Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The White Elephant Blogathon: Number One with a Bullet

Hey, gang!

Yes, I like to imagine there's a gang of you who check this blog every few months to see if I've posted anything, and this fiscal quarter, you're in luck!

Just like last year (scroll way, way down -- oh wait, that was my last post on this blog, so it's right below this one!) I was cajoled by Facebook wag Philip Tatler IV into participating in something called the White Elephant Blogathon. The way it works, some doofus, probably a film blogger, selects some offbeat piece of readily available cinematic detritus and puts it in the pot, Philip "randomly" assigns each film to a different film critic/doofus, and we end up with this. I am actually honored to be among the fine writers invited to participate the past two years. Last year, I was assigned Can't Stop the Music, and if there was ever a film that matched that We-Called-Him-Bruce Jenner-starring effort in its quintessential 1980s-ness, it's the film I was assigned this year, Number One with a Bullet.

How 1980s is the 1987 buddy cop action comedy? I've compiled a list, because it's easier than writing:

-Stars Billy Dee Williams
-Stars Robert Carradine
-They play detective partners who bend the rules to get the job done.
-Was originally supposed to star Jim Belushi, er, ahem, "James Belushi"  in Carradine's role. James settled for a screenwriting credit.
-Produced by Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan for Cannon Films
-Co-stars Valerie Bertinelli
-Co-stars an aging Peter Graves
-Co-stars the eternally youthful Doris Roberts
-Jesus, that quintessentially 1980s synth & heavy metal guitar score by Alf Clausen, who also scored the TV shows Moonlighting and Alf
-Detective Hazeltine (Williams) moonlights as a jazz trumpeter
-Features a scene at a mud-wrestling establishment
-Features two actors, Jon Gries and Mykelti Williamson, whose careers I did not become aware of until later

Full disclosure, I had never heard of this film before it was assigned to me, and while watching it, I assumed it was a quickie ripoff of Lethal Weapon, what with Williams' more level-headed Hazeltine (a lot more suave than Danny Glover's Murtaugh) offset by Carradine's dangerously off-balance Barzak (a more fun version Mel Gibson's suicidal Riggs). It was only when I looked on IMDB after watching it that I realized Number One was actually released earlier in 1987 than Lethal Weapon. So it's not a Lethal Weapon ripoff, presumably. Just a zeitgeist type thing, I guess.

Last year when I did this, I wasn't particularly thrilled to review Can't Stop the Music, but I did find a decent amount of interesting trivia about the movie from various online sources. That helped spice things up. Number One seems to be pretty much a forgotten film, and aside from its questionable provenance (i.e. Cannon), I'm not sure why that's the case. I'm pretty sure I'll remember it forever now, for better or worse.

The mechanics of the haphazard, worked-over detective plot seem pretty inconsequential, though. They are renegade cops, always causing as much trouble for their beleaguered chief (Graves) as they do for the criminals. Barzak, whom they call "Berserk" on the streets, is mentally unstable, and is convinced that the mayor's best buddy, millionaire businessman DeCosta (Barry Sattels) is the kingpin behind the local trade in black tar and China white, which I believe means heroin. Barzak stakes out DeCosta's house nightly, which we learn caused the dissolution of his marriage to Teresa (Bertinelli), with whom he's still in love. Barzak and Hazeltine are assigned to protect a hitman-turned-witness, which they do badly. They eventually track down the man responsible, Pogue (Michael Goodwin) whom they also allow to be murdered by DeCosta before he can give them any information. After allowing a few more potential witnesses to be murdered, they realize there's a mole within the department.

None of that effectively expresses the movie's entertainment value. The action is spatially coherent, in the now-outdated style of the day, and -- including a helicopter-prop plane chase and a car/truck chase and shootout amid some heavy construction equipment -- looks pretty good for what was probably a modest budget.

But if you're going to watch the film, you're going to watch it for ridiculous character details and would-be witty banter. The plot exists mainly as a way for these two absurd characters to reflexively riff on cop movie and TV show tropes. Much is made of the efficacy of shouting "Freeze!" at suspects, for example. The movie isn't as slick as Lethal Weapon, but its attempts at humor hit the mark more often, and when they miss, at least they miss broadly.

You may be coming to the conclusion that I actually kind of liked this movie, and that's accurate. While Carradine and Williams have never had the kind of career success one might have expected based on the size of their biggest hits, they are good actors, particularly Carradine.

Director Jack Smight also once seemed destined for bigger things. directing Paul Newman in Harper back in 1966, for example. His 1970 James Caan-starring adaptation of John Updike's Rabbit, Run was considered a massive flop, which probably set his career back some. When he returned to feature film work in the late '70s, it was on less high end stuff like Airport '75, Fast Break starring Gabe Kaplan, and one of my many childhood favorite post-apocalyptic movies, Damnation Alley. This project fits in with those, more than those earlier, hoity-toity literary adaptations.

Carradine has had an interesting career, Perhaps he'll always be remembered as Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds, but cinephiles appreciate his work in films like Walter Hill's The Long Riders and Sam Fuller's The Big Red One. People who understand his range know that playing the tough, ruthless, mentally unstable Barzak was not such a stretch for him, though I imagine it was a challenge to make the character feel as full-fleshed as Carradine does. We may never understand his strained, awkward relationship with his nagging mother (Roberts), his stalker-y but still neglectful passion for his way too patient ex-wife Teresa, or his insane nearly unspoken ardor for Hazeltine, but perhaps most importantly, we believe what he proclaims about himself: He fucking loves being a cop.

I was tempted to nickname this movie Jazzbo and Cockblocker, because Barzak's m.o. is to interrupt Hazeltine when he's working his game on the ladies -- which naturally includes plenty of jazz trumpeting -- and blow the deal for him. At one point, Barzak actually calls Hazeltine's date on the bar phone pretending to be Hazeltine's gay lover. She returns to their table long enough to shout "You faggot!" at Hazeltine before storming off. It is a pretty startling moment, watching in 2015, but it does jibe with how I remember the '80s. Hazeltine gets back at him by calling his mom to tell her when Barzak will be in town, and by insulting his guitar-playing and singing. (Barzak sometimes brings an acoustic guitar along to accompany interrogations.)

Of course, Barzak's sexuality is further called into question by his questionable decision to stake out a drug buy at a church fair while in drag, reading a copy of something called The Sensuous Woman to further sell the transparent ruse. I was surprised and confused by this police tactic, and seriously befuddled when one of the drug buyers shows up in drag, too, for no reason I could discern. except for that it leads to a comic chase that winds up at the most desultory bingo game ever captured on film, where the priest calling the game pleads with Barzak and his quarry, (perhaps inaccurately) identified in the credits as "Transvestite" (John Durbin), "Ladies, please! This is a house of God!" The crook responds by grabbing the priest and threatening to shoot him. Barzak then does this remarkably Riggs-like thing where he convinces "Transvestite" that he's the one cop so crazy he might shoot everyone in the church if the situation doesn't de-escalate fast, and the bad guy lays down his weapon with a convincingly bemused chuckle. For Barzak's part, hey, he fucking loves being a cop!

It all made a bit more sense when I saw that -- along with Belushi, of course, and Gail Morgan Hickman, who also worked on The Enforcer (Clint Eastwood), Murphy's Law (Charles Bronson), and The Big Score (Fred Williamson) -- two Saturday Night Live writers, Andrew Kurtzman and Rob Riley, were credited on the script. It has a kind of loose, semi-improvised comedy vibe to it, without ever lapsing into outright parody or farce.

I can forgive the movie's political incorrectness, including its cavalier attitude regarding the rights of suspected criminals, because it's a product of its time. Or maybe just because I enjoy Carradine's offbeat performance and find it all fairly benign, silly, and amusing. I like to think of Golan-Globus worrying about what they would call the sequel if the movie was a hit. I'm not angry at whatever eccentric individual picked this title, is what I'm saying. 

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