Frank Boggs (Robert Culp) and Al Hickey (Bill Cosby) are two private investigators who are constantly in danger of losing their licenses and going out of business. Hickey is the responsible one. Boggs is the seedy alcoholic. When Hickey and Boggs are hired to track down a missing woman, their investigation lands them in the middle of a war between the mob and a group of political activists who are fighting over who is going to get the loot from a recent robbery. Hickey and Boggs are targeted by the mob and soon, everyone is dying around them.
With its cynical themes and downbeat ending, Hickey & Boggs is very much a 70s film. The script was written by future director Walter Hill and when it was eventually offered to Bill Cosby, Cosby agreed to star on the condition that his I Spy co-star, Robert Culp, be hired to direct. Producer John Calley hired Culp but after Calley refused to provide the budget that Culp requested, Culp bought the script and raised the money himself.
There are a few problems with Hickey & Boggs, the main one being that the plot is next to impossible to follow. As a director, Robert Culp apparently didn’t believe in either filming coverage or providing establishment shots so, especially early on, it is often impossible to tell how one scene is connected to another or even how much time has passed between scenes. I don’t know if this was an intentional aesthetic decision or if the production just ran out of money before everything could be shot but it makes it difficult to get into the film’s already complicated story. On a positive note, Culp did have a flair for staging action scenes. The film ends with a shoot out on the beach that’s is handled with such skill that it almost makes up for what came before it. Also, like many actors-turned-director, Culp proved himself capable of spotting talent. Along with giving early roles to Vincent Gardenia, James Woods and Michael Moriarty, Culp also took the chance of casting sitcom mainstay Robert Mandan as a villain. It was a risk but it worked as Mandan convincingly portrays the banality of evil.
Of course, the biggest problem with Hickey & Boggs is that it stars Bill Cosby as a straight-laced hero and that’s no longer a role that anyone’s willing to believe him in. Cosby actually does give a convincing dramatic performance in Hickey & Boggs. Just look at the final scene on the beach where Hickey has his “what have we done” moment and shows the type of regret that Cosby has never shown in real life. The problem is that to really appreciate Cosby’s performance, you have to find a way to overlook the fact that he’s Bill Cosby and that something that I found impossible to do while watching Hickey & Boggs. When you should be getting into the movie, you’re thinking about how many decades Bill Cosby was able to get away with drugging and assaulting women. If not for a comment from Hannibal Buress that led to a social media uproar, Cosby would probably still be getting away with it. If Buress’s anti-Cosby comments hadn’t been recorded and hadn’t gone viral, Bill Cosby would still be free and the media would probably still be holding him up as some sort of role model.
At the time Hickey & Boggs was made, both Bill Cosby and Robert Culp were at a career crossroads. Cosby was hoping to transform himself into a film star. Culp was hoping to become a director. Hickey & Boggs, however, was disliked by critics and flopped at the box office. Culp never directed another film and we all know what happened with Bill Cosby. (Of course, it wasn’t just the box office failure of Hickey & Boggs that kept Cosby from becoming a movie star. Say what you will about Robert Culp as a director, he had nothing to do with Leonard Part 6.) Hickey & Boggs is too disjointed to really work but Robert Culp and Bill Cosby were convincing action stars and the film’s downbeat style and cynical worldview is sometimes interesting.