I found A TIME TO DIE in the action section, and it looks like an action vehicle for Traci Lords. On the cover she’s holding a gun in front of some burning vehicles and she looks awesome. But that’s not exactly what this is, there’s not alot of action. I’m gonna go ahead and classify it as “crime” to be less misleading. A few people get shot, and there’s a car chase where an unrelated car crashes and blows up. And the one part at the beginning where she crushes a dude’s balls (pictured left). But you’re not gonna see Traci Lords doing karate or anything. It’s more of a suspense-drama I guess.
But I kinda liked it. It has all the hallmarks of a generic and at times amateurish thriller, but it keeps surprising with extra bits of personality. Take for example the opening scene, where an arms deal is going on on the roof of a building, and one of the dealers gets mad ’cause a kid sets off the alarm on his car in the alley below. He yells at the kid, and the kid gets offended and lays on top of the car just to fuck with him. The dealer loses his temper and shoots the kid, fucking up the whole deal.
This is not the introduction of the bad guys, and the kid is not a brother or friend of Jackie (Lords) who needs to get avenged. It’s just a weird incident that she reports to as a crime scene photographer.
Or so it seems. I like how the movie parcels out the information about what’s going on, so you can skip this paragraph if you’re gonna watch it. Although she’s taking pictures of bodies (and people getting shot) she’s actually supposed to be taking happy photos for the police department to use in their PR. And this is not her job – she’s actually an arty fashion photographer or something – but she has to do it as community service after being busted for cocaine possession.
Okay, so she’s had some dark times, that’s why she lost her son, but she’s trying to get better, right? She let’s us believe that at first, but actually that’s not quite it either. We find out she’s never been a cokehead at all, she got set up, and it caused her to lose her kid. This is all about her trying to get him back.
Her relationship with her ex-husband Sam (Bradford Bancroft, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER) is interesting too. You can see why he’s frustrated with her, but he’s definitely a dick about their joint custody. You’d expect his new wife Sheila (Nitchie Barrett) to be a jealous bitch who doesn’t want him talking to his ex, but actually she’s always defending Jackie when he bad mouths her.
“You always stick up for her.”
“I am not sticking up for anyone. I just happen to think she’s right all the time.”
And eventually he starts to sympathize with her too. Trying to work things out.
Jeff Conaway plays Frank, a burnout cop who starts aggressively pursuing Jackie after they meet on the job, and she’s reluctantly charmed by him as she goes on calls with him trying to fulfill her service. He also takes her to the gun range and teaches her how to shoot. This might be the most notable scene in the movie because not only is it setup for if she has to shoot somebody later, it’s also the cop movie version of the pottery scene in GHOST.
It cuts straight from her firing the gun to her apartment with lit candles, a fire in the fireplace, wine glasses and them fucking. (Normal not-very-graphic late night cable softcore, by the way. Don’t expect more out of Lords because of her previous work.)
One night when they go out to a night club she sees Lieutenant Eddie Martin (Robert Miano, DONNIE BRASCO, TODAY YOU DIE, BLOOD OF REDEMPTION, uncredited DEATH WISH mugger) and recognizes him as the dirty cop who planted the coke on her. So she calls the date off to follow him with her camera, and succeeds in taking incriminating photos of him.
This is another scene that has more layers to it than you expect in a movie like this. Martin is out partying with a whore, coking and driving, which could be enough to bust him on. But the money shot she gets is of him killing this prostitute’s abusive pimp. He’s a total sleazeball dirtbag but his big crime that he could go down for is something that a good guy might do. Or at least Christian Slater in TRUE ROMANCE.
Jackie intends to use the photos to bust him, or blackmail him to recant his phony testimony against her. But of course she realizes she can’t trust anybody, so it turns into her just trying not to get killed for having the photos. Maybe she shoulda just stayed at the club and had another drink.
Lords is actually pretty good. There are a few emoting scenes where she’s a little awkward, but for the most part she’s a natural. Of course she had done several non-porn movies already by this point, but still. This mostly feels like a legit movie.
Not that it’s without its goofy moments. Anything with the kid is pretty laughable. No offense to the young man, it’s not his fault at all but he’s this saccharine little bowl cut kid with a “cute” speech impediment and every scene he has involves him asking about his mommy or calling to tell her he loves her or something. And the music even turns real corny in these scenes, almost like the composer was making fun of them.
There are weird bits where you’re not entirely sure they knew what they were doing. For example the most graphic sex scene in the movie is not with Traci Lords, it’s the ex-husband and the new wife, and it keeps weirdly intercutting with the son in the other room making himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of chocolate milk with cartoons blaring on the TV. And there’s a laughable cheat where they clearly show Traci Lords carrying some dry cleaning over her shoulder, then she seems to come into her apartment and get shot, but it turns out to be a friend that was never mentioned before who had a key to her apartment and looked like her from behind and also had dry cleaning.
Also there are some amateurish uses of cliche. Any time we need to know that Jackie’s having a hard time she produces a bottle of liquor and takes a swig. And when she’s worried that she might die she calls her husband and says “We had some good times, didn’t we?”
On the other hand there are a couple storytelling moves that impressed me, most notably a pitch perfect execution of the ol’ “character gets shot and seems to be dead but it turns out is wearing a bullet proof vest under the clothes” routine. They do it in two subtle moves.
1. Early in the movie Jackie gets chewed out by the captain (Richard Roundtree) for her grim photos. Almost as an after thought he pulls a vest out of his desk and hands it to her.
“If you find yourself in a danger zone, you put this on, you get the hell out of sight.”
She takes it, and we don’t see it again until the end, so we forget about it.
2. The reveal is not treated as a shock. She’s in her bathrobe, she gets shot, she plays dead, then shoots her attacker. As she frantically tries to call and warn Sam she’s pulling off her bathrobe and that’s when we see the vest, but it’s not even the focus of the shot.
Another piece of story construction I like is how early on she notices a feather falling out of her son’s stuffed animal and makes some cutesy comment about it, it almost seems like an improvised moment. I didn’t expect that at the end falling fathers would reveal his whereabouts to a bad guy. Get those stuffed animals fixed, people!
Writer/director Charles T. Kanganis followed this up with another Traci Lords vehicle called INTENT TO KILL. Later he did 3 NINJAS KICK BACK, DENNIS THE MENACE STRIKES AGAIN! and K-911 (No, not K-19 THE WIDOWMAKER. I’m talking James Belushi returns for the sequel to K-9.)
In loving memory of Jackie’s friend