Friday, July 21, 2017

Dead Bang

One of the most underrated thrillers in the great director John Frankenheimer’s filmography casts Don Johnson, then hot off MIAMI VICE, as a real-life Los Angeles homicide cop named Jerry Beck. I highly doubt the real Beck, who retired from the LAPD in 1999, was much like the cop depicted in the DEAD BANG screenplay by Robert Foster (KNIGHT RIDER). Johnson’s Beck is a burnout, estranged from his family and co-workers, a poor dresser, lives in a crappy apartment, a drunk who is so hungover Christmas morning that he pukes on a suspect after an exhausting foot chase expertly staged by Frankenheimer and scored by Gary Chang (THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU). He also gets into a lot of fights and shootouts — unquestionably more than the real Jerry Beck did.

On the other hand, cliche Beck may be, but Johnson brings much sympathy and charisma to the role. Adding to his very good star performance is veteran Frankenheimer (THE TRAIN), who breaks no new ground in the crime drama genre, but expertly enhances the tropes in successful pursuit of an above average action picture. Ticket buyers didn’t agree, ignoring DEAD BANG when it opened during a lazy March weekend in 1989 (it opened in fifth place and vanished from theaters in a hurry).

Investigating the murder of a policeman after an L.A. liquor store holdup, Beck chases his prey all the way to Arizona, Oklahoma, and Colorado (all resembling Alberta) when it’s revealed his chief suspect is a member of a white supremacist group based there. Teaming up with a black police chief (WKRP IN CINCINNATI DJ Tim Reid) and a so-straight-he-squeaks FBI agent (a cast-against-type William Forsythe), Beck lays down a series of wisecracks (“You don’t need a gun, Chief, just tell ‘em who you are!”) and shootouts to break up the deranged right-wingers before they can mount a violent defense.

Penelope Ann Miller (THE RELIC) stops by for a one-night stand with Johnson. Her appearance is enigmatically brief, though Miller’s unconvincing performance dissuades you from being disappointed. Bob Balaban (GOSFORD PARK) is rightfully officious as a parole officer pestered by Beck on Christmas morning, and Reid (also in Frankenheimer’s THE FOURTH WAR) brings warmth to a typical sidekick role. Everyone involved, particularly Johnson, Chang and Frankenheimer, works hard to elevate a routine cop meller to a crime thriller with humor, color, and excitement.

2 comments:

Glen Davis said...

Don Johnson was in a cold streak between Miami Vice and Nash Bridges.

englishteacherx said...

Yeah, trying to make a 70s style crime thriller in 1989 probably wasn't the wisest commercial choice, but they probably thought the public was showing fatigue with Stallone and Schwarzeneggar style fare. Sadly, they were just waiting for Michael Bay.