Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Once Wasn't Good Enough
For those people who always thought that FREEBIE AND THE BEAN wasn’t offensive enough and that the lead characters didn’t display enough callous disregard for public safety you could always try BUSTING, the nearly-forgotten buddy cop movie that was released in early 1974, still a number of months before those other two cops managed to trash half of San Francisco. The directorial debut of Peter Hyams, who also wrote the script, BUSTING teams Elliott Gould and Robert Blake in another iteration of two cops intent on angering everyone in sight while trying to nab their prey as innocent bystanders get hurt in the crossfire, a subgenre which seems right at home in the early 70s. So that takes care of Arkin and Caan, Gould and Blake--where’s the politically incorrect buddy cop movie with George Segal and Donald Sutherland from that period, anyway? BUSTING isn’t as free-wheeling as FREEBIE AND THE BEAN and therefore not as much fun but it has different enough ambitions to slightly set it apart. In terms of action it really doesn’t compare and maybe shouldn’t even be considered an action movie at all but instead a cynical, somewhat downbeat cop drama with dashes of potent, offensive humor tossed in there. It stands apart from the crowd of other cop movies enough to defy easy categorization while also providing a sharp look at the two stars at this point in their careers. It also has more going on than it seems it will at first, managing to sneak up on you in the end.
It’s very loose in the plotting but BUSTING focuses on vice cops Michael Keneely (Elliott Gould, with a giant mustache) and Patrick Farrel (Robert Blake, clean-shaven). Spending much of their long hours on the job trying to bust hookers, drug dealers, sex shops and sex clubs they're also intent on taking down crime boss Carl Rizzo (Allen Garfield). Many of their busts lead right to Rizzo but as they attempt to get closer and take him down the partners find barricades placed in front of them at every opportunity not just from what they encounter on the street but from up on above in the department as well.
FREEBIE AND THE BEAN is probably known by only cinephiles and film geeks these days, but its reputation was enough to fill up the Egyptian when they ran it a year ago. I doubt that BUSTING would do the same if it played and I’d never even heard of it until relatively recently. Beats me how I missed hearing about it but I’m glad I caught up with it now even if I did have to seek it out on VHS—no DVD release has ever been in sight for this thing. BUSTING is a pretty grimy piece of work in the way movies were during those days and it was hard not to feel like washing my hands a number of times while watching it, maybe even take an extra shower or two. It’s similar to FREEBIE in the callous way the two leads are willing to burst into places for the bust, disregarding the rules that have been set up (also like FREEBIE, this film will definitely win no points with GLAAD and BUSTING is probably worse in that regard) but their determination also recalls Popeye Doyle and Cloudy Russo in THE FRENCH CONNECTION, with this film ultimately coming off as even more cynical. For that matter, the meager sliver of power these two guys wield over the ones they drag into jail only goes so far and it’s in this sense the BUSTING sets itself apart, giving us a pair who are totally helpless when it comes to the more powerful forces hovering over them as they try to do their jobs. Clearly shot in good ol’ Los Angeles but never identified as such (I imagine the LAPD wouldn’t cooperate with a film that implies this level of corruption) BUSTING presents a world where it doesn’t matter how many hours you put in to take down the bad guys, they’re just going to go free anyway and there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop it. The DON’T WALK sign that starts the film could be seen as a warning to the two leads—don’t bother doing any of this, nothing good can come to make it worth the trouble and it stays true to that right up to the bitter finale.
With its focus on what the two lead characters aren’t able to accomplish, BUSTING can barely even be called an action movie, but the combo of 70s, Gould and Blake make it a must for anyone whose eyes light up at those elements. As an added plus, there are even two absolutely dynamite action setpieces, a foot chase that comes close to the midway point and the second at the climax, a chase featuring two ambulances, with both extremely well-executed done in a style that sets it apart from other such films around this time (very cool score by Billy Goldenberg as well). It’s not the rollicking good time that the endless action scenes in FREEBIE are, with a surprising harshness to the violence, but the futile nature of this film is obviously going for a different result. The ultimate message of FREEBIE AND THE BEAN is that as insane as their world is at least the two leads have each other to kick the crap out of—in the case of BUSTING, it’s just not enough. The familiar traits of Scope, smoke and low light levels that Peter Hyams would later become notorious hadn’t really begun to develop at this point and the visual style is fairly similar to other cop movies at the time. If anything distinguishes the film cinematically (the D.P. was Earl Rath, who mostly worked in TV) it’s the extensive dolly shots used throughout particularly during a few chase scenes but also turning up at other points as well. Coming a few years before the steadicam was implemented that sort of feel is clearly what Hyams is going for even if his camera is obviously locked down on wheels with extensive rapid movement used as it goes down numerous hallways and, most noticeably, during the big footchase leading to a shootout in Grand Central Market. The pronounced imperfections that are evident from using the dolly make it more noticeable, but it adds a funkiness that completely adds to the scrappy tone of the film, making it feel that much more alive. If he saw it, it’s hard not to wonder what Kubrick thought of all this footage.
The two leads, both with cigarettes hanging from their lips which one of them never lights, are extremely cool all the way and maybe almost too laid back by a certain point. When compared to Arkin and Caan who were always at each others throats in their movie (and I know I keep harping on it, but it’s hard not to compare the two films), Gould and Blake seem to click together almost a little too well in their rhythms which sometimes keeps things at a low hum when it really needs to pick up some steam. Gould, also always chewing gum, has fantastic moments throughout with his loose manner coming off as a clear extension of his work on THE LONG GOODBYE—there’s definitely some Marlowe in the moment when he first enters the men’s room in the park. But this character lets his true feelings hang out a little more in comparison, made most clear in a long scene in the toilet stall he’s been forced to stake out where he reveals what being a cop once meant to him. When he reveals these things about himself after all the grime we’ve already witnessed it flat-out stings. Gould is also just great in a few silent beats he gets on occasion and it’s not much of a surprise that Hyams used him again in CAPRICORN ONE a few years later. Whether by accident or design the film seems to emphasize him slightly over Blake (the ratio is maybe 60-40), whose scrappy nature adds immeasurably to his character but there’s still the feeling at times that he’s interacting with Gould more than he is playing for the effect of the film, causing him to slightly disappear in comparison. It’s hard not to notice that he calls Allen Garfield ‘Spanky’ a few times, though. Garfield, who was in about ten million movies around this time, terrifically oozes slime as the crime kingpin who’s not the least bit concerned about these guys trying to bust him. Future Oscar nominee Michael Lerner, Antonio Fargas and Sid Haig are among those who turn up throughout. The very intriguing Cornelia Sharpe plays the hooker in the opening scenes, making such an impression it’s surprising to see that she didn’t do more in her career.
Gaining in seriousness as its running time continues, BUSTING holds back on any sort of catharsis and doesn’t even offer the small amount of triumph in its climax that the end of THE FRENCH CONNECTION did. To its credit, it holds true to its bitter convictions right up until the final image. Just over 90 minutes, BUSTING is potent stuff that gives us sleazy sex shops, hookers that pay visits to dentist’s offices, homophobic slurs and a pair of cops dealing with how little good is actually coming of all their nasty work. The balance it pulls off feels so skilled that it makes you wish that the career of Peter Hyams had wound up going a little more in this direction. Well, CAPRICORN ONE is kinda fun, I’ll admit that. Something like this film was probably only possible in the 70s but at least it survives now, even if only on VHS. It may not be fair that it’s the only way to see it but as this film nastily displays, little about life is really ever fair.