New Jack City (1991)

The used Blu-ray copy of New Jack City I blind-bought includes no fewer than three accompanying music videos among its special features – including one for Color Me Badd’s eternally amusing hit “I Wanna Sex You Up.” I was so taken aback by this emphasis on music video tie-ins that I wondered if the film’s exceptionally well-curated street fashion and R&B soundtrack had been the original inspiration for the term “New Jack Swing.” No, that genre signifier had been around since at least the mid-80s, but my confusion at least points to how much of an MTV-inspired sensory pleasure the film can be from scene to scene – effortlessly oozing hiphop cool in every drastic camera angle and exaggerated cartoon of street-level criminal activity. What makes the film feel so fascinatingly odd is the way those formal surface pleasures actively go to war with the genuinely horrific dramatic content of its crack-epidemic plot. Halfway between a music video and an alarmist D.A.R.E. ad, New Jack City is exhilarating in its tension between framing the power of crack cocaine druglords with the stylized cool of Comic Book Noir movies like Dick Tracy ’90 or Batman ’89 and showing the full horror of their product’s havoc on their community as the nightmare it truly was. The film opens with a sample of N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” announcing, “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge,” to signal both its aesthetic connections with music video filmmaking and its willingness to pummel its audience full-force with its anti-drugs messaging.

Ice-T stars as an undercover cop (dressed up for his rap rock “Cop Killer” phase, long before his eventual Law & Order retirement home) hell-bent on busting Wesley Snipes’s snarling druglord baddy, Nino Brown. The futuristic crack cocaine emporium the cops attempt to bust is even more intricately constructed than the complex operations of The Wire. Nino’s gang, The Cash Money Brothers, have seized an entire housing project tower and retrofitted it into a one-stop-crack-shop, where a customer can purchase, consume, and ride the high of the lethally addictive drug in a single, protected locale. This massive, organized crack-selling operation requires an equally colossal reaction from law enforcement, escalating this small-budget crime story to the unlikely heights of an action blockbuster. Cheesy guitar riffs accompany rogue cop heroics and accentuate grisly images of addicts (literally) hitting rock bottom. Ice-T & his undercover crew chase down their perps with X-treme BMX stunts, and find themselves de-wiring a bomb in a panic seconds before it’s set to blow. The film is less decisive about how heroic or sympathetic its portrayal of their druglord nemeses are supposed to come across. Sure, Snipes is destroying his local community to turn a personal profit, has no qualms with using a small child as a shield in a gunfight, and gives Stacy Keach a run for his money in how to most menacingly eat a banana. At the same time, there’s an undeniable anti-hero cool to the way the film’s music video aesthetic frames the dealers’ power & fashion (which includes a lot of Kangol, gold chains, and velvet track suits). When they rationalize “You gotta rob to get rich in the Reagan Era,” it doesn’t exactly erase their trail of dead, but it at least contextualizes their rise to power as an underdog story that’s uncomfortably easy to sympathize with.

With this debut feature as a director, Mario Van Peebles continued to evolve a tradition partly pioneered by his father’s proto-blacksploitation art piece Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song twenty years earlier: using the stylized cool of Black Culture to deliver a clear political message to his own community. There’s some genuine heartfelt concern here about the havoc the 90s crack epidemic was wreaking on black communities across America. He plainly states a plea to address the problem head-on in a textual epilogue that reads, “If we don’t confront this problem realistically – without empty slogans and promises – then drugs will continue to destroy our country.” That destruction is illustrated throughout the film in outright body horror detailing what crack does to its addicts – most notably to a “basehead” named Pookie played by a young, gaunt Chris Rock. Even with that blatant messaging, though, I’m not sure the film’s anti-drugs themes managed to overpower the music video cool of its depictions of profitable street crime. New Jack City has had a huge impact on black pop culture, inspiring the performing names of artists as disparate as the New Orleans-based rap label Cash Money Records, the Atlantan drag queen Nina Bonina Brown, and the ECW-fame pro wrestler New Jack. You can also see its visual sensibilities echoed in other hiphop music video-flavored features like Belly & last year’s remake of SuperFly, which also struggle to deliver a convincing political messaging over the stylized cool of their surface pleasures. Based on the film’s lasting impact among these pop culture descendants, it’s become increasingly clear that its style has overpowered its substance enough to make its drug dealing antagonists out to be admirable anti-heroes rather than the communal menaces they were likely intended to be. Still, the movie itself never shies away from depicting the full, ugly consequences of their brutal rise to power, and that clash between form & content makes for a fascinating watch in the moment.

