Vice Squad

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1982

Embassy Pictures

Directed by Gary Sherman

Produced by Frank Capra, Jr./Brian Frankish/Frank Hildebrand/Sandy Howard/Robert Rehme

Written by Sandy Howard/Robert Vincent O’Neill/Kenneth Peters/Gary Sherman

Let’s be upfront about one thing right at the start of this review: there’s not a single thing original about the plot of VICE SQUAD. I’m willing to bet you that this same plot was used at least once by every single police and/or detective show during the 1970s and 1980s. Oh, they’d change it around some. Instead of a psycho hunting down a prostitute it would be a blind girl. Or a little black boy from the ghetto. Or an old man still grieving for his wife. And I do believe that there was an episode of “Hunter” which starred Fred Dryer as a Dirty Harry knock-off which was a loose remake of this movie. In fact, I further believe that Wings Hauser played a tamer version of his Ramrod character in that episode. But I’m working off memory here so don’t quote me, hear?

VICE SQUAD is one of those goofy 1980s movies that I had forgotten about until my friend Christofer Nigro recommend I watch it and about twenty minutes in I realized that I had seen this movie way back in the day in a 42end Street grindhouse. And it was the nuclear-hot performance of Wings Hauser that reignited those memories. And I’ll explain why in a couple hundred words. let’s get the obligatory plot summary out of the way first.

L.A.P.D. Vice Squad detective Tom Walsh (Gary Swanson) as his team are hot on the trail of Ramrod (Wings Hauser) a psychotic pimp known for his vicious treatment of the girls in his stable. Ramrod’s specialty in administering punishment involves a coat hanger and I’m not gonna go any further describing what he does with it. But he’s never killed a girl. Until now. Ginger (Nina Blackwood and yes, it’s that Nina Blackwood) calls her friend and sister prostitute Princess (Season Hubley who was still Mrs. Kurt Russell when she made this movie) for help. Ramrod is looking for her and she knows good and damn well what he’s going to do when he finds her. Princess advises her to stay low and stay out of sight until she can get to Ginger.

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When Princess does get to Ginger she’s in the morgue and Walsh isn’t happy about that. He’s even less happy that the uncatchable Ramrod has killed her. But he makes a deal with Princess. If she’ll wear a wire and record Ramrod saying something, anything incriminating, he won’t throw Princess in the slammer on bogus drug charges. And in the space of a couple of hours, Princess has indeed performed his mission and Ramrod is arrested and on his way to the hoosegow.

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I should mention here that events in this movie happen awfully damn fast. That’s because the events play out in what I think is roughly a 12-hour span of time from 6PM to 6AM. This is a movie that demands you keep up with what’s happening on the screen because it sure ain’t gonna slow down for you. Ramrod escapes from police custody with an easy savagery and then proceeds to go a horrendously violent hunt for Princess to exact revenge. Hunt is a mild term for what Ramrod does. He’s got the single-mindedness of a Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees married to the bloodlust of a Klingon grafted onto the survival instincts of a Comanche. Walsh and his team have to find Princess before Ramrod does but you get the definite feeling they’re fighting way out of their weight class.

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And that’s due to the performance of Wings Hauser. This is the performance that led to him playing whackos for the next two decades and its his own fault because he was so doggone outstanding doing it in this movie. Ramrod is a psycho but he’s even more dangerous because he’s a smart psycho. Combine that with his extraordinary animal cunning and he makes for a formidable adversary. And he steals the movie because it’s way more interesting watching Ramrod in his hunt for Princess than the cops hunting for him because we never know what this guy is gonna do next but we don’t want to miss a second of him doing it, whatever batshit insane thing it turns out to be.

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The rest of the acting in the movie is nothing to write home about. Season Hubley was never an actress that did much for me. She’s okay and that’s about it. Look for Fred “Rerun” Berry in a cameo and and our buddy Pepe Serna (from “Scarface” and “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai”) is here as one of Walsh’s team. And it’s too bad Walsh’s team wasn’t given more characterization as visually they’re an interesting crew and by giving them more quirky personalities and skills they might have presented more formidable opponents for Ramrod. But as given to us the way they are, they really don’t seem to present much of a threat to him.

