I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Dead Bang

tn_deadbangI didn’t have time to do a countdown for MACHETE like I did THE EXPENDABLES, but it is almost like a holiday today so I figure it deserves some kind of commemoration. Obviously Seagal is the supporting player I’m most excited to see on the big screen again, but in second place I think would have to be Don Johnson. So I marked the occasion by checking out a Don Johnson movie I always meant to see, John Frankenheimer’s DEAD BANG from 1989.

Some people seem to think you put somebody like Don Johnson in a movie like MACHETE as a wacky pop culture joke, but I think Rodriguez follows the Tarantino philosophy of casting. I think he casts guys like Johnson, Seagal and Jeff Fahey because he genuinely likes them as actors and thinks they’re underappreciated or underutilized. Rodriguez doesn’t get alot of credit for career resurrecting or igniting like Tarantino did for John Travolta and Christophe Waltz, but he probly should. He gave Salma Hayek her first starring roles, pretty much made Danny Trejo into an icon, gave George Clooney his first real movie star role. More recently he gave Mickey Rourke two really good roles in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO and SIN CITY shortly before he blew up again with THE WRESTLER. That wasn’t supposed to be funny, that was because he recognized Mickey Rourke’s continued excellence before alot of other people did. I doubt Johnson’s got a WRESTLER in him, but he does deserve another shot.

mp_deadbangDEAD BANG is a good, not great Frankenheimer cop movie. Johnson, fresh off playing Sonny Crockett, puts on some socks and goes straight into his big screen washed up cop role. He plays homicide detective Jerry Beck, and this guy is in bad shape. He’s completely broke from legal fees for his divorce. His wife got a restraining order so he has to sneak by the school during recess just to see his kids for a second. When he tries to call them on Christmas she claims they’re in bed even though he can hear them in the background. And he doesn’t put up with it passively. When he gets mad you can see why the ex-wife is scared of him.

You might think setting it on Christmas is an attempt at getting a piece of that LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD magic from the couple years before. But this doesn’t feel like that kind of a big crazy action movie. It reminds me a little bit of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., the heavily police-consulted type of more realistic police procedural, but combined with the DIRTY HARRY type cop movie. And also it’s one of those loner cop movies where he’s on his own, not getting much backing from his department and interference from the FBI, but tirelessly throwing himself into the case anyway.

The case is a murder, of course. Some nut shoots a black convenience store clerk, then a white cop who runs into him on the street. Beck figures out a suspect quickly and tries to track him down. The guy turns out to be a white supremacist and just by dumb luck Beck finds himself on the trail of a group traveling across the country to various Aryan Nation type churches and militias, committing crimes and uniting bigots. I’m not sure why it’s called DEAD BANG. I think WHITE SUPREMACIST ROAD TRIP would make more sense.

The movie surrounds Beck with assholes and dipshits so you can enjoy him being a dick to them. If everybody else was nicer than they are he would just seem like a huge jerk and it would be uncomfortable to watch. But as it is he’s semi-sympathetic. When the suspect’s parole officer (Bob Balaban) refuses to meet with him on Christmas Eve he makes him meet him on Christmas Day, then tricks him into coming along to raid a biker house. There’s a foot chase that gets goofy because when he catches the guy he’s so hung over that he pukes on him. Then he gets him to talk by threatening to puke on him some more.

Beck probly could’ve placed respectably in any washed up cop competitions of the time, but the two BAD LIEUTENANTs tip the scales so hard that it almost seems cute now by comparison. But the point is different. It’s not about how slimy cops can get, it’s about how this one cop has blown his life so bad he has nothing left but to pour himself into this case. So he finds himself sitting at a desk looking through files on Christmas.

William Forsythe is excellent in a role opposite of the type he plays so well in OUT FOR JUSTICE, STONE COLD and DEVIL’S REJECTS. Instead of an out of control maniac he’s got a stick up his ass. He never works up much outrage at the bigots they’re dealing with, but files a complaint against Beck for cursing (because he’s a Christian, he explains). Beck learns to work with this asshole and (SPOILER) normally they’d either gain respect for each other at the end, or the guy would turn out to be a traitor. I like that neither one happens.

It never occurred to me before, but Don Johnson has a little bit of Clint Eastwood in him. I mean, just a little bit. He’s probly more of a pretty boy, but he’s got similar squinty eyes and cynical, fed-up-with-this-bullshit persona. And this script could’ve worked for an Eastwood movie. But I think with Clint you’d be a little more seduced by the character’s charisma, a little more forgiving of him being such an asshole. With Johnson it’s funny how much most of his co-workers hate him, but not as funny.

