Ok, Dear Reader…it’s Confession Time. For the last little while, I’ve been maybe, kinda, sorta a lil bit addicted to ‘Miami Vice’. That’s right…’Miami Vice’, the vapid, cheese-smothered yet strangely ground-breaking TV series that ran from ’84-’90, and pretty much defined the mid-late 80s. As a kid, my folks, terrific people that they are, did everything they could to steer my sister and I away from lots of the shit that spewed outta The Tube back in The Day. ‘Miami Vice’ was one of those shows that I always heard people ‘blah blah blah’ing about, but never once had the chance to see myself. In that respect, MY ’80s always felt a little incomplete. Fast Forward 25 or so years and I decided to fix THAT little hole in my Life. So I dove into the wildly stylish, but undeniably vacuous show…and loved it. In so many ways, it is terrible. But from a ‘retro nostalgia’ perspective…it’s a cool ‘snap shot’ of a time period that I was there for, but was just a little too young to fully ‘get’.
As I’ve been working my way through the pastel-colored undercover cop adventures of Detectives James ‘Sonny’ Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs (part way through Season 4 now : ), my curiosity about how the 80s would stylistically morph into the 90s, through the show, continues to grow. It’s also made me curious about the direction that Don Johnson (Django Unchained) was planning, at the time, for his extended career as the hit show neared it’s end. ‘Dead Bang’ was the first step in THAT direction.
I always remembered the VHS box art, Don Johnson in a long ‘duster’ brandishing a pump-action shotgun and looking all ‘badass’ with his trademark steely glare and residual ‘Vice’ hair styling, and always wondered how this new cop adventure would play out. And it is most certainly a cop adventure.
Johnson plays a haggard plain-clothes police officer (big stretch) named ‘Jerry Beck’, inspired by an actual police detective, who discovers a wide-spread white supremacist conspiracy while tracking down the killer of a uniformed patrolman. Along the way, ‘Beck’ runs afoul of various Parole Officers, lawyers, racist cops and, of course, the very dirtbags that he’s hunting down. The whole thing leads up to a typically 80s shootout at the ‘bad guys’ compound…a shootout where seemingly EVERYONE is armed with Mac 10s and Uzis…the cops included. Not sure how the police departments operated in this time period, but these firearms seem a lil too…’ghetto’, for use by cops and the FBI. The ‘Feds’ are another group that ‘Beck’ manages to piss off, particularly an uppity do-gooder agent hilariously over-played by William Forsythe (The Devil’s Rejects).
As as whole, ‘Dead Bang’ is nothing really special, but I found it interesting to watch how Johnson and director John Frankenheimer (Ronin) took the expected ‘Sonny Crockett’ characterizations, and tried to turn them on their head for this flick. In some respects, this character was a perfect ‘vehicle’ for Johnson to use to lure his TV-watching fanbase into the dark of a movie theatre.
First off, he’s a cop. By this point, Johnson was world-famous for playing exactly that. However, from the very introduction of ‘Beck’, we see that he is NOT the slick but raspy ‘Crockett’. We get to watch him in his shitty little kitchen (as opposed to sexy sailboat or huge, Grammy award-winning wife’s mansion etc) fumbling for his glasses, which break upon opening, so that he can read the Restraining Order that his ex has served him. We then get to see the pile of OVERDUE bills piled up nearby. ‘Crockett’ never complained about money, as the Miami-Dade Police Department provided everything, somewhat unbelievably, to maintain ‘Sonny’s’ cover as a slick ‘mover n shaker’ in the Miami criminal underground. So, Difference #1.
We also get to watch as ‘Beck’ effortlessly pisses people around him off with his overly-gruff, ‘F-Bomb’ saturated manner of bearing. ‘Sonny’ was usually a ‘smooth operator’ with the people around him, even when he went ‘head to head’ with his boss Lt. Castillo (Edward James Olmos). People just liked ‘Crockett’. ‘Beck’…yeah…not so much. It also doesn’t help ‘Beck’s case that he often gives in to his caveman-like impulses when frustrated or angry, and would, without thinking, physically rough people up…even going so far as to threaten the life of a weak little “Woody Allen”-looking psychiatrist in order to get put back on The Case. And it works!!!…without him fired, reprimanded or tossed in jail. Total bullshit…but another interesting character ‘tick’.
They also did a good number on getting across that ‘Beck’ was just a guy, a guy with human limitations whereas ‘Crockett’ would routinely run criminal scum down and still have enough breath to get in a good quip or ‘one-liner’ after cuffing the fleeing suspect…or blowing him away. There’s an amusing scene (intentional?) where ‘Beck’, hung-over all to hell, foot-chases a suspect through a number of dusty Los Angeles alleyways. As he runs, he looks like he’s going to die from exhaustion, sweating away while ‘huffing and puffing’. When he finally knocks the shithead to the ground, ‘Beck’s hangover suddenly catches up with him and he proceeds to hilariously puke all over the prone suspect as he’s fixing the handcuffs on the guy. Twice. It’s pure gold. And on it goes.
There are definitely times when we see a glimmer of ‘Crockett’ in Johnson’s performance, but by THIS point, that’s probably inevitable.
Going back to ‘Dead Bang’, there are certainly some lame elements to be seen. Like the synth-heavy 80s music score. Like the times when firearms change in people’s hands from shot to shot (9mm Browning Hi-Power to Berretta 92F…and back again). Like the stereotypically 80s gunshot and ricochet sound effects. Like having cops get gunned down and their nearby companions hardly bat an eye. LIke the useless sub-plot involving a one-night stand with the estranged wife of the murdered patrolman, played by a young Penelope Ann Miller (Carlito’s Way). So yeah, Dead Bang is certainly not perfect and judging from the rocket-like manner with which Don Johnson’s movie career took off after this was released (some heavy sarcasm at work right there, just sayin), the imperfections shone through at the box office as well. It’s not a terrible or largely incompetent flick…it’s just kind of…there. It’s an interesting look at The End of an Era; The Era being the time when Don Johnson could practically walk on water, as 80’s TV viewers ‘went’. If that perspective interests you at all, give this one a look. If not…you’re not missing much. And now…it’s back to the harrowing adventures of the Miami-Dade Vice Squad for me, pal!
*Don Johnson IS the next Chuck Norris. True story.