VICE SQUAD, from left: Lydia Lei, Kelly Piper, 1982. ©Avco Embassy

So should you see VICE SQUAD? I would highly recommend it. It’s a fine example of 1980s exploitation trash that so joyously revels in it’s own sleaze, scuzz and seediness. It’s not a pretty picture and it’s not supposed to be. But if does have that terrific Wings Hauser performance and some really tight directing from Gary Sherman that insures you will not be bored. I’ve provided a link below where you can watch it on YouTube and my recommendation is that you save it for a Friday or Saturday night and make it your Midnight Movie then. Enjoy.

tick…tick…tick

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1970

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Directed by Ralph Nelson

Produced by James Lee Barrett and Ralph Nelson

Written by James Lee Barrett

tick…tick…tick was made 46 years ago and if we were as truly as enlightened and progressive a society as we like to believe we are then we would look at this movie today and be horrified that once upon a time Americans of one skin color treated other Americans with different skin color in such disgracefully disgusting ways. tick…tick…tick would be looked upon and regarded as a quaint cultural artifact depicting a period of American history that no longer exists. The fact is that the issues at the heart of tick…tick…tick are issues that are still unresolved and still being dealt with in 2016 says something about our society and us a human beings, I think. First and foremost, its entertainment, one with a solid story backed up by good performances. But it’s also got something to say about America in 1970 and what it says still resonates today.

Sheriff John Little (George Kennedy) of Colusa County, Mississippi is working his last day on the job. He lost the last election to Jim Price (Jim Brown) who is going to take over as Colusa’s first black sheriff. The white citizens of Colusa aren’t making Little’s last day easy for him, either. He’s regarded with contempt by them, most of whom he’s grown up with. They think he should have fought harder to keep his job. Indeed, the town’s leading racist and most powerful citizen, D. J. Rankin (Clifton James) tells Little that if Little had decided to ignore the lawful results of the election and keep his position, the local chapter of the KKK would have supported him. But Little doesn’t want that. At heart he’s a good man who believes in the law. He turns over his badge, gun and office to Price and settles down to live the life of a retired man of leisure.

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Jim Price isn’t having a smooth transition to his new job. The white deputies who worked for Little refuse to work for a black man and quit. One of them (played by the always dependable Don Stroud) even attempts to goad Price into a gunfight by not turning in his gun and wearing it openly around town, saying he wants to be the first white man in the South to shoot a black sheriff dead. Price’s wife, Julia (Janet MacLachlin) hates the whole thing and in her mind has already counted her husband as being dead and buried. The town mayor (Fredric March) flat out tells Price to not do anything or make any decisions without clearing it with him first.

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But Price goes ahead and makes a decision when a six year old white girl is killed by a drunk driver. The driver, John Braddock (Bob Random) is the son of the most powerful men in the neighboring county and has every confidence that his father will get him out. By force if necessary. The senor Braddock does come to the Colusa jail and tries to order Price to let his son out and is turned away. He vows to return with an army.

With no other recourse left to him, Price has to reluctantly accept Little’s help and accepts him as his deputy. The two men now have to work together to try and persuade the black and white citizens of Colusa to stand together with them to see that justice is done.

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tick…tick…tick was directed by Ralph Nelson who directed one of my favorite westerns; “Duel at Diablo” and what the two movies share in common is the theme of men who don’t like each other being forced to work together. It was written by James Lee Barrett who adapted the movie “In The Heat of The Night” for television and tick…tick…tick does share a lot of themes with that movie. They’d make for a great double feature for home viewing.

Jim Brown holds the center of the movie in that way that only Jim Brown can. Whenever he’s in a scene he owns that scene, no doubt about it. But the acting honors here are shared by George Kennedy and Clifton James. George Kennedy was actually a much better actor than he gets credit for and tick…tick…tick is a good showcase for his talents. And it’s such a shame that Clifton James is always remembered as the buffoonish J.W. Pepper from the James Bond movies “Live And Let Die” and “The Man With The Golden Gun.” He’s actually extraordinarily good in dramatic roles and in this one he hangs in the background for much of the movie, projecting quiet menace. His character is the type of man who because he wields so much power he doesn’t have to go around saying or doing much. Because when he does speak or move, it means something. Fredric March has a terrific scene where he invites his black butler of eighteen years to come into his study, share a brandy with him and talk honestly about the relationship they’ve had. It’s a scene that’s not only funny but powerful because it’s rooted in the truth of their respective places in their society as a black man and a white man. Bernie Casey is also in this one in a small but pivotal role and it’s always enjoyable to watch him work on screen. Especially with Jim Brown and I only wish they had done more film work together.

Although the movie ends on a hopeful note it also acknowledges that the racial issues it has explored are not solved. 46 years later they’re still not solved and that what makes tick…tick…tick still relevant. It’s not light entertainment but it is a movie that is absolutely worth your time to watch.