He gets some good ones though. His best sarcasm is when he goes to the sheriff of a small town and finds out the racism is so out in the open here that in his office the sheriff has a big wooden sign with the n-word on it, and he complains that he’d still have it on the outside if it wasn’t for “those ACLU f-ggots.” After some comments about California cops sitting on the beach Beck decides to play along and makes up an elaborate story about how he didn’t want to investigate the murder of a fellow officer but he had to because he drew the shortest straw from a banana daiquiri.

His luck turns around in one of the other towns where the sheriff turns out to be black. That’s a huge relief for Beck, not because he reminds him of Tubbs, but because he keeps working with these crackers and any one of them might tip off the racists. So he’s delighted to join an otherwise all back team to raid a militia compound. And there seems to be more mutual respect going between Beck and these guys. He would never treat them like he treats Bob Balaban or his psychiatrist who makes him laugh because he looks like Woody Allen.

There’s a little irony to the racial themes in the story. White supremacists always make good easy-to-hate bad guys, and they do a good job here of making them scarily smart despite their racist idiocy. But let’s be honest – Beck isn’t doing this because he wants to crush the white power movement, or to stop this string of hate crimes. He’s doing it because of the white cop that was killed as an accidental side effect of the hate crime spree. That’s his case, that’s his obsession, that’s what got him laid by Penelope Ann Miller (long story). Of course he wants to bring down all these assholes while he’s at it, but you can’t help but think that if things had been a little different and only the black cashier had been killed then nobody would’ve followed this thing through, the FBI would still claim white supremacists don’t work together and nothing would’ve stopped these particular pricks.

ENDING SPOILERS: The movie comes close to a brilliantly unexpected ending. Of course he gets his guy, but when Beck starts confronting him about the death of the cop the suspect swears he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and it becomes clear that they’ve chased the wrong guy 1500 miles across the country and under the ground. Of course the real killer turns out to be there anyway and the case is solved, but wouldn’t it be cool to end a movie on “well, the guy we’re looking for must’ve got away, but at least we stopped something bigger by chasing after this one”?

I think DEAD BANG is mainly remembered as another one of these failed attempts to turn a huge TV star into a movie star, because the movie wasn’t that great and didn’t really take off. Since he’s fine but doesn’t really stand out as being spectacular in it people decided he couldn’t carry a movie and blamed him. That’s less of an injustice than it was with David Caruso in the criminally misunderstood KISS OF DEATH, but it’s not really deserved. Give him the right role I think he could be good. People might stop wearing socks again in his honor.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Friday, September 3rd, 2010 at 1:57 pm and is filed under Action, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

34 Responses to “Dead Bang”

  1. I was too young to be a fan of Johnson during his Miami Vice days, but I was a huge fan of his 90’s show NASH BRIDGES. I’m not a huge crime show watcher. If you wanna make me watch your show, give me entertaining characters (Which is why I don’t watch CSI, but love NCIS) and NASH BRIDGES had them. I almost never cared for the crime of the week, but all the other stories about the private life of the cops, made some seriously entertaining Television. (I wonder if MACHETE has a scene with Don & Cheech together.) It’s just too bad that Don Johnson seems to be a serious prick in real life. I remember an interview with LOST producer Carlton Cuse, where he talked about working on NASH BRIDGES and that one quote that stuck in my head was: “Never name your show after the main protagonist. It’s a license for the actor who portrays him to act like an asshole all day long.”
    But I always enjoy to see Johnson on screen. He might be a jerk, but he’s a charismatic one.

  2. I’m still working my way through old Miami Vice seasons, so maybe someday I’ll catch Dead Bang, which is a great title.

    Speaking of raiding a militia compound. . . Don Johnson’s work in Machete is, shall we say, subdued, but somehow he seems to have greater screen presence than the lead, Danny Trejo, who remains stonefaced and seems to have most of the plot happen to him rather than making it happen. Well, I won’t spoil the thing, but I feel safe in raising your doubtlessly already high expectations — Machete is a phenomenal contribution not only to Badass Films, but to all the films of cinema.

  3. Love Dead Bang. Johnson is great in “TIN CUP” as well. He’s not given much to do in Machete, unfortunately.

  4. Nice Review Vern, I will definitely being seeing this one now. I would love to see Don Johnson get some more roles after Machete, I think he is a very underrated actor and could have been an Action star after Miami Vice if he had ever found the right role.

  5. Vern, happy Labor Day Machete weekend, please review A Boy and His Dog starring Don Johnson (Vic) and Tiger (Blood).

  6. Don Johnson is a good actor, and I’ve enjoyed him in almost everything I’ve ever seen him in. (I remember that scene with the sheriff and the racist sign, but I don’t remember ever watching this movie!!! I thought it was in that OTHER movie about 80s white supremacists with James Woods and James Spader…) HOWEVER: the Don Johnson film that must be seen (and is on DVD) is this truly insane film he did in 1973 called THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT. Folks, there is life before THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT, and then there is life after THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT. It’s like THE ROOM. I mean….Words can’t describe it.