-Brandon Ledet

Corrupt Lieutenant (1984)

I have a bad habit of occasionally purchasing second-hand DVDs solely for their shoddy cover art. I don’t think I’ve ever topped myself in this trivial pursuit since the day I purchased a bootleg copy of some forgotten cop thriller titled Corrupt Lieutenant. The cover for my obviously unofficial copy of Corrupt Lieutenant is a master work of outsider art & visual anti-comedy. Falling somewhere between rudimentary Photoshop collage & a nightmare swirl of stock photography, it’s the exact kind of utter garbage my terrible raccoon brain can’t help but hoard away at home instead of just letting it rot at Goodwill. Unfortunately, that means these movies sometimes collect dust, unwatched for years until I force myself to follow through on actually giving them a chance. As it turns out, Corrupt Lieutenant not only has some of the best-worst artwork I’ve ever found on one of these ill-advised excursions to the thrift store; it also stands as one of the few select examples I can think of where it turns out the movie itself was actually worth the gamble. As far as cop thrillers go, it’s not exactly mind-blowing, but considering the state of its cover art it’s a miraculously competent picture.

It’s worth noting upfront that my unsanctioned copy of Corrupt Lieutenant isn’t even titled correctly. Although it’s been released under the alternate titles The Order of Death, Corrupt, and Bad Cop Chronicles #2: Corrupt, this Italian crime thriller was originally distributed under the name Copkiller, which is by far its most apt moniker. Since the distributors of the film allowed its copyright designation to slip into public domain status, however, it’s been repackaged several times over in disparate stabs by a wide range of enterprising folks trying to make a buck. This is how Copkiller was retitled Corrupt Lieutenant in the early 90s after its star antihero, Harvey Keitel, was featured in the infamous Abel Ferrara film Bad Lieutenant. The two films don’t really have all that much to do with each other outside of Keitel’s starring role in both. The Ferrara picture plays like an especially deranged version of a Scorsese crisis of faith exploration, while its Italian predecessor is more of a sleazy, giallo-esque knockoff of the crooked cop genre Friedkin ignited with The French Connection. Performances from Harvey Keitel and a typically acting-shy Johnny Rotten combine with a score from omnipresent Italian composer Ennio Morricone to afford the film an air of legitimacy, but its shitty public domain transfers, off-kilter Italian dubbing, and sleaze > substance ethos are all constant reminders of its true place in the world as a forgotten work of mediocre genius.

A killer dressed in a police uniform and ski mask is terrorizing the cops of New York City by murdering them one by one, seemingly at random. A young John Lydon plays a spoiled brat punk who confesses to these crimes to Harvey Keitel’s grizzled lieutenant. Keitel’s either believes the confession or is angered enough by its flippancy to falsely imprison Lydon in his own apartment, since the rest of the force is treating him like a liar and a prankster. After a period of keeping the smirking punk tied up & torturing him for a more detailed confession (he feeds him out of a dog food bowl, shoves his head in an oven & cranks the gas, etc.), Keitel’s forces his prisoner at gunpoint to actually slit a cop’s throat, an ill-considered plan that backfires in a wide variety of ways. While figuring out what to do about that cop’s death, Keitel’s finds himself seducing the widow of the man they killed and Lydon moves into his former captor & newfound accomplice’s apartment on his own free will, nagging him as a kind of spiritually corrupt conscience. The film takes on a tense, slowly ratcheted form of psychological torment from there as the weight of the crime the two committed together and the true identity of the (would-be titular) cop killer eventually driving the whole thing home for an inevitably tragic conclusion.