100 Minutes

Rated G

Be advised that The ‘N’ Word is used casually and extensively in this movie by both white and black characters. So if you’re sensitive to its use in a fictional narrative don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Hell Or High Water

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2016

Sidney Kimmel Entertainment/OddLot Entertainment/CBS Films Lionsgate

Directed by David Mackenzie

Produced by Sidney Kimmel/Peter Berg/Gigi Pritzker

Written by Taylor Sheridan

Don’t let the fact that the bank robbers, the lawmen and the posse in HELL OR HIGH WATER pack semi-automatic handguns instead of six shooters or that they drive supercharged pickup trucks instead of riding horses trick you. It’s very much a Western. And as its set in West Texas it’s got Texas Rangers. And far as I’m concerned, any movie that has Texas Rangers in it qualifies as a Western. End of discussion.

The Howard brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) go on what at first looks like a spur-of-the-moment bank robbing spree. Nothing could be further from the truth. Toby has a meticulous plan in mind that he insists has to be followed to the letter if the brothers are going to accomplish their goal. Their mother has died recently, leaving their ranch in debt.  Due to a reverse mortgage, the bank will foreclose on their ranch in a week. Oil has recently been discovered on the land and Toby’s plan is to pay it off and give the ranch, land and oil to his sons.

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The plan involves robbing the very bank that holds their mortgage and using their own money to pay them. In order to avoid the dye packs hidden in stacks of banknotes the brothers only take the loose bills. This means that they’ll have to hit all seven branches of the bank in order to get enough money to pay the bank off. Once they hit a couple of branches they drive to Oklahoma to lauder the money at an Indian casino. This allows them to not only exchange the money for untraceable bills but gives them a plausible reason for how they acquired the money.

There are two things wrong with this scheme: a pair of Texas Rangers. Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is a few weeks away from retirement and not looking forward to it a bit. Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) is his long suffering partner who endures Hamilton’s good-natured racist ribbing of his Native American/Mexican heritage with a weary stoicism no doubt cultivated from years of working with the man. They catch the case and begin a quietly methodical pursuit of the bank robbers.

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Despite Toby’s insistence that they follow the plan and that nobody gets hurt, Tanner takes more and more increasingly risky chances and his violent streak, nurtured by a ten year bid in the joint begins to take over. And Toby begins to wonder if he can keep his brother on a short enough leash to keep somebody from getting killed until this is all over.

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The exceptional thing about HELL OR HIGH WATER is how quickly it gets you on the side of the Howard brothers. Yeah, they’re bank robbers but they’re robbing banks. And who really likes banks, right? I liked how the movie spends a considerable amount of time letting us just hang out with the brothers as they sit on the porch of their ranch, drinking beer and talking or eating breakfast in a diner. I loved one scene in particular where the brothers are just horsing around, wrestling and chasing each other and for a brief moment you can see the innocent, carefree boys that they were long ago.

The movie holds down the sermonizing on the state of financial institutions and their relationship with Americans but it manages to make its point. The people who live in this movie are people who have no illusions about The American Dream. There are a couple of monologues delivered by a waitress (Katy Mixon) and by Alberto that sums up pretty much the state of affairs that defines their world. They’re short scenes but powerful ones. And director David Mackenzie has a couple of scenes, including one involving customers at a bank branch, all who are armed, forming into an impromptu posse that I’m convinced are statements on American gun culture.

Chris Pine long ago proved in movies such as “Unstoppable” “Horrible Bosses 2” and “Into The Woods” that he doesn’t have to worry about a career after he’s done with “Star Trek.” Toby Howard, despite the fact that he’s been straight as an arrow all his life, turns out to be a far better criminal than his brother. Pine works at creating a character here and he pulls it off. Don’t look for any traces of James T. Kirk here. You won’t find it. Ben Foster provides most of the movie’s humor and is a refreshingly unpredictable element. We’re watching Tanner intensely because just like Toby, we don’t know what he’s going to do next and we don’t want to miss a second of whatever this lunatic decides to do.

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Jeff Bridges is terrific as usual. When has Jeff Bridges not been terrific? He’s been so good for so long that I think there’s a tendency to take him for granted. The scenes between him and Gil Birmingham is a sort of mirror of the relationship between Tanner and Toby. These Texas Rangers have worked together for so long that in a very real way they’re brothers themselves.

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Should you see HELL OR HIGH WATER? Absolutely. It’s a Western. It’s a Crime Thriller. It’s a Heist Movie. And joining all these genres together is meticulous characterization and solid social commentary that makes it point without beating you over the head. Beautifully photographed and wonderfully acted, HELL OR HIGH WATER is one of the best movies of the year.