    Tippi Hedren is in it as James Whitmore’s wife (amazingly, they continued to have acting careers well into the 1990s) and it was while working on this film that Johnson met Melanie Griffith, who was hanging around the set and is supposedly an extra in it too, although I can’t find her. Any relationship that began on the set of THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT was doomed, folks. Sorry.

    It’s based on a non-fiction 1962 book about co-ed college dorms and their potential to be non-stop lust hotels, but the book ultimately concedes that the sexual activity of the co-eds was pretty mild. Perhaps because they were profiling a Harvard – Radcliffe dorm on the so-called “Quad”….Not exactly a hotbed of wild parties.

    The movie gets rid of the Ivy League atmosphere and period setting and replaces it with 70s sexploitation action. See! Don Johnson and Bruno Kirby strip naked (full frontal!) and go skinny dipping; See! Don Johnson with pit stains on his t-shirt in EVERY SINGLE SCENE (that he keeps his clothes on in, at least); See! nude yoga group; See! a girl literally hugging a tree; See! classic 70s “Hey, brother, let it all hang out man, be free, do your thing” style nudity from people you pray won’t take their clothes off; See! Tippi Hedren in her underwear (her body still smokin’ at 40something) confronting pit-stained Don Johnson on the lawn of the college campus.

    Totally aside from the content the film itself is so riddled with continuity errors, technical mistakes, bad acting, ect, it’s amazing. Seek out THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT. A truly unforgettable experience.

  7. You could do a Machete Countdown just for your UK readers, Vern. We’re not getting it until November 26th. Also, I’ve never noticed this before, but does Johnson look like a blonde Bret Hart to anyone else?

  8. Now I feel really mean for teasing you Brits with the knowledge of how great Machete is. Oh well. Happy Labour Day, suckers!

  9. Vern – Now go review John Frankenheimer’s ninja movie THE CHALLENGE, aka SWORD OF THE NINJA. Come on Vern, don’t punk out on us. You know what to do brother.

    Anyway I didn’t care for DEAD BANG, just Frankenheimer in his not so good days (the 1980s) working a job and it shows. Still we have two good inspired scenes: The puking moment, and that whole scene with the psychiatrist. Otherwise both wasted on a boring mindless forgettable genre exercise.

    I give it 1 and a half Pet Alligators out of 5. Maybe its only 2 Sockless Shoes out of 5, but I’ve had a long day.

  10. I liked “Nash Bridges” as well. So might see this one in between my J-horror binge and my Seagal marathon. (Although that’s kinda on hold for the moment after “Kill Switch” turned out to be just as bad as everyone warned me it would be.)

  11. Paul – we warned ya brother.

  12. I know, I know. But I’m on a mission here. No pain, no gain, etc. Things will pick up once I get into the half-decent Seagals.

  13. did you survive SUBMERGED yet?

  14. yeah don johnson is a good actor. his career could have taken off if he had something that properly channeled his intensity at that time, say, if he got the lead in “falling down.” imagine don johnson playing that part instead of michael douglas. it would have worked, i think. then his career would have soared

    you get the idea that dwayne johnson isn’t even trying when he takes a role like “tooth fairy,” and so, he’ll never be an arnold schwarzenegger. yeah arnie did “kindergarten cop” and what was that one with sinbad? but that was arnie resting on his laurels, not establishing them, which the rock still needs to do. although he could do the same third act career change as arnie and take the governorship of american samoa, if he really wanted to, i think. i wonder what arnie’s fourth act will be?

    then again, the career of a certain actor who was the lead in “hudson hawk” wasn’t deep sixed by that movie so… whatever

  15. ooh ooh ooh

    now that they’ve gone and put the tough guys in one movie and called it “the expendables”, they should keep this ensemble theme going and do it with… tv cop heavies

    don johnson, david caruso, chris noth and/ or jerry orbach’s floating head in a jar, dennis franz, william petersen, and angela lansbury (when you think “miami vice” and “csi,” surely you also think “murder she wrote”)

  16. All I know is, I just chilled with Seth Rogen. Very cool guy, has a thing for 30ish blondes, best I can tell. Not often that a celebrity encounter is automatically so much fun, but Mr. Rogen keeps it real, my new favorite Hollywooder. Naturally funny, even more so than me, apparently. Shame I struck out with his girlfriend’s girlfriend chickadee, guess she didn’t like being twirled. Oh well.

  17. That probly should’ve gone in a thread attached to a Seth Rogen film, sorry.

    I guess I feel some nerd compulsion to share these things with you nerds, sorry.

