose of her.

As he devises a way to get his much deserved promotion and unseat Riegert, the now recently widowed Graham begins a relationship with co-worker McGovern. She initially likes him because she believes he’s much kinder and humane than the others at the company. Little does she know she’ll provide a perfect alibi for him.

With most films that have stories about crime, there are some unexpected loose ends Caine leaves dangling that jeopardize his flawless plans, casts suspicion on himself and gets detective Will Patton to look a bit more closely at what’s going on than what Graham wants. 

Michael Caine in A Shock To The System 1990 black comedy murder crimeRewatching it and re-experiencing the 80s/90’s corporate setting with its dog eat dog cut throat corporate story that were used in many films, but few as effective here. It gets so darn fun as it escalates to simple business manuevering to murder. The movie almost has a film noir quality to it with the growing house of cards of risks Caine takes and the corner he finds himself blocked into in the last act. All those venetian blinds in the office also helps with a film noir mood too. This would probably make a good companion piece to American Psycho.

A Shock To The System is one of my favorite films Caine has done. I don’t often see it get played much anywhere I think it’s wonderful little gem of a movie. Maybe it was too ahead of its time and that’s how it didn’t get much attention. Or maybe many were put off by the comical dark streak the film has. It’s time for folks to rediscover this!

The whole cast is great, it’s very funny, it balances the dark tone perfectly. If you never saw it or are completely unfamiliar with it take a chance, find it and watch it! It’s a terrific dastardly movie! 

And you’ll get to see Caine in one of his best roles! 



Here’s an amusing compilation of clips of Caine raging in A Shock To The System

Caine seemed to really enjoy himself playing the role

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