102 Minutes

Rated R

 

Electra Glide In Blue

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United Artists/MGM

1973

Directed by James William Guercio

Produced by James William Guercio/Rupert Hitzig

Screenplay by Robert Boris

Story by Robert Boris/Rupert Hitzig

You ever see a movie that you watched more than once simply because you can’t figure out if you like it or not? That’s how I feel about ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE. I’ve seen it maybe four or five times over the years. Most recently on the MGM HD Movie Channel after about five years and I’m still as conflicted now as I was the previous times I’ve seen it. And I honestly don’t know why. I like the performances and the story. The cinematography by Conrad Hall is gorgeous. Most of the movie was filmed in Monument Valley where John Ford filmed most of his classic westerns. Director James William Guercio (who was also producer of the band Chicago) calls the movie a modern Western, which is fine by me ‘cause I like Westerns.

It’s one of those movies where a murder kick starts the plot but nobody actually seems very concerned about solving the murder. In the end, Robert Blake’s character figures out who the killer is not through any really brilliant or clever detective work on his part. There just simply aren’t any other suspects. And I suppose my dissatisfaction with the movie is with that ending. 1970s movies were big on nihilistic, downbeat endings that I suppose were meant to symbolize the chaotic futility of life and the meaninglessness of human existence. I dunno. I don’t get that deep. All I know is that I didn’t feel that the Robert Blake character deserved his fate. And maybe that is the point of the movie: that we don’t always get the fate we deserve or want.

Arizona motorcycle police officer John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) is anxious to get off his motorcycle and get transferred to Homicide. As he tells his more easy going partner Zipper (Billy “Green” Bush) being a detective means he gets to wear a suit and having a detective’s badge means that he works a job where he gets to think. Zipper is more than happy to goof off sitting in the shade, reading comic books and harassing the occasional hippie just minding his business driving his psychedelic VW minibus.

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Wintergreen’s big chance comes along when an old desert rat named Willie (the great Elisha Cook, Jr.) reports a suicide. Even though the coroner (Royal Dano) corroborates this, Wintergreen isn’t so sure. The dead man committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a shotgun and Wintergreen maintains that a true suicide would have blown his head off cleanly instead of lingering for hours in pain bleeding to death. Wintergreen is backed up by local legend Harve Poole (Mitchell Ryan). Poole is the kind of Homicide detective Wintergreen fantasizes about being. Poole is a larger then life presence. Cool and confident, he always wears suits that look brand new, a ten gallon cowboy hat and smokes expensive cigars while seeming to effortlessly solve murders.

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He is overjoyed when Poole, impressed with Wintergreen’s thinking, has Wintergreen transferred to Homicide making him his partner on the case. Now, the case itself really isn’t that hard to work. The complications come from outside the case. Wintergreen and Poole discover that they’re sleeping with the same woman (Jeannine Riley) and Wintergreen has an unshakeable moral center. Earlier in the movie we’ve seen him give a speeding ticket to a Los Angeles detective who is outraged that Wintergreen won’t show him “professional courtesy.” This moral center works against him when dealing with the hippies he and Poole encounter during their investigation as Wintergreen sees no reason why they shouldn’t be treated just like everybody else while Poole treats them like shit because he has a badge and a gun and they don’t.

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Add to that the $5,000 the murder victim had in his shack that disappears and the murder case very quickly gets tangled up in issues that have nothing to do with the case at all. And John Wintergreen quickly learns that getting what you think you want most sometimes doesn’t make you happy at all.

You watch Robert Blake in this and “In Cold Blood” and you realize that he actually is a very gifted actor. He also enjoyed one of the longest careers in Hollywood. He was one of the “Little Rascals” and pretty much worked steadily in film and TV until the late 1990’s, most notably in David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE is more of a character study than a straight-up murder mystery and Wintergreen is an interesting guy. Despite his height (“Did you know that me and Alan Ladd are the same height? Right down to the quarter inch.”) he’s quite the ladies man. There’s a terrific scene where Jeannine Riley as the deliciously slutty Jolene enrages Poole with her drunken bragging about Wintergreen’s sexual stamina.

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Mitchell Ryan turns in a terrifically solid performance as Poole who starts off being worshipped by Wintergreen and ends up being despised by him as the longer Wintergreen works with him the more he sees the man behind the curtain and he doesn’t like that man at all. Billy “Green” Bush is quirky and eccentric as the laid back Zipper who displays an unexpected mean streak when dealing with members of the counter culture.

