Some time ago I said I would break down and spend the whopping sixty one cents
needed to meet the ongoing market price for this used DVD from the Amazon
marketplace, and I did.
It was worth every penny.
I'm kidding. It's not bad. This crime film will never be confused with Miller's Crossing or
even Lethal Weapon, but
it has some merit, and some reasons to recommend it.
First of all, it was directed by John Frankenheimer, who may have been the best
young director in Hollywood in the 1962-1964 era. His 1962 film The Manchurian
Candidate, made when he was only 31 years old, is one of the top 100 films of
all time at IMDb, and there are three other films from that era which are not
far behind on Frankenheimer's ranked IMDb filmography.
Manchurian Candidate (1962)
in May (1964)
Although Frankenheimer's career would continue for another 40 years after The
Manchurian Candidate, those four early films continue to hold the top four slots
at IMDb. There were lean times in Frankenheimer's
career, and this film came from the leanest of all, the period from 1978 to
1993, during which his highest-rated film at IMDb was 52 Pick-Up, at a tepid
5.92. Dead Bang was just a hair behind that with a 5.66.
The storyline of Dead Bang, a police procedural about a murdered police officer, is rambling, and the conclusion is downright
clumsy. It does have one excellent set piece toward the end, in which a law
enforcement team raids the Colorado headquarters of a white supremacist group
and ends up in a shoot-out with some of the neo-Nazis in a secret underground
lair formed from an old mine. With its dizzying drops and its labyrinth of
shafts, the mine offers an excellent location for Frankenheimer to work some
directorial magic by creating dramatic tension from the uncertainly of the
officers. They are advancing blindly, trying to catch men who are familiar with
a maze capable of bewildering any newcomer. Should the cops go left or right? Up
or down? Does the next door lead to the heavily-armed suspects, or an equally
terrifying abandoned shaft with a vertiginous drop? What's behind the next rock,
just more rocks or a meth-crazed Nazi with an AK-47?
That one shoot-out, which is dripping with suspense, just about redeems the
clunky script, which includes every "renegade loner cop" cliché in the book.
- Breaks the rules? Check.
- Has no life but his job? Check.
- Drinks too much? Check. So much that at one point he pukes on a perp
he has apprehended after a long run.
- Hated by his family? Check. The family which hates him doesn't even
appear on camera. We only know about the loner cop's family issues
because he has angry telephone conversations with his estranged wife.
These seem to exist just to get that item checked off on the master
I do give the script some props for its one original, if completely unrealistic,
contribution to the rogue cop mythos. Our hero (Don Johnson) is sent to the
police psychiatrist after he screws up one thing or another, and he gets through
that by telling the shrink that if he is not returned to line duty he will spend
the rest of his life knowing who is responsible, and obsessed by it. And he is a
very violent man. "I will focus on you as the instrument of my destruction," he
says, and the shrink is so intimidated that he gives our antihero a
clean bill of mental health.
And this is not a comedy.
The film is said to be based on a real L.A. detective named Jerry Beck (also the
character's name), but the abundant movie clichés and the entertaining but
implausible psychiatrist scene seem to stretch our credulity regarding this
value of this claim.
The worst element in the script comes at the very end. I have to tell you
that the following is really what happened, because if I do not you will think I
am kidding or mocking the script. After the law enforcement team wins the
shoot-out, they find out from the last living suspect's dying words that the
guys they were after were not the cop-killers after all. At that point they have
failed completely, with about three minutes of running time remaining!
Then, the real
cop-killer appears from elsewhere in the mine shaft, gets the drop on them, and
confesses to every known crime from your missing socks to the Lindbergh baby, all while he's holding them at gunpoint. This probably sounds silly enough
to you just because "I'll tie you up so I can tell you the plot" is such a
clumsy and hackneyed device for plot exposition, but that's not the half of it.
It makes absolutely no sense in this context because (1) the cops had no idea this
guy was the killer; (2) the cops had no idea this guy was even there; (3) the
cops had already killed the four guys they sought and had no more warrants, so the
investigation had nowhere else to go.
The film also has some editing problems. There are at least two cases when a
scene seems to end in the middle and the following scene seems to begin in the
middle with absolutely no transition to explain what has happened. In one case
it is particularly confusing because both interlocking scenes consist of
dialogue between the same two characters, but the exchanges do not connect, so
the men seem to be engaging in non-sequiturs in the manner of an Ionesco play!
Penelope Ann Miller provides the nudity, which just consists of the side of her
breasts in a exceedingly dark love scene. Not only is this bare flesh gratuitous, but
Penelope's entire character is gratuitous. Even using the existing footage, it
would be a simple matter to cut her from the film, improving the pacing
substantially, while losing nothing at all
of the essential plot or character development. The character either needed to be
developed or cut entirely. John Frankenheimer said that the studio re-cut this
film after he finished it, so I reckon we have to give him a free pass on some
of these matters. Perhaps Penelope's character used to be more significant. One
thing we know is that when the studio hacks were re-cutting this film, they left
this character in for no good reason, but chopped out some key scene
transitions, as described above. I can only speculate, but I think the reason
Penelope didn't get cut completely was probably to retain the film's only
nudity. Films these days seem to strive for a PG-13 to maximize the potential
audience, but back in the eighties attractive nudity was considered an asset,
and that would have been especially true in this case because the popular and pretty young Penelope Ann had never done
a prior nude scene. (This was four years before Carlito's Way.)
Given that the film does have a few positives, I would love to see John
Frankenheimer's own "director's cut," but that's not likely to appear. This film
is obscure, and there is no sound business reason for Warner to issue another
DVD based on this box office flop.
Particularly since the existing DVD is trading for sixty one cents!