Hopscotch (1980) is a curiosity: a spy picture in a fairly conventional mold, rendered almost single-handedly unique by the quirky, wobbly charms of Walter Matthau. Matthau stars as Miles Kendig, a wily, long in the tooth but highly competent field agent who finds himself on the shitlist of his short-sighted, vindictive chief, Myerson (Ned Beatty). Myerson pulls Kendig off his station in Germany, hoping to put his troublesome subordinate out to pasture in a DC desk job, but Kendig has other ideas. In a fit of rebeliion he shreds his own personnel file, hies off to Austria, and – with the help of his retired-spook girlfriend Isobel (Glenda Jackson) – resurrects his field career by going rogue. Specifically, he begins writing a memoir, and mailing it to intelligence agencies across the globe, one chapter at time, all the while threatening to publish. Determined to track Kendig down and put a stop to his reckless revelations, Myerson throws all the CIA’s resources into the chase. What follows is a globe-hopping game of cat and mouse, with the crafty, resourceful Kendig staying one step ahead of his incompetent superior, as well as pursuers more admiring.
For all its familiar, world-weary trappings, Hopscotch is refreshingly light-hearted for a spy film, thanks mainly to the spark in Matthau’s eye and the breezy, entertaining manner in which he carries off his vendetta. The twists and turns of the plot are often clever, and the international scenery is nicely filmed. Unfortunately, outside of Myerson’s inherent unlikeability, the motive for Kendig’s cheerful scheming is never adequately explained, so the plot feels like little more than an excuse for Matthau to do his thing. It’s casually amusing throughout and diverting for a while, but ultimately it’s much ado about not much, overstaying its welcome by a few crooked smiles and left turns.
Irritated side note: Netflix, as part of their strategy to ween subscribers away from physical discs, currently only offers Hopscotch via instant streaming. Fine by me, but unfortunately the version I streamed appears to have been a lame TV edit, profanities blatantly (and poorly) overdubbed, and who knows what else was changed. I hope Netflix hasn’t gotten all family-friendly on us, making only bastardized versions of certain movies available…I, for one, can totally handle the wrathful cursing of Ned Beatty.