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If you’ve never seen ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, it’s well worth your time. It’s an episodic, meandering movie but well made with quirky, watchable performances. Like I said earlier, don’t into it looking for your standard murder mystery. It’s more concerned with examining a police officer whose moral code separates him not only from the counter culture but also from his fellow police officers. It’s a meditative movie that works its money maker off to be more than just a standard cop thriller and it’s an excellent showcase of Robert Blake’s talent as an actor. Enjoy.

114 Minutes

Rated PG

Code of Silence

1985

Orion Pictures

Directed by Andrew Davis

Produced by Raymond Wagner

Written by Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack and Mike Gray

Today Chuck Norris is best known as the star of the CBS television series “Walker, Texas Ranger” which ran from 1993 to 2001 and the subject of the Internet phenomenon known as “Chuck Norris Facts.” Most people know he had a very successful career as an action star during the 1980’s but when asked to mention what movies they’re familiar with, I’m betting most will cite the “Missing In Action” movies or “Invasion U.S.A.” since those are the ones that seem to get the most airplay on cable/satellite movie channels.  And that’s really a daggone shame as Chuck Norris starred in some really superior action movies during that period.

“Good Guys Wear Black” has a government conspiracy tied to the Vietnam war and “Expendables 2” has a nice call-back to that movie in that Chuck Norris’ character in both movies has the same name. “The Octagon” has a strong plot about private citizens taking it upon themselves to do something about terrorism and co-stars Lee Van Cleef. “The Delta Force” co-stars Lee Marvin and is based on the real life U.S. Army Delta Force. “Silent  Rage” is a sci-fi slasher flick and my all-time favorite Chuck Norris movie, “Lone Wolf McQuade” is a way more badass version of his later Cordell Walker character.

The point I guess I’m trying to make here is that while Chuck Norris can and has been dismissed as an action hero who gets through his movies with his beard and roundhouse kicks, that’s simply not true. Chuck Norris has made a number of movies that are significantly several levels above the standard action movie and the best example of this and undoubtedly the best movie he’s ever made is CODE OF SILENCE. While “Lone Wolf McQuade” remains my favorite; in terms of acting, writing and directing, CODE OF SILENCE is the better movie. Chuck Norris does bust some martial arts moves and even throws his trademark roundhouse kick but that’s only in one major fight scene. CODE OF SILENCE is a straight-up urban cop thriller with good, solid performances and a great story.

Sgt. Eddie Cusack (Chuck Norris) is a Chicago narcotics cop who speaks softly but when he does, everybody listens. He’s a straight arrow, incorruptible hardass but his men respect him. He and his squad have spent a month setting up a big drug bust in order to take down Victor Camacho (Ron Henriquez) of the notorious Comacho family who run the cocaine trade in the city. Cusack’s big bust is ruined by Tony Luna (Mike Genovese) of the Scalese family. Luna raids the meet and greet exchange, killing everybody involved and taking the coke and the money. Cusack’s partner Dorato (Dennis Farina) is shot and there’s a fatality but one that has nothing to do with the bust. A member of Cusack’s squad, the alcoholic, burnt-out Cragie (Ralph Foody) accidentally shoots and kills a teenager who simply steps out of his apartment into the hall to see what all the yelling is about. Cragie plants his throwaway piece on the kid and his partner Kopelas (Joseph Guzaldo) backs him up.

Now here’s where the situation really gets serious. Victor survives the raid and along with his psychotic older brother Luis (Henry Silva) declares war on the Scaleses. Luna decides to leave town as the Camachos go on a rampage, brutally wiping out the Scaleses. They also try to kidnap Luna’s daughter Diana (Molly Hagen) to bring her father out of hiding. Cusack rescues her and tries to keep her alive and safe while also trying to stop the vicious gang war and persuading Kopelas to do the right thing and stop lying for Cragie.

As you can guess from my plot summary, there’s an awful lot of story we’ve got going on here but CODE OF SILENCE is never confusing or gets lost. The three major plots interweave seamlessly with no problem at all. If the movie had just been about the gang war, it would have just been an average movie. But the Cragie subplot, which deals with the “code of silence” police officers have to cover and protect each other is examined here in far greater depth than you would expect from your typical Chuck Norris kick-and-punch flick.

I attribute a lot of how good CODE OF SILENCE is to the director, Andrew Davis who knows how to make a thriller and has made a lot of good ones set in Chicago where he was born and grew up. He directed “Above The Law” which is for my money still Steven Seagal’s best movie, “The Package” with Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones, “Under Siege” and “The Fugitive.” So he knows how to make this type of movie sing and swing.