Corrupt Lieutenant is most notable for the authenticity of its violence & grime. Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten, is reported to have provided his own wardrobe for the picture, which shows in his convincingly ratty, 80s punk appearance. When Keitel’s corrupt lieutenant goes on a bender and starts bonding with the gross little bugger in the most unlikely of unions, the grotesqueness of their collective downfall looks & feels legitimate, an effect that’s only amplified by the VHS-quality imagery of a shitty bootleg DVD transfer. Similarly, Keitel’s physical violence laid upon Rotten’s scrawny shoulders is a convincing kind of rough-housing and it’s occasionally tempting to worry about the little shit’s physical wellbeing. Instead of reading the punk’s rights, Keitel’s more prone to shout, “Shut the fuck up!” and thrash him around the interrogation room. I’m not convinced the film has anything more to say beyond a Cops Can Be Violent Criminals Too cliché, but the way Rotten worms that idea into Keitel’s head in the back half and the way Beetlejuice/Mars Attack actress Silvia Sidney posits that, “The police create disorder, not order. They inspire us to commit crimes so that we can be punished for them,” makes the idea interesting and more than a little bit slimy. There’s even a hint that Rotten’s confessed cop killer gets a sexual satisfaction out of having Keitel’s slap him around, which is then backed up by the S&M collages plastered on his bedroom walls.

I’m not exactly sure what I expected out of Corrupt Lieutenant/Copkiller/The Order of Death/Corrupt when I popped it in the DVD player, but the sleazy Italian cop thriller I got was a surprisingly entertaining watch. That could maybe be chalked up to the low expectations set by its laughably bad cover art, but I think anyone with a little appreciation for giallo or the post-Friedkin crooked cop thrillers of the 70s & 80s would be able to get on board with it as a minor entertainment. Funnily enough, just about the only scenario in which I wouldn’t recommend the film is if someone were specifically looking for a work similar to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Corrupt Lieutenant has even less to do with that work than Herzog’s “spiritual sequel,” which was mostly about, I don’t know, iguanas & Nic Cage freakouts. Much like the cover art for my DVD copy of the film, that little bit of revisionist rebranding was amusingly brash & ill-considered.

-Brandon Ledet

Cold Steel (1987)

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three star

It’s tempting to think of 1995’s Jade as the bargain bin version of William Friedkin’s masterfully sleazy 80s cop thriller To Live and Die in L.A., but maybe the director wasn’t at all imitating past success with that admittedly dire misfire. By the time Friedkin made Jade, the 80s sleaze market he helped shape with his Wang Chung-scored cop thriller masterpiece had formed into its own solid genre, ranging wildly in both content & quality. The Sharon Stone/Adam Ant cop thriller Cold Steel, delivered by the one-time director Dorothy Ann Puzo, is just as sleazy & cheaply made as Jade and could easily be accused of the same claims of To Live and Die in L.A. counterfeiting (heh, heh), but because it doesn’t feature a filmmaker retreading old ground it gets by as a straightforward genre entry. Cold Steel is undeniably of its time in every possibly way. Its clash of 80s pop ballad cheese with extreme stomach-churning violence is only unremarkable because there was so much other tacky, tonally incongruous violence being produced at the time of its release. Considered in isolation and divorced from its peers & influences, Cold Steel is a fairly entertaining picture (which is more than can be said in Jade’s defense, unfortunately).

Released the same year as Lethal Weapon, Cold Steel attempts to navigate the same balance of light humor and intense violence as that much more enduring work, but can’t manage to match the intelligence of Shane Black’s game-changing screenplay. In this scenario, our down on his luck, perpetually drunk cop mixes pills & booze to show his gritty side, but bangs an automated coffee machine with commands like, “C’mon! Squirt!” only to receive a coffee facial to show that he’s also, in effect, a lighthearted clown. This sloppy cut-up finds himself entangled in a never-ending loop of revenge when a vicious gang (including Adam Ant as a smooth-talking goon) murders his father on Christmas Day for a perceived past wrong. The leader of the gang responsible, known only as the Iceman, is a hard drug-shooting creep with a mechanical voice box that allows him to speak through the wound in his throat. It’s at first unclear if this thieving, murderous crew has any clear motive in their violent robberies or if they’re just generic gangster baddies, but as our boozed-out hero chases them down through a series of explosion-heavy car chases, industrial setting confrontations, and heartless double crossings, a much clearer picture starts to unfold. Somewhere in all this chaos he finds the time to woo a young Sharon Stone through the erotic exoticism of eating sushi and that’s how sleazy 80s cop movies are made.

