July 15, 1983
Here’s a win for the Summer of Nub series: introducing me to DEADLY FORCE, an enjoyably quirky thriller I was not previously aware of. It’s just the story of an ex-cop trying to catch an L.A. serial killer, but the ex-cop is played by Wings Hauser, as a Wings Hauser-ian character. It’s not the mystery and action that make it fun as much as the eccentricities and odd details. It really seems adapted from some quirky crime novel, maybe the first in a series.
The opening kinda tells us what we’re in for by showing us the beautiful California coast, helicopter shot flying across palm tree lined beaches, looking at the waves, people surfing, jogging, then a woman in her seventh floor apartment waking up as the sun comes in through the drapes. Her radio talks about the search for “The X Killer” as she takes a shower. She’s not really paying attention, of course. She steps out onto the balcony, drying her hair, smiling. It honestly made me want to be in California, but then a hand missing a few fingers comes into frame, unseen by her. This guy grabs her, slashes her, splashing blood on the curtain, then throws her off the balcony.
I wonder if this movie had an influence on LETHAL WEAPON? It’s always nice to start off with a great stunt that says “Yeah, it’s nice up here, but we’re not staying, we’re getting thrown down into the underbelly of L.A.” But first we gotta go pick up our hero in New York City.
We meet Stoney Cooper (Hauser, in his first starring role, a year after VICE SQUAD) as he’s engaged in some weird street gambling game that involves spinning a wheel with a live rat on it and guessing which hole it will crawl into. He gets paged so he goes to a pay phone, dribbling a soccer ball as he makes the call. But he loses control of the ball and it both rolls over a pile of dogshit and gets lost in traffic. A bad omen, probly. Yeah, turns out he has to go to L.A.
Next we see him all dressed up in a bar, smoking, playing piano for nobody, drinking at least four shots ‘cause he’s about to leave for the airport and he hates flying. Is this a gig he has? Do they just let him do it? I don’t know. But if you’re gonna be miserable, this is one of the better ways to do it.
Reluctantly he takes a call that comes for him at the bar. Some guy, Sal (Frank Ronzio, FEAR CITY), needs his help. Says a Puerto Rican revolutionary is gonna blow up his warehouse, can’t call the cops because of the illegal goods in there. So on the way to the airport Stoney swings by to stare down a mad bomber and give him a cut of his payment to leave intact. That’s the kind of wild freelancer life Stoney Cooper lives, having that be a pain in the ass errand he has to run before leaving town. Also I want to note that the cabbie, Gussie (Estelle Getty, two years before Golden Girls) knows him real well as if she’s his personal driver. I was hoping she’d be his sidekick but of course he’s head to L.A., so we never see her again.
He’s met at LAX by his old friend Sam (Al Ruscio, ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN), a lock pick and ex con whose granddaughter was the one thrown off that balcony. Everyone else he knows in LA is pissed at Stoney, and part of the fun is the way it gives you the pieces of his backstory to put together. Before he even gets out of the airport a cop is calling in to Captain Hoxley (Lincoln Kilpatrick, THE OMEGA MAN), who pulls him over to yell at him. Turns out Stoney was not only fired from the LAPD but had to promise to never set foot in L.A. again. (Of course, he was fired for not going “strictly by procedure,” and obviously cops should go by procedure, and we wish they would actually be held accountable when they’re not, so Hoxley is not really the bad guy here. He’s just not fun.)
Also angry to see Sam back in town: Ashley Maynard (Arlen Dean Snyder, HOT ROD HULLABALOO), the crime boss he broke procedure to bust before he left L.A. The way Ashley’s thugs intimidate him is to drive by and bash him on the ass with an open car door. Excellent move.
He decides he must confront Ashley by breaking into his place, but on his way in he runs into Ashley’s elderly mother (Lenore Woodward, HAMBURGER: THE MOTION PICTURE), who says, “Oh, hello young man. You must be lookin for my boy,” and directs him to Ashley’s room. As Stoney heads upstairs she continues talking about how lonely she is and what it was like back in Albuquerque. He finds Ashley asleep in bed with a nice lady (Estelle Moore) eating popcorn and watching lesbian porn. “Would you like me to wake him for you, sugar?” Stoney gets Ashley to lay off him for two weeks by promising to split the reward for catching the killer with him. That old trick again.