I give Chuck Norris a lot of credit for not playing Cusack as an invincible superman. There’s a scene where Cusack goes into a pool hall full of bad guys and gets into a brawl with them.  Even though Cusack gets in some good shots what happens is what we know happens in that type of situation: Cusack gets his ass whooped. Norris doesn’t try to out act any of the more experienced actors he’s working with such as the terrific Dennis Farina, Henry Silva, Bert Remsen or Ralph Foody. Most of the time he’s simply reacting to what they’re saying or doing and it works for him.

Some people criticize the movie because of the robot Cusack uses to help him rescue Diana and take down the Camachos in the movie’s final shootout and back in 1985 The Prowler robot might have seemed like science fiction but this is a rare case where reality has caught up and since now we do have police departments using robots like The Prowler it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

And CODE OF SILENCE has what is one of the funniest scenes in movie history when two bumbling hoods try to stick up a bar where all the customers are cops as well as what has to be the biggest car explosion I’ve ever seen in a movie.

So should you see CODE OF SILENCE? Absolutely. It holds up surprisingly well after all this time with its performances, production values, terrific action sequences and story. If you’ve never seen a Chuck Norris movie, watch CODE OF SILENCE. If you have seen other Chuck Norris movies and didn’t like them, watch CODE OF SILENCE. This one is worth your time, trust me.

Rated R

101 Minutes

The Driver

1978                           

20th Century Fox

Produced by Lawrence Gordon

Written And Directed by Walter Hill

Some time back I wrote of review of the existential car chase thriller “Vanishing Point” and I received an email from a gentleman (at least I think it’s a gentleman…you can’t always tell just by email addresses) who informed me that he had seen the movie on my recommendation and found it pretentious and pointless and suggested that I watch and review what he considered to be a much better movie revolving around car chases: Walter Hill’s 1978 crime thriller THE DRIVER  I vaguely remember seeing THE DRIVER years ago at 42end Street.  This was back in the day when you could see three movies for 5 bucks and frankly, I remember the other two movies much better but thanks to The Fox Movie Channel I had a chance to see it again recently.  Maybe “Vanishing Point” is pretentious but THE DRIVER takes pretentiousness to an almost Zen-like level to the point where the characters don’t even have names.  They are just identified by what they are and what they do.

The Driver (Ryan O’Neal) is an undisputed professional master of driving getaway cars.  He does not participate in the actual robbery.  He drives and that’s all.  He commands a flat fee of $10,000 up front and 15% of the take.  And he’s worth it because he guarantees that you won’t get caught.  His driving abilities are inhumanly unnerving and he never displays any emotion at all.  The man’s a driving machine.  His nemesis is The Detective (Bruce Dern) who badly wants to catch The Driver.  So obsessed is he with catching The Driver he puts his career on the line by recruiting a second-rate gang of bank robbers to hire The Driver.  The Detective will ensure that the gang will rob the bank and get away then they’ll bring The Driver and the money to a spot where The Detective will be waiting to arrest The Driver, take the money and let the gang get away.  Of course, the plan doesn’t work out and pretty soon everybody’s double-crossed everybody else and the gang, The Driver and The Detective are all scrambling for the half-million robbery loot while The Driver and The Detective play their own cat-and-mouse game of Catch Me If You Can.  You see, The Detective has told The Driver the robbery is a set-up and he dares him to pull it off and get away.  The Driver takes the challenge and the game’s afoot…or awheel, I suppose is a better phrase in this case.

And that’s there is all, folks.  That is all the movie is about. THE DRIVER is probably the most stripped down movie I’ve ever seen.  There’s no characterizations, no background information about anybody given, No extra characters, no dialog exchanged that does not relate directly to the plot, no flashbacks, no nothing except for what is happening right at the moment.  In fact, there isn’t that much dialog.  Supposedly Ryan O’Neal only speaks 350 words in the whole movie and I think that’s stretching it.  Bruce Dern has most the dialog as The Detective and he’s really the main character in this thing as he has motivations and desires that we can understand and even though he’s a bit of a bastard at least he’s a human bastard.  Ryan O’Neal’s Driver is such an emotionless humanoid that we never understand why he does what he does.  He doesn’t seem to enjoy his work and we never see what he does with the money he makes.  He wears the same clothes throughout the movie and lives in a cheap hotel.  He only has three relationships: The Connection (Ronee Blakely) who sets up his jobs, The Player (Isabelle Adjani) a professional gambler who deliberately misidentifies The Driver in a police line-up, enabling him to avoid arrest and his pocket transistor radio.

There’s no point in talking about the performances in this one because outside of Bruce Dern’s, there are none.  This movie is all about plot and Walter Hill, who wrote and directed THE DRIVER cares about nothing else.  This movie is nowhere as good as some others he’s done such as the “The Warriors” and “Streets of Fire” which are both classics and I’d advise anybody to Netflix “The Long Riders” “Johnny Handsome” or “Extreme Prejudice” before this one.

Even the car chase scenes aren’t all that exciting but I liked them a lot because back then when movies did car chases you knew that some fool was actually doing the driving and when a car flipped over, it was because a trained and experience stuntman was doing it and it added a sense of realism.  For sheer exhilaration, none of the car chases in THE DRIVER don’t match anything done today, true, but it works for this movie because it gives it a gritty realism.  None of the driving stunts done here don’t seem like anything that couldn’t be done in real life and I liked that.  After all, The Driver is supposed to be trying to get away from the cops, not showing off how many aerial acrobatics he can do.  The whole movie has a realistic feel to it that is probably the movie’s greatest strength.  Nobody here takes a whole clip of .45 slugs in the chest then drags himself or herself half a mile before expiring.  You get shot and you fall over dead.  End of story.  There’s no meaningless romance between The Driver and the two women he knows just to have a romantic subplot.  These people are involved in a dirty, dangerous business and they conduct themselves accordingly.

There is one really cool scene where The Driver is asked to demonstrate his skill and he does so by proceeding to demolish a car while he and three passengers are inside. They climb out completely unharmed but the car is a wreck and still able to run.  But that comes halfway through the movie and it’s over much too soon.

So should you see THE DRIVER?  I can think of a couple of reasons why you might want to: if you’re a Walter Hill fan like me, you’ll want to check out this early work of his.  Hill is an infuriating hit-or-miss director.  When he’s good, he’s very good but when he’s bad he’s even worse and THE DRIVER is an example of this, especially in the last five minutes of the movie when you’ll probably be screaming at the screen; “That’s IT????” even as the credits are rolling.  If you like Bruce Dern you’ll also enjoy seeing him in this one as he really doesn’t get to play a cop that often but when he does, he makes the most of it.  If you like him as a cop here, check out “The Laughing Policeman”.

But as for THE DRIVER if you’re at all curious by all means check it out.  But if you’re not, don’t worry, you won’t be missing a thing.

91 minutes

Rated R

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

1974

United Artists

Directed by Joseph Sargent

Produced by Gabriel Katzka and Edgar J. Scherick

Screenplay by Peter Stone

Based on the novel by John Godey

There are movies that just have to be made in New York.  There’s no way around it.  Of course you can change the location of a movie with a few taps on a keyboard but somehow when a movie is filmed in New York it gives the story a weight that makes you feel as if “yeah, I can see that happening in a town like New York” and this feeling is demonstrated excellently in the outstanding crime thriller THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE  This is a movie that couldn’t have been made anywhere else.  It’s such a New York movie, full of the energy, vitality and unique qualities that make New York and the people who live and work in it so utterly exciting, baffling and downright enjoyable. It’s a typical New York day…or at least as typical as any day in New York and people are on their way to work, school or play.  And on the Number 6 train leaving Pelham Bay Park at 1:23 in the afternoon it’s a day that is about to get as bad as a day in New York can get.

Four men board the train armed with machine guns and dressed in the same trench coats, wearing the same caps pulled low over their faces, glasses and mustaches.  With military precision they effortlessly take control of the first car of the train with frightening swiftness, separating it from the rest of the train along with all its passengers, essentially hijacking it.  Parking it onto an off section of track they make their demands known: unless the City of New York pays them a ransom of one million dollars they will kill all the passengers in the car.  And the city has only one hour to pay up.  The terms are non-negotiable.  Pay or people start dying from severe lead poisoning of the worst kind.  Now of course this is met with some skepticism.  As one character puts it: “They’re hijacking trains now?  What are they gonna do?  Fly it to Cuba?”  But the hijackers make it known real soon they mean business. Luckily Lt. Zack Garber (Walter Matthau) of The Transit Police is on the scene.  He’s been escorting a group of Japanese transit officials through the Command Center (in a scene that is very funny but be warned…it’s also not Politically Correct.  But remember, this movie was made in 1974) and he quickly takes charge of the negotiations with the leader of the hijackers, a British mercenary who only identifies himself as Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw)

In fact, I strongly suspect that Quentin Tarentino got his idea of color naming his gang of thieves in “Reservoir Dogs” from this movie as the other train hijackers are named Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) Mr. Gray (Hector Elizondo) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) and the movie is just about as much a battle of wits between Garber and Mr. Blue as Garber tries various stratagems as he buys time to save the lives of the hostages as he racks his brains trying to figure out exactly how the hijackers think they’re going to get away with the money when they’re on a train underneath New York. I really can’t recommend this movie enough.  It’s an extremely well made, tight thriller that doesn’t have a slow moment in the entire running time.  It’s not bogged down with unnecessary romances or backstory filling us in as to why these men are doing what they’re doing.  They want money.  It’s as simple as that.  Lt Garber and The New York Police Department have to stop them.  It’s as simple as that.  The movie is what it is: it’s about a daring crime and we watch on the edge of our seats and wonder how the hell this thing is gonna end and we’re highly entertained while doing so. The performances sell the movie and there isn’t a bad one in the whole piece.

Walter Matthau is best known for his comedies but I think I like him even more as a dramatic actor.  In fact, this movie, a spy thriller called “Hopscotch” and a police procedural movie he made with Bruce Dern called ‘The Laughing Policeman” are among my favorite Matthau movies.  His Lt. Garber is a competent professional.  He’s not brilliant at his job but he does it well.  And I liked how the movie shows that his main concern is saving the lives of the hostages, especially in a scene where he grabs hold of a transit supervisor who has been giving him flack and generally being an obstinate pain in the ass through the negotiations.  In that scene Matthau is just as tough as Robert DeNiro or Sean Connery at their best and he sells it.

Robert Shaw plays Mr. Blue and no more needs to be said.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad Robert Shaw performance and if there is one, please tell me.  Here he’s coldly ruthless, calculating and he’s such a master planner that you have no doubt that he’s going to pull this audacious scheme off.  Hector Elizondo does great work as Mr. Gray who we learn is so psychotically bloodthirsty that even The Mafia kicked him out.  Martin Balsam is a standout as Mr. Green, who is more or less the second-in-command of the outfit and he’s essential to the plan since he’s a fired transit motorman whose intimate knowledge of The New York Transit system is necessary to pull the job off.

One of the best things about this movie is how there is such a New York flavor in it.  Even the background characters have small bits that are standouts such as the diverse group of hostages who make up the social strata of the city and the two cops who have to transport the money from the bank to the subway station have wonderful dialog as they ferociously race to try and beat the hijacker’s deadline.  Jerry Stiller does great work as Matthau’s sidekick even though they don’t share a scene until the last ten minutes of the movie. And one of my favorite scenes of the movie is when The Deputy Mayor (Tony Roberts) is trying to convince his boss (Lee Wallace) to pay up the money.  It’s an insightful scene as to how politicians juggle lives, public opinion and professional gain in making life and death decisions and it’s got such smart dialog it makes me weep in envy.  And take a good look at The Mayor….yep, its same guy who plays The Mayor in Tim Burton’s “Batman”.  You’ve also got James Broderick (Matthew’s Dad) Doris Roberts, Julius Harris, Dick O’Neill, Sal Viscuso, Bill Cobb and Joe Seneca.  It’s a killer cast and they all do excellent work even if they’re on the screen for a couple of minutes.  And the last scene of this movie is absolutely the best any heist movie has ever had.  Even though I hate heist movies where the thieves don’t get away with it, the way the ending is set up is so perfect I forgive.

So should you see THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE ?  Absolutely.  If you’re in the mood for a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners crime thriller that I guarantee will have you on the edge of your seat from start to finish then you need to see this one.  It’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s scary, it’s thrilling…it’s a New York movie all the way.  You look at what passes for thrillers that come out of Hollywood nowadays and then you watch THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, a movie made forty years ago and you have to scratch your head and wonder what the hell happened.

P.S.  There was a Made For TV version of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE made in 1998 that should be avoided at all costs since it was filmed in Toronto.  Nothing against Canada, mind you, but THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE depends so much on the New York atmosphere and flavor you really owe it to yourself to see the original.  There was a much better remake made in 2009 starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta.

Rated R: For the language mostly and it does get pretty raw at times.  But there’s no sex and the violence is pretty tame by modern standards.  I would advise those of you who are Politically Correct (I’m not and proud of it) that this movie was made in 1974 and so the portrayals of Blacks and Asians may make you uncomfortable.  I’m Black and I wasn’t offended because hey, we did have some of us who acted and spoke like that back then, whether you wanna believe it or not and I know because I was there.  Asians will have to defend their own selves on this one.

104 minutes