Wednesday, November 10, 2010
As Simple As It Gets
It’s not near the top of the list of anyone’s favorite John Frankenheimer films but I liked DEAD-BANG pretty well when it was released back in March 1989 and I suppose I still like it now, up to a point anyway. It’s hardly a classic and thinking about the film after revisiting it for the first time in years I probably respond more to the character study aspects than the ambitions of its plot but I still appreciate how the story takes itself seriously as much as I enjoy the twisted humor of Don Johnson getting really pissed off at people, like he often does here. The film moves along like a freight train for a such a consistent amount of screen time that it’s a little disappointing to discover that, just as it happened for me back then, there’s a point in the story where I totally, irrevocably check out of things and after that there’s just no going back. It’s always been clear where the cutoff point was but it was tough for me to figure out why at the time and maybe I can articulate some of those problems better now. Let’s just say that this is a film where for a long stretch I’m with it and then, almost as if a switch is thrown, suddenly I’m not. But for any fan of Frankenheimer’s old-school action style that hasn’t caught up with this one yet, DEAD-BANG still has its share of good points.
Jerry Beck (Don Johnson) is an L.A. cop fresh off a divorce, deep in debt and trapped in a crappy apartment just beneath the flight pattern of the Burbank Airport. A few days before Christmas, he finds himself investigating a double homicide of a liquor store owner and a cop just a few blocks away. Insisting on working right through the holiday, he first aggravates a parole officer (Bob Balaban) when he recruits him to help find a suspect and soon after finds himself on the bad side of FBI Agent Arthur Kressler (William Forsythe), also on the same case. The investigation soon begins to lead Beck on a trail that leads to an extensive group of white supremacists taking him to Arizona then to Oklahoma where what he gradually uncovers turns out to be bigger than he ever imagined. After pissing off various local law enforcement officials around the country, placing his pursuit of this killer and those behind this organization in jeopardy, he finally encounters a small town police chief (Tim Reid) who may be just the man he can trust to help him go up against these factions and bring them down.
There’s a nicely stripped-down feel to a lot of DEAD-BANG right from the start as if Frankenheimer decided to rip out about ten pages from the opening section of the script (screenplay by Robert Foster, from a story by Foster and the real-life Jerry Beck whose own investigation this is supposedly based on) so the film could get into the meat of things as fast as possible. In lieu of complex plotting is a focus on Beck’s growing aggravation as he desperately tries to continue this investigation into what leads from the search for a killer to a growing white supremacist underground out there in the heartland with no one to support him, never knowing for sure who he can trust. Like any number of other action films from around this time, this look at the dregs of humanity is set over the holiday season (a shot of the Goodyear blimp saying “Merry Christmas” seems to be placed there to taunt me for not having written a piece on BLACK SUNDAY yet), though I’m not sure any character ever even wishes someone ‘Happy Holidays’ with total sincerity and no one, least of all Johnson’s Jerry Beck, seems to care much about it anyway. The feel is refreshingly adult as the lead character spars with just about anyone unlucky to cross in front of him—whether they’re physically imposing biker types or weasly-looking office nerds—as they all act like pricks to each other, no one in any mood to be polite. Some of the dialogue during these scenes is terrific and at the film’s best it combines this acerbic feel with action pulled off using every bit of expertise that would be expected from Frankenheimer. One nighttime shootout on a street in the middle of a small town is pretty much beautiful in its clarity and a scrappy foot chase early on which features some decent L.A. location work out in the dregs of the valley is almost disarmingly good, eventually ending in the most unexpected way imaginable--I’ll bet there are people who haven’t seen this film for years but still remember this part, a nasty display of the offhanded dark humor that would occasionally turn up in Frankenheimer’s films.
The director later said that he and Johnson didn’t get along at all (“Let’s simply say that we did not agree on how the picture should be made,” was how he put it in “The Films of Frankenheimer” by Gerald Pratley) but the film nevertheless provides a nice showcase for the actor’s talents, looking tired and sweaty with unkempt hair as he goes over paperwork with bifocals, embarrassed when the well-groomed Fed he’s working with asks if that’s tape holding those glasses together. As much as I enjoy him interacting with some of his co-stars here as they spit out insults at each other, Johnson does some particularly strong work when by himself in certain scenes, especially during the unbroken shot of him in a screaming match over the phone with his (never seen) ex-wife when she won’t bring the kids to the phone so he can wish them a Merry Christmas, resulting in him destroying the phone in the process. The film continually dotes on the little things like that, such as how Johnson’s cop leaves L.A. so abruptly that he doesn’t think to bring a coat for the cold weather he encounters, a sly way of showing how this guy is always a few steps behind the better-prepared people he’s dealing with in every possible way. After a prolonged period of action and investigation with the lead character getting further away from his home base of L.A. the film builds to a boil of tension as Beck deals with a police psychiatrist who must determine if he’s fit to continue his investigation. The doctor is played by Michael Jeter in a scene that is unexpectedly funny, serious and dynamic at once in all the right ways but after this peak of Johnson’s character releasing every single one of his frustrations on everything...suddenly, it all kind of fizzles away and any real tension that has been developed goes with it.
With about a half-hour to go in the film which runs 103 minutes it always loses me as Beck travels to Colorado for the big third-act confrontation where he gets immediate help from a local police chief played by Tim Reid (and his African-American deputies by his side, the very best to go up against white supremacists). Johnson has been spending so much time in conflict with others throughout, with some very interesting characters getting introduced and disappearing soon after so seeing Johnson and Reid get along out of nowhere because, well…just because, it suddenly becomes kind of a letdown, as if the film is trying to add another story within the film like an unneeded limb and the surgery won’t take. Reid is fine in his part, but it’s just not as enjoyable to watch what he does as it is to see Johnson become antagonistic with another small-town police chief who’s more interested in ordering steak sandwiches for lunch (I like that exchange in particular), totally unconcerned about the amount of firepower they’re about to go up against. As well-done as some of the action throughout the climax is staged that’s really all it is, with the strong character work coming from Johnson during the film’s first hour feeling like it’s been left in the dust. Sure, if Don Johnson and Tim Reid are going to be going up against a gang of white supremacists naturally I’m going to be one their side, but why does it have to become so dull all of a sudden?
As strong as some individual sections of the film are, the episodic nature sometimes gives things a certain start-stop feel so the cumulative effect never reaches the needed fever pitch in its intensity and it sort of winds up as a number of effective scenes never turning into a satisfying whole. At the film’s best, it knows to be just about this guy—Jerry Beck isn’t exactly Popeye Doyle but he’s fun to watch in how even if he’s right he’s still kind of a prick, but when it abandons that in favor of run-of-the-mill gunplay and somebody he actually gets along with it all just becomes dull. Yes, the racist underground plotline presenting people out in the heartland who have no problem icily admitting what they are is somewhat surprising for what at first seems like just another cop movie with a lot of the usual elements (and, yeah, the character of Jerry Beck is really nothing new, nor are scenes where gun-toting bikers massacre a bunch of people in a bar) and that level of realism is admirable but too much of it just seems kind of rote with a last-minute switcheroo in who Johnson suddenly has the big face-off with not really making much difference. Since the drama seems to dwindle away by the end, maybe DEAD-BANG doesn’t amount to much more than the pleasures of seeing an angry Don Johnson acting up a storm surrounded by some well-executed action. The film falls short in a number of areas but there have been many, many cop movies (not to mention a few John Frankenheimer movies as well) that delivered on their promise far less than this one does so at the least the film deserves that much credit.
To be honest I was never the biggest MIAMI VICE fan but I’ve always kind of liked Don Johnson in various roles. Whether in the middle of an action scene while his character is hungover or stammering through the desperation of his dialogue he does some very strong work here as he sells the total intensity of this guy in expert style. He also has some strong co-stars to play against even if a few of them are gone too soon—Bob Balaban in particular kicks ass in his brief stretch of screen time as the pissed off parole officer in a jogging suit who has no choice but to deal with this prick cop on Christmas morning and practically walks off with the film in his pocket—if you can’t get pleasure out of the wonderful sight of him calmly telling Johnson, “Fuck you,” I really don’t know what to say. Balaban is so good and so funny in his offhand way that more than anything in this movie, I wish he didn’t disappear after the half-hour mark. As the buttoned-down FBI agent William Forsythe is a nice piece of casting against type (if you spotted his name on the poster you’d expect him to be one of the white supremacists) playing a guy who as a Christian makes it known how offended he is by Beck’s language and behavior. It’s one of the film’s interesting pieces of screenwriting how this character, kind of a prick on the surface, is allowed to never get along with Beck but mainly because he has his own way of doing things, not because he’s a cardboard bad guy—if the film were told from his point of view Beck would be just as much of a pain in the ass as he is. Michael Jeter gives one of my favorite performances of his ever as the police psychiatrist who Beck thinks has a resemblance to a certain famous somebody and Penelope Ann Miller, second-billed for a relatively small amount of screen time, has a key role as a woman who isn’t quite what she appears to be at first. Brad Sullivan of THE UNTOUCHABLES and William Traylor of FLETCH are each small-town police chiefs and Hy Anzell, Joey Nichols in ANNIE HALL, is Johnson’s chief in L.A.
The studio declined to screen the film for critics before release and when he saw it Vincent Canby in the New York Times wasn’t very impressed, particularly criticizing Foster’s script. While he acknowledged, “Mr. Frankenheimer has made the movie look better than it should,” Canby still added that “the director of one of the wittiest conspiracy movies ever made, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, is now responsible for one of the more trivial.” Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington was more generous, admiring some of the tension Frankenheimer pulled off along with being somewhat kinder towards it in the context of his overall career but concluding that the director was “wasting his time with material like this.” And, yes, considering a few of the genuine classics that he did direct, I doubt that DEAD-BANG qualifies as some sort of hidden treasure, let alone one of the top titles. But as a crafty display of lean, expert action and character work, the film has any number of things to admire about it that make it worth defending. I just wish more of them came in the final half-hour.