One more person who’s pissed at Stoney is his estranged wife Eddie (Joyce Ingalls, PARADISE ALLEY). Against his better judgment Sam drops Stoney off at her loft. He still has a key and surprises her by coming in and playing the piano that’s still there. When she sees him she says, “Oh, jesus. Stoney, absolutely not.” She’s angry at him for refusing to sign the divorce papers, and for interfering with the new independent life she’s established for herself. But she also happens to be a news reporter assigned to the X Murders, and she likes Sam too, so eventually they’ll work together on it.
It takes a while. But after a scene where the killer machine guns the loft from a nearby roof while Stoney is in there taking a bath (he slides around on the floor naked trying to shoot back), and Eddie comes home to find her place totally wrecked and Eddie bleeding, he makes a pass at her and she decides to go for it. Circumstances aside I think it’s a pretty believable makeup sex scene, and since she has a weird loft and this is DEADLY FORCE it takes place on a hammock.
Unfortunately the best stuff is all the set up. Once the mechanics of the mystery kick into gear it’s fine, but not as exciting as it was just hanging out with these goofballs. There’s a fair amount of action and some pretty good car flips and explosions, though for the most part not that much more sophisticated than, like, The A-Team or something. The eventual solution to what’s going on here is something you could never have guessed, other than that it clearly has something to do with the prissy self help guru Eddie is also doing a story on (Paul Shenar, SCARFACE), because what else would that be doing in the movie?
Though I don’t think the second half lives up to how fun the first half is, there are more fun touches. If you’re doing a sleazy L.A. movie you gotta have some movie industry stuff, so there’s a murder in a prop storage warehouse. I like that Sam’s car gets increasingly smashed as the movie goes on, and that they go directly from one big car crash to Sam and Stoney examining some photographs sprawled out on a bed. That’s not how most movies would stage that. Don’t worry, they took their shoes off.
There’s also a big scene where they get important information by visiting the husband of one of the victims in prison, and he’s played by the great Paul Benjamin (DO THE RIGHT THING), who also played an important prisoner in ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ.
Director Paul Aaron had a story credit on THE OCTAGON and directed A FORCE OF ONE. He later opted for the Alan Smithee credit on MORGAN STEWART’S COMING HOME. The screenplay is credited to Ken Barnett (uncredited on HAMBONE AND HILLIE) and Robert Vincent O’Neil (writer of VICE SQUAD, writer/director of ANGEL and AVENGING ANGEL) and Barry Schneider (HARPER VALLEY P.T.A., ROLLER BOOGIE, TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT, CLASS OF 1984 [uncredited], COCAINE: ONE MAN’S SEDUCTION).
I don’t want to overhype this, it’s certainly not great, but I have a soft spot for this type of movie. It’s like yeah, we know what the formula is, we’re gonna call it DEADLY FORCE and have a bunch of cheesy noodling guitars and shit (music by Gary S. Scott, FINAL EXAM) and we’re gonna do the formula, but we’re gonna go a little thick on every step of the way, make the backstory a little crazier than usual, give him more hobbies than usual. And just do the tropes with gusto – giving them lines like “You get involved in this investigation and I’ll put you away so far they’ll have to air mail in light” and “You get in his way, he’ll bury you dick deep in elephant shit.” According to IMDb trivia, producer Sandy Howard thought Hauser was so great in VICE SQUAD that he found this starring vehicle for him, hoping it could be a series like DIRTY HARRY. I certainly would’ve gone for more Stoney Cooper Mysteries (featuring Gussie). But just one will have to do.
Seasonal detail: It seems to take place in October, judging by the amount of pumpkins for sale at the market and ceramic jack o’ lanterns in both Ashley’s place and Eddie’s.
Video games spotted at Playland Arcade: Thief, Defender, Spiders