Film Review: Deadly Hero (dir by Ivan Nagy)

First released in 1975, Deadly Hero tells the story of Edward Lacy (Don Murray).

Lacy is an 18-year veteran of the New York Police Department and a proud family man.  Lacy is clean-cut, handsome in a blandly pleasant way, and he has a wife and several children.  He’s a member of the Knights of Columbus and there are times when he imagines himself pursuing a career in politics.  One of the first things that we see Lacy do is introduce an anti-crime mayoral candidate named Reilly (George S. Irving) at a Knights of Columbus rally.  Lacy goes out of his way to make sure that he and his family make a good impression but Reilly barely seems to notice him.

Lacy is also a racist who enjoys pulling and using his gun.  He was once a detective but a long string of brutality complaints has led to him being demoted back down to being a patrolman.  He and his partner (Treat Williams, making his film debut) spend their time patrolling the streets of New York City, getting dirty looks and verbal abuse from the people who they are supposed to be protecting.  Much like Travis Bickle in the following year’s Taxi Driver, Lacy obsesses on the crime and the decay that he sees all around him.

Sally (Diahn Williams) lives a life that is a hundred times different from Lacy’s.  She’s a cellist and a conductor.  She spends her days teaching and her nights conducting at an avant-garde theater.  Sally and Lacy have little in common but their lives become intertwined when Sally is attacked and briefly held hostage by a mentally disturbed mugger named Rabbit (James Earl Jones).  Responding to a call put in by Sally’s neighbor (Lila Skala), Lacy discovers Rabbit holding a knife to Sally’s throat in the hallway of Sally’s apartment building.  At first, Lacy handles the situation calmly and he manages to talk Rabbit into not only releasing Sally but also dropping his knife.  However, instead of arresting the now unarmed and docile Rabbit, Lacy shoots and kills him.

Knowing that he’s about to be investigated and that he’s made enemies in the department due to his political activities, Lacy convinces the still-shocked Sally to lie and say that she witnessed Rabbit lunging for Lacy’s gun before Lacy fired.  Lacy is proclaimed a hero and soon, Reilly is inviting him to appear at rallies with him.  Lacy’s political dreams seem to be coming true but Sally starts to feel guilty about lying.  Realizing that Sally is planning on revealing the truth about what happened, Lacy goes to extreme measures to try to keep her quiet.

Deadly Hero is an interesting film, one that is certainly flawed but which ultimately works as a portrait of the authoritarian mindset.  Ivan Nagy directs without much visual flair and, especially at the start of the film, he struggles to maintain a consistent pace.  For instance, the scene where Rabbit initially menaces Sally seems to go on forever, long beyond whatever was necessary to convince the audience that Rabbit was a dangerous guy.  (With the amount of time that Nagy lingers over shots of Sally being menaced by Rabbit, I was not surprised to read that Nagy and Dianh Williams apparently did not get along during filming.)  That said, the film’s low budget actually works to its advantage, with the grainy cinematography giving the film a gritty, documentary feel.  The film was shot on location in New York City and it’s interesting to watch the actors interact with real New Yorkers.  While Lacy is never a sympathetic character, seeing the actual streets of New York does go a long way to explaining why he’s so paranoid.  This is one of the many 70s films in which the overriding message seemed to be that New York City was the worst place on the planet.

The film is dominated by Don Murray, who plays Lacy as being a blue-collar fascist who has learned how to hide his anger and his hatred behind a quick smile and an outwardly friendly manner.  Feeling confident that everyone will back him up, he has no hesitation about executing an unarmed black man.  Even when it becomes obvious that Sally is not going to continue to lie about what happened, Lacy is still arrogant enough to assume that he can charm her into changing her mind.  When that doesn’t work, Lacy becomes increasingly unhinged and vindictive.  The film’s final ambiguous image suggests that there really is no way to escape the Edward Lacys of the world.

With its portrayal of a violent cop who is convinced that he will be protected by the system, Deadly Hero feels extremely relevant today.  Of course, Deadly Hero also suggests that the same system that Lacy is exploiting can be used to take him down, with Lacy eventually being investigated by both Internal Affairs and the District Attorney’s office.  The film leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not the rest of the police are as dangerous as Lacy.  Is Lacy a product of the system or is he just someone who has figured out how to exploit the system?  To its detriment, that’s a question that the film doesn’t answer.  Still, much like Harvey Hart’s similarly underappreciated Shoot, Deadly Hero is an always-interesting and occasionally insightful look at the authoritarian mindset.

Favorite Son (1988, directed by Jeff Bleckner)

During a reception on the steps of U.S. Capitol, an assassin kills Contra leader Col. Martinez (Geno Silva) and seriously wounds Sen. Terry Fallon (Harry Hamlin), an up-and-coming politician from Texas.  An eager media catapults Fallon to national stardom and the beleagued President (James Whitmore), who is facing a tough reelection bid, is pressured to replace the current vice president (Mitchell Ryan) with Fallon.

The FBI only assigns two of their agents to investigate the assassination, a sure sign that someone wants the investigation to just go away.  Nick Mancuso (Robert Loggia) is a crusty, hard-drinking veteran agent whose career is nearly at an end.  David Ross (Lance Guest) is his young and idealistic partner.  When Mancuso and Ross discover that Martinez was injected with the HIV virus just two days before the assassination, it becomes obvious that there is a bigger conspiracy afoot.  It all links back to Sally Crain (Linda Kozlowski), who is Fallon’s legislative aide and also his lover.  (Fallon has a wife but she’s locked away in a hospital.)  Sally has an interest in bondage, as Ross soon finds out.

Favorite Son was originally aired as a 3-night, 4 and a half-hour miniseries.  It was later reedited and, with a running time of less than two hours, released theatrically overseas as Target: Favorite Son.  As a miniseries, Favorite Son is an exciting conspiracy-themed film that is full of scheming, plotting, interesting performances, and pungent dialogue.  Target: Favorite Son, on the other hand, is disjointed and, unless you know the original’s plot, almost impossible to follow.  If you’re going to watch Favorite Son, make sure you see the original miniseries.  My mom taped it off of NBC when it originally aired.  That was the only way that I was able to originally see the film the way that it meant to be seen.  The entire miniseries has also been uploaded, in three parts, to YouTube.

Hopefully, the original miniseries will get an official release someday because it’s pretty damn entertaining.  Harry Hamlin isn’t really dynamic enough for the role of Fallon but otherwise, the movie is perfectly cast.  Robert Loggia is so perfect for the role of Nick Mancuso that it almost seems as if the character was written for him.  (Loggia did later star in a one-season drama called Mancuso, FBI.)  Linda Kozlowski seems to be destined to be forever known as Crocodile Dundee’s wife but her performance as Sally shows that she was a better actress than she was given credit for.  The supporting cast also features good performances from Jason Alexander, Ronny Cox, Tony Goldwyn, John Mahoney, Kenneth McMillian, Richard Bradford, and Jon Cypher.

Favorite Son may be over 30 years old but it’s still relevant today.  In the third part, John Mahoney gives a speech about how American voters are often willfully ignorant when it comes to what’s going on behind the scenes in Washington and it’s a killer moment.  Melodramatic as Favorite Son may be, with its portrayal of political chicanery and an exploitative national media, it’s still got something to say that’s worth hearing.


A Movie A Day #144: The Incredible Hulk (1977, directed by Kenneth Johnson)

It may seem hard to believe now but there was a time when comic book adaptations were considered to be a risky bet at best.  In 1977, Marvel Comics sold the television rights for four of their characters to Universal Productions. This led to three unsuccessful pilots (one for Dr. Strange and two for Captain America), a Spider-Man series that lasted for two seasons, and The Incredible Hulk.  As opposed to the other Marvel adaptations, The Incredible Hulk series was popular with fans and (some) critics and ultimately lasted for four seasons.

It all started with a 90 minute pilot that aired in 1977.  Haunted by the car accident that caused the death of his wife and his inability to rescue her, Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby) is researching why, in times of extreme stress, ordinary people can suddenly experience moments of super human strength.  What he theorizes is that it is a combination of body chemistry and gamma radiation caused by sun spots.  Eager to test his theory, David straps himself into a chair and zaps himself with gamma radiation.  At first, it seems as if nothing has changed.  But when David’s driving home, he gets a flat tire.  When he struggles to change the tire, in the middle of a hurricane nonetheless, David gets mad.  Suddenly, his eyes turn green and soon so does the rest of him as David Banner is transformed into the Incredible Hulk (Lou Ferrigno, except for one shot where the Hulk is played by Richard Kiel).  The Hulk runs through the woods, accidentally scaring a girl and getting shot by a hunter.  When the Hulk falls asleep, he transforms back into David, who has no memories of what he did while he was the Hulk.  While David and his colleague, Elaina Marks (Susan Sullivan), investigate what happened to him, tabloid reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin) tries to uncover the results of David and Elaina’s research.

Other than introducing the Hulk and giving Banner a backstory, the pilot didn’t have much in common with the series that followed.  Along with being a comic book adaptation, the series was also a remake of The Fugitive.  With everyone convinced that the Hulk had murdered both him and Elaina, David was always on the run and trying to find a way to cure his condition.  Every episode would begin with David working a new odd job and getting involved in a new situation and almost every episode ended with David hitchhiking while the show’s famous piano theme played over the final credits.  Because David was always either getting beaten up or tangled in barbed wire, the Hulk would show up twice an episode.  David Banner just couldn’t catch a break.

The pilot seems to take forever to get going, devoting a lot of time to David and Elaina doing research.  In those days before the success of The Dark Knight and the MCU legitimized comic books as a cultural force, The Incredible Hulk was determined to show that it was not just a show for kids.  Today, the pilot is too slow-paced and self-consciously serious but still contains the elements that made the show itself became a success.  Bill Bixby takes his role seriously and Lou Ferrigno is the perfect choice for the Hulk.  Decades after they first aired, the Hulk-transformation scenes are still undeniably cool.  It was also during the pilot that Dr. Banner uttered those famous and oft-parodied words: “Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry.  You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

As of this week, reruns of The Incredible Hulk are now being shown, daily, on both H&I and the El Rey network.  I will be watching.

Shattered Politics #42: Blue Sunshine (dir by Jeff Lieberman)

(I wrote an earlier version of this review for HorrorCritic.Com.)


Occasionally, on twitter, I would take part in the Drive-In Mob live tweet session.  Every Thursday night, a group of exploitation, grindhouse, and horror film fans gog together and watched the same film and, via twitter, provided their own running commentary track.  It was always terrific fun and a good opportunity to discover some films that you might have otherwise missed.  It was through the Drive-In Mob that I first discovered a low-budget cult classic from 1978, Blue Sunshine.

Blue Sunshine (directed by the underrated horror director Jeff Lieberman) opens in the late 1970s.  Across California, people are suddenly going bald and turning psychotic.  At a party, singer Frannie Scott (played by Richard Crystal) has a nervous breakdown when another reveler playfully pulls off his wig and reveals Frannie to be hairless.  Frannie responds by tossing half of the guests into the fireplace and then running out into the night.  He’s pursued by his best friend Jerry Zipkin (played by future director Zalman King) but when Frannie is accidentally killed while running away, Jerry finds himself accused of being a murderer.  Even as the police pursue him, Jerry starts his own investigation.  He quickly discovers that there’s an epidemic of bald people suddenly murdering those closest to them.  The one thing that these people have in common: they all attended Stanford University in the late 1960s and they all used a powerful form of LSD known as “blue sunshine.”  Now, ten years later, they’re all having the worst flashback imaginable.

And, perhaps most dangerously, the campus drug dealer, spoiled rich kid Edward Fleming (Mark Goddard), is on the verge of being elected to the U.S. Congress.  Not only it is possible that Edward may have taken the acid himself but Edward and his campaign manager have their own reasons to try to make sure that Jerry never reveals the truth behind Blue Sunshine.

Blue Sunshine is probably one of the best of the old grindhouse films, a film that embraces the conventions of both the horror and the political thriller genres while, at the same time, neatly subverting our expectations.  Director Jeff Lieberman emphasizes atmosphere over easy shocks and the film’s cast does a pretty good job of making us wonder who is normal and who has dropped the blue sunshine.  Wisely, Lieberman doesn’t resort to giving us any easy villains in this film.  Much like the best horror films, the monsters in Blue Sunshine are as much victims as victimizers.  I especially sympathized by one poor woman who was driven to rip off her wig by the sound of two particularly obnoxious children chanting, “We want Dr. Pepper!” over and over again.  Seriously, that’s enough to drive anyone crazy.

Blue Sunshine is one of those wonderfully odd little cult films that makes me thankful that I own a DVD player.  First released in 1978, Blue Sunshine mixes psychological horror with political conspiracy and the end result is an unusually intelligent B-movie that remains relevant even when seen today.  Blue Sunshine was originally released on DVD by Synapse Entertainment and it has since been re-released by the New Video Group.  I own the Synapse edition, which features a very entertaining director’s commentary with Jeff Lieberman as well as a bonus CD of the film’s haunting and atmospheric score.