  18. Mouth – Its ok. I would feel kinda proud if I was striking out when Seth Rogen wasn’t.

  19. RRA – just barely. “Submerged” was just bad.

    “Against the Dark” was better than expected though. Still not even approaching good, but not half as bad as Vern had made me think it would be.

    BR Baracka – Angela Lansbury can play it tough better than 90% of other actors. Jessica Fletcher is a control freak. That’s all well and good, but when the character she’s playing ISN’T so admirably motivated? “The Manchurian Candidate”. Seriously, I never thought I’d say this before watching that film, but Angela Lansbury is SCARY.

  20. So if Seth Rogen is really that cool, that might explain how he keeps getting work.

  21. You wanna see a Don Johnson/Mickey Rourke master piece? Check out Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man. Its even got a Baldwin in it as a bad guy.

  22. “You shot me, you shitbird!”

  23. “Harley, if you were shootin’ for shit you wouldn’t get a whiff!”

  24. The “Don Johnson laughs at the Woody Allen psychiatrist” scene is easily one of the best laughing scenes in film history. I think the only thing that comes close is the Tom Hanks-laughing scene w/ the bathtub in The Money Pit. And btw – I really can’t remember – did Penelope Ann Miller get naked in this or was it just back and side-boob?

  25. “… not because he reminds him of Tubbs.” Classic.

    I may be mistaken, but I seem to remember the word “effortless” coming to mind to describe the performances in HARLEY DAVIDSON & THE OTHER BRAND NAME. In such a banterific movie, it seemed like a real accomplishment. But I haven’t seen that one in years, so I could be wrong.

    Personally, I think Johnson gave the best performance in MACHETE. He kind of looks like a Macy’s Day Parade balloon of himself now, which lent a plausibility or a gravity to his character he might not have had when he was a pretty boy, much in the way that a younger Rourke couldn’t have done SIN CITY so well.

    Of course, my internal chronometer for acting might be off, because I think Lohan gave a better performance in MACHETE than De Niro. Maybe the secret was to limit her screen time. And her clothing.

  26. I liked Don in Nash Bridges. I’m too young for Miami Vice but I checked out some pics and he was hot, even if he didn’t wear socks with his shoes. I’m assuming he doused the crap out of them with foot powder every morning before he put them on.

    I won’t be watching Machete. I have my reasons and if I write much more they will turn into a rant.

    I will try to catch WHITE SUPREMACIST ROAD TRIP though.

  27. This was one of my favorite vhs rentals back in the days before the dvd came along. Watched it just recently again. I really like how after Don give’s the girl from Carlito’s Way shit, she’s never mentioned again.

  28. Of all the John rankenheimer movies to have reviewed, we have Dead Bang and The Island of Doctor Moreau.

    I just watched Seconds yesterday, in a strange coincidence, when JF was at his blacklist-busting paranoid best. A properly bizarre movie.

    Man, I’m old – I remember I stopped watching Miami Vice when they switched from the Daytona to the Testarossa.

  29. Limey – I’m surprised Vern never reviewed RONIN considering how much its brought up as a classic 1990s “badass” action picture.

    I liked SECONDS, it was interesting a modern take on the Faust story. Quite underrated.

  30. Ronin is fantastically badass! The scene in the hotel taking photos of the case and teh Sean Bean freak out spring to mind – never mind the car chases. A bit Oirish in places, though.

    Seconds – just the title sequence will give you the willies. And the music was an adaptation of Faust.

  31. Limey – I also fucking dug Frankenheimer’s touch to add several 007 villains in the cast from Sean Bean (GOLDENEYE) to Jonathan Pryce (TOMORROW NEVER DIES) and Michael Lonsdale (MOONRAKER). Really one fucking cast, plus the action shit too. Also good David Mamet uncredited scripted lines.

    “Worried about saving your own skin?”

    “Yeah, I am. It covers my body”

  32. Seconds is great. It’s like all those It’s a Wonderful Life knockoffs where you get a “what if” alternate life and it’s still not all it’s cracked up to be, but the dark side of it.

  33. Man, Don Johnson is THE SHIT.

    I grew up with MIAMI VICE and later thoroughly loved NASH BRIDGES, too.

    He should have been a superstar after MV finished but, for whatever reason, it wasn’t meant to be (I think it was to do with MV finishing as the 90s begun, and MV was seen as “cheesy” – something it was only occasionally guilty of).

    And yeah, Vern, check out HARLEY DAVIDSON & THE MARLBORO MAN when you can – awesome, MAN flick that it is.

  34. I’ve never forgotten the review of this from Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide: “Unpleasant, fact-based action film offers nothing you haven’t seen before, except for the hero vomiting on a suspect”. Went straight out and rented the VHS that very same day.

Leave a Reply





XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <img src=""> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <b> <i> <strike> <em> <strong>