Officer Donnelly (Michael Parks) of the Arizona Highway Patrol has snapped. One day, he doesn’t show up for roll call and instead drives out to the desert. Sometimes, he pulls people over and tells them that they’ve violated a traffic law. Sometimes, he stops to help a stranded motorist. Every encounter ends with Donnelly killing someone. When Donnelly reaches the town of China Lake, he flirts with a waitress (Lauren Tewes) and befriends Sheriff Sam Brodie (Tom Skerritt). Brodie is investigating the mystery of why so many people are turning up dead in the desert and he slowly comes to realize that his new friend is the one responsible.
The China Lake Murders was produced by the USA Network and it used to air regularly throughout the 90s. For a while, it held the record for the highest rated basic cable film. One reason why so many people would watch it whenever it aired was because the movie started out with a warning that it contained strong violence and some sexual content. That warning was all that it took to convince most people to watch the movie. While the sexual content is tame (we see someone’s bare back at one point), the violence is indeed strong.
So is the performance of Michael Parks, who plays Donnelly as the ultimate nightmare cop. In many ways, Donnelly epitomizes everything that people hate about the police. He’s a bully who hides behind his uniform and his badge. The movie never explains why Donnelly suddenly snapped but watching him, it’s easy to guess that he’s always been a sadist. He channeled his cruelty into law enforcement and now that he’s crossed the line and is killing random people, he still believes that his uniform will protect him. Tom Skerritt, on the other hand, is the epitome of what most people would hope a cop would be, fair-minded and more concerned with helping the community than controlling it.
The China Lake Murders is a little slow. Since it’s revealed early on that Parks is the killer, there’s not much suspense during the middle section of the film. Things pick up, though, when Skerritt and Parks finally go after each other. The two veteran actors bring a lot of gravitas to their roles and their final confrontation does not disappoint.