Cold Steel and Jade are both derivative and narratively unambitious in their post-To Live and Die in L.A. genre sleaze, but Cold Steel is entertaining enough to prove that wasn’t Jade’s only problem. Some of its entertainment is pure novelty, especially in its casting of Adam Ant, Sharon Stone, and (in a brief scene) minor scream queen Heidi Kozak. What really struck me, though, was how shocking the film’s violence felt despite the familiarity of its generic narrative. Stuntmen on fire, vicious stabs to the neck, grotesquely detailed drug abuse (another nod to Friedkin?), and overeager sexual leering all give the film a slimy sheen of 80s sleaze that never quite reach the heights of films like To Live and Die in L.A. or Cruising, but are still affecting in their own right. I’ll even admit that a few of Cold Steel’s stray stabs at humor got a laugh out of me. I guffawed especially hard when the hero cop responds to the warning, “He’ll kill you both!” with a casual, “Yeah, I’m planning on not letting that happen.” Movies like Jade prove that following genre convention and searching for easy thrills doesn’t automatically equal entertainment value success, but Cold Steel somehow survives by playing by the rules and getting dirty in the details. It won’t blow your mind, but you could do much worse if this is the type of action picture you’re looking for and you’ve already seen To Live and Die in L.A. one too many times.

-Brandon Ledet

Mi mefakhed mehaze’ev hara (aka Big Bad Wolves, 2014)

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threehalfstar

(Trigger Warning: Child Abuse and Sexual Assault)

What is a monster? We live in a world where we know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that there are no vampires, no werewolves, no scarred demons with razor gloves stalking our dreamscapes with the power to make our nightmare deaths carry over into the waking world. Films featuring antagonists that no rational person could legitimately fear, like a children’s doll haunted by the soul of a serial killer or an evil leprechaun covered in carcinomas, belong to the realm of fantasy. Thus, contemporary horror often confines itself to the plausible, in many ways becoming more like thrillers than the traditional horror films of yore. Our modern monster has to be a person, someone who could be your neighbor or simply a fellow citizen who happens to be a stranger, capable of doing something monstrous. For the past couple of decades, this phantom has to be someone capable of committing that most heinous of crimes–child molestation and murder.

The problem with this, of course, is that those of us in the West have become horribly desensitized to it. For seventeen seasons (and counting), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has shown episode after episode dealing with the neat, patly handled aftermath of sexual assault, especially of children. Every other crime or investigative drama of the new millennium has also featured rape of children as a plot point multiple times. Chris Hanson turned pedophile hunting into a frenzied spectator sport with To Catch a Predator–not that this isn’t something that law enforcement should be doing, but turning the deception and capture of child molesters into entertainment? What the actual fuck? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the commodification and de facto pursuant trivialization of sexual assault and abuse, virtually always of women and often of children, has led to the horrifying explosion of misogynists, rape culture opportunists and deniers, and people who are generally unmoved by the suffering of others. Cultural sensitivities have been numbed by decades of exploitation of those most in need of understanding and protection.

As a result, a thriller that creates great tension and remains (mostly) non-exploitative while dealing with a child murderer in an appropriate way is a rarity, and 2013 Israeli film Mi mefakhed mehaze’ev hara (literally “Who fears the bad wolf,” released in English-speaking markets as Big Bad Wolves in 2014) is a surprisingly good watch, barring two major problems. It’s a thematically sound, lean and taut ride from start to finish.

The plot follows three men. The first two we meet at Micki (Lior Ashkenazi) and Dror (Rotem Keinan); Dror is a Tanakh teacher who has been apprehended by a quartet of punch-happy police, led by Micki, in connection with the abduction of a girl who went missing during a game of hide-and-seek. They take him to a seemingly empty warehouse and rough him up before taking him in for processing; unbeknownst to them, they are filmed by a teenager who happens to have been hanging out in the abandoned building. Commissioner Tsvika (Dvir Benedek) pulls Micki from the case, initially demoting him for his actions before firing him once the video goes viral. Meanwhile, Dror finds himself already having been judged guilty in the court of public opinion after he is released and is ostracized. An anonymous tip leads the police to the missing girl’s corpse, which is missing its head (meaning she cannot be truly put to rest under traditional Judaic law, although this is not explicitly mentioned in the film) and bears signs of sexual assault; she is not the first. The girl’s father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), concocts a plan to torture Dror in order to find out where his daughter’s head is.

At the film’s core, the thematic intention is to call into question our convictions about good and evil. Is Dror guilty? What if he’s innocent? And, if he is guilty, does that justify that’s done to him, so graphically and brutally? Even if all that happens is a revisitation of the murderer’s crimes, will recreating those horrors really bring Gidi or Micki closure? Is everyone really a monster? This is beautifully delineated in the way that Dror and Micki act as reflections of each other. Once the video is released showing Micki and his fellow officers beating Dror, both lose their jobs; Dror is fired from the school due to parental complaints, and Micki is let go from the force for participating in the assault (with the unstated, implicit reason being that his firing is less for the event itself than for the fact that he was stupid enough to get caught doing it). Both the head of the school and the chief of police say that the dismissal is temporary, and that each man will come back to his respective position once everything blows over. Both men are estranged from their wives, causing them to feel distant from their daughters (Gidi is also estranged from his wife, and, of course, his daughter is dead).

Despite being an engrossing and cinematically pristine film, there are several factors that simply cannot be ignored with regards to the film. First and foremost, it’s reprehensibly irresponsible to portray the documenting of police brutality as being a greater social ill than the brutality itself. Many of the events of the narrative could have been prevented had the video not come to light, but the film doesn’t lay the blame at the feet of the policemen who are beating a suspect, instead having the characters lament that they were caught. No spoilers–I’ll simply say that this movie would have had an unambiguously happy ending had Micki and crew followed procedure in the first place.

But there’s an even greater problem here. There’s only one woman in this movie: the realtor (Nati Kluger). There are also a few young girls, obviously, but none of them ever speak or have any autonomy at all. Arguably, there’s a certain unavoidable lack of complete agency for all children, given that they require caretaking, but contrast this to the way we are presented with the chief’s son, who is actualizing his hero worship of his father and being empowered by his father’s knowledge and guidance. He’s treated like a person, which is more than can be said for any of the adult women who are heard (and never seen) in this movie. Every single man who makes up the core of this ensemble has a wife, a woman who exists entirely offscreen, appearing only as a disembodied voice on the phone. This is a fantastic movie, taught and evocative and timely, but there’s just something about the fact that this is a revenge movie in which three men exact harsh torture upon a fourth, with all of them being motivated by the rape and murder of a voiceless girl with a formless mother.

The last time I saw a plot that handled all the elements on display here with the same kind of tension, ambiguity, and deftness was 2005’s Hard Candy, starring Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. Page’s character is an underage girl who is lured in by Wilson’s alleged pedophile, only to reveal herself as a possibly unhinged self-made vigilante; the rest of the film plays out as a series of power games that calls into question audience assumptions about who is the predator and who is the prey. Both movies have a cast in the single digits (not counting phone voices) and exist solely to play with expectations, but Hard Candy had something that Wolves does not: female characters.

Wolves may be a five star viewing experience, but its subtextual erasure of the horrifying implications and realities of its own premise severely detracts from the film’s recommendability as well as its relevance and canonization as a work of art. “If you want to see this premise done right, watch Hard Candy” is the wrong lesson to take from this review, although that statement is mostly accurate. Wolves is a legitimately good movie, it’s simply that its lack of self-awareness of the way in which it articulates its thesis weakens the movie’s overall statements and concepts.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond