Film Review: Cocaine and Blue Eyes (1983, directed by E.W. Swackhamer)


When San Francisco-based private investigator Michael Brennen (O.J. Simpson) gives a ride to Joey Crawford (John Spencer) on Christmas Eve, he doesn’t know that it’s going to lead to the biggest case of his career.  When Joey asks Michael to help him track down his ex-girlfriend, Michael assumes that Joey would never be able to pay for his investigative services.  But one week later, Michael gets something in the mail from Joey.  Inside the envelope, there’s a picture of both Joey’s ex and a thousand dollar bill.  Ever after he discovers that Joey was mysteriously killed the night before, Michael decides to take on the case.  His investigation will take him not only to Joey’s ex but it will also lead to him uncovering a drug ring that involves one of San Francisco’s most prominent families.

Simpson not only starred in this made-for-TV movie but he also served as executive producer.  Watching the movie, it’s obvious that it was meant to serve as a pilot for a Michael Brennen TV series and it’s also just as obvious why that series never happened.  O.J. Simpson was not a terrible actor but, ironically for someone who set records as an NFL player, there was nothing tough about him.  Simpson may be playing a two-fisted, cash-strapped P.I. but, in every scene, he comes across like he can’t wait to hit the golf course.  Simpson’s pleasant demeanor may have served him well in other areas of his life but it didn’t help him with this role.  Whenever Simpson has to share a scene with John Spencer, Candy Clark, Cliff Gorman, or any of the other members of this film’s surprisingly talented supporting cast, Simpson’s bland screen presence and lack of gravitas becomes all the more apparent.

Of course, when seen today, the main problem with Cocaine and Blue Eyes is that it’s impossible to watch without thinking, “Hey, didn’t the star of this movie get away with killing his wife and an innocent bystander?”  Even the most innocuous  of lines take on a double meaning when they’re uttered by O.J. Simpson.  It doesn’t help that the movie opens with Michael visiting his estranged wife and their children on Christmas Eve and getting chased around the neighborhood by a guard dog.  When the movie was made, this scene was probably included so that O.J. could show off some of the moves that made him a star at UCLA and with the Bills.  Seen today, the scene takes on a whole different meaning.

Without O.J. Simpson, Cocaine and Blue Eyes could easily pass for being an extended episode of Magnum P.I., Simon and Simon, or any other detective show from the 80s.  With Simpson, it becomes a pop cultural relic.  I don’t think it’s ever been released on DVD but it is available on YouTube, where it can be viewed by O.J. Simpson completists everywhere.

The TSL’s Grindhouse: No Way Back (dir by Fred Williamson)


Jesse Crowder’s back!

You may remember Jesse Crowder as the super cool and unflappable private detective from Death Journey.  Jesse was a Los Angeles cop but now he works independently.  There’s literally nothing that Jesse can’t do.  Ride a horse?  Ride a motorcycle?  Slow motion kung fu?  Jesse can do it all and he usually do it without bothering to button up his shirt.  Jesse is such a badass that he can kill more people in the time it takes for him to light a cigar than most people will kill in their entire lifetime.

The 1976 film No Way Back is the second Jesse Crowder film.  Once again, Fred Williamson both directs and stars as Jesse.  Williamson is in almost every scene of the film and when he’s not killing bad guys or having sex or just posing with his shirt off, he’s listening to people talk about what a badass he is.  In short, No Way Back is a vanity project but it’s a vanity project with a sense of humor.  Watching the film, you get the feeling that Williamson knows that No Way Back is kind of silly but, at the same time, he’s having fun and he wants everyone watching to have fun too.

No Way Back‘s plot involves a missing man and a lot of money.  Henry Pickens (Charles Woolf) worked at a bank but, one day, he grabbed a briefcase full of money, jumped in a car driven by his girlfriend (Tracy Reed), and disappeared.  Everyone was shocked but you know who was really shocked?  His wife!  Mildred Pickens (Virginia Gregg) and Henry’s brother both want to know to where Henry has vanished.  They hire Jesse, perhaps finding solace in his catch phrase: “You pay the bill, I’ll deliver it.  Legal, illegal, moral or otherwise.”

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long for Jesse to figure out that Perkins is in San Francisco.  Jesse lights his cigar and heads for the Bay City.  However, Jesse isn’t the only one looking for Henry Pickens.  There’s also a gangster named Bernie (Stack Pierce) who is determined to get the money for himself.  Much as in Death Journey, it doesn’t matter where Jesse goes or how he gets there.  As soon as he arrives, he people are trying to kill him.  Unfortunately, for them, no one can kill Jesse Crowder.

It all leads to a savage gun battle in the desert.  Fred Williamson jumps up on a horse, unbuttons his shirt, and rides across the screen.  People are betrayed.  People get shot.  Fortunately, no one can touch Jesse Crowder…

Anyway, No Way Back doesn’t really make any sense.  If you happen to watch this film (and I saw it on YouTube), just try to keep track of why Henry stole all of that money in the first place.  However, the plot isn’t really that important.  This film is all about Fred Williamson beating up gangsters and walking around without a shirt on.  It’s a dumb action movie but it never pretends to be anything different and the film’s total lack of pretension is enjoyable.  That’s always a good thing.

A Movie A Day #263: Running Scared (1986, directed by Peter Hyams)


Running Scared is weird but good.

Ray Hughes (Gregory Hines!) and Danny Costanzo (Billy Crystal!!!) are two tough detectives in Chicago.  All they want to do is three things: retire, open a bar in Florida, and bust Chicago’s most ruthless drug dealer, Julio Gonzalez (Jimmy Smits).  Their captain (Dan Hedaya) wants them to leave for Florida as soon as possible but they are determined to take down Julio first.’

There are two strange things about this otherwise formulaic crime film.  First off, the two tough cops are played by Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal.  According to the film’s Wikipedia page, director Peter Hyams realized that Running Scared‘s plot was nothing special so he decided that the only way to make the movie stand out was by doing it “with two actors you would not normally expect to see in an action movie.”  The other strange thing is that Hyams’s gambit worked.  Gregory Hines may have been best known as a dancer and Billy Crystal as a comedian but both of them were surprisingly believable as Chicago cops.  Running Scared is actually one of Billy Crystal’s best performances.  For once, he’s believable as being someone other than a version of himself.  Even his frequent one liners seem like something that a detective would say instead of Crystal recycling punch lines from his act.  Whether they are chasing down perps and firing their guns at a moving vehicle, Hines and Crystal are never less than credible as action stars.  Lorenzo Lamas has got nothing on the team of Hines and Crystal.

Predictable though it may be, Running Scared is one of the better late 80s cop films.  The action scenes are exciting and Hyams does a good job capturing the grittiness of Chicago.  Jimmy Smits is a good villain and Joe Pantoliano, Steven Bauer, and Jon Gries all shine in supporting roles.  Keep an eye out for the always underrated Darlanne Fluegel, playing Danny’s ex-wife.

The Fabulous Forties #26: The Way Ahead (dir by Carol Reed)


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The 26th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the 1944 British film, The Way Ahead (or, as it was retitled when it was released in America, The Immortal Battalion).

Directed by Carol Reed (who was five years away from directing the great The Third Man), The Way Ahead is a British propaganda film that was made to boost the morale of both a weary British public and the army during the final days of World War II.  Usually, when we call something propaganda, it’s meant as a term of disparagement but The Way Ahead is propaganda in the best possible way.

The film follows a group of British soldiers, from the moment that they are conscripted through their training to their first battle.  (In many ways, it’s like a more refined — which is another way of saying “more British” — version of Gung Ho!)  As usually happens in films like this, the newly conscripted soldiers come from all sections of society.  Some of them are poor.  Some of them are rich.  Some of them are married.  Some of them are single.  In fact, when the film first begins, the only thing that they all have in common is that they don’t want to be in the army.

As they begin their training, they resent their tough sergeant, Fletcher (William Hartnell), and are upset that Lt. Jim Perry (David Niven, giving a very likable performance) always seems to take Fletcher’s side in any dispute.  However, as time passes by, the soldiers start to realize that Fletcher is looking out for them and molding them into a cohesive unit.  Under his training, they go from being a group of disorganized and somewhat resentful individuals to being a tough and well-organized battalion.

Though they’re originally skeptical that they’ll ever see combat, the battalion is eventually sent to North Africa.  However, their ship is torpedoed and, in a scene that remains genuinely impressive even when viewed today, the men are forced to abandon ship while explosions and flames light up the night sky.  By the time that they do finally reach North Africa, they are more than ready to fight…

The Way Ahead plays out in a semi-documentary fashion (it even features a narrator who, at the end of the film, exhorts the audience to stay firm in their commitment) and it’s a fairly predictable film.  If you’ve ever seen a war film, you’ll probably be able to predict everything that happens in The Way Ahead.  That said, The Way Ahead is a remarkable well-made and well-acted film.  The cast is well-selected (and features a lot of familiar British characters actors, some making their film debut) and David Niven is the perfect choice for the mild-mannered but firm Lt. Perry.  Even though I’m not a huge fan of war films in general, I was still impressed with The Way Ahead.

And you can watch it below!

Shattered Politics #22: Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (dir by Stanley Kubrick)


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“Gentlemen!  You can’t fight here!  This is the war room!” — President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) in Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb (1964)

The next time you hear someone bragging about how their favorite politician is an intellectual who always acts calmly and rationally, I would suggest that you remember the example of President Merkin Muffley, one of the many characters who populate the 1964 best picture nominee, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

As played by Peter Sellers, Merkin Muffley is the epitome of rational political action.  Speaking in a steady (if somewhat muffled) midwestern accent and always struggling to remain calm and dignified, Muffley keeps order in the War Room as the world edges closer and closer to apocalypse.

Just consider, for example, this scene where President Muffley calls the Russian leader (the nicely named Dimitri Kissoff) and explains that a little something silly has happened.

As Muffley explains in the above scene, Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has gone crazy.  Convinced that the Russians have been sapping his precious bodily fluids, Gen. Ripper has ordered a nuclear strike on Russia.  Unfortunately, Russia has built a Doomsday Machine that, should Russia be bombed, will destroy the world.

While Muffley is at fist skeptical about a doomsday machine, his advisor, Dr. Strangelove (also played by Peter Sellers), explains that the doomsday machine not only exists but that it’s actually a pretty good idea.  The wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove speaks in a German accent and appears to have lost control over the left side of his body.  At random moments, his left arm shoots up in a Nazi salute.  At other times, his hand tries to strangle him.  Making these surreal moments all the more memorable is the fact that nobody in the War Room seems to notice or question them.

And, while it’s always tempting to dismiss a character like Dr. Strangelove as being an over-the-top caricature, the fact of the matter is that, following the end of World War II, several Nazi scientists ended up working for the U.S. government.  In many ways, the U.S. space program was the creation of a bunch of real-life Dr. Strangeloves.

Of course, President Muffley and Dr. Strangelove aren’t the only roles played by Peter Sellers in this film.  Sellers also plays Lionel Mandrake, a British officer who — as the result of an office exchange program — happens to be at Burpelson Air Force Base at the same time that Gen. Ripper orders the attack on Russia.

As famous as his Sellers’s performances as Dr. Strangelove and President Muffley may be, I actually think Mandrake is his best performance in the film.  In many ways, Mandrake is the audience’s surrogate.  He’s the one who gets to hear Ripper’s rambling explanation for why he launched an attack on Russia.  He’s the one who has to try to convince the hilariously unhelpful Col. Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn) to help him find a quarter so he can call the Pentagon.

(“You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola company,” Guano says, before shooting open a Coke machine to get change.)

Sellers plays Mandrake as a parody of the traditional, stiff upper lip British army officer.  Not only does that allow some great humor as Mandrake keeps a calm demeanor while listening to Ripper’s increasingly crazed monologue but it also allows Mandrake to be the only sane man in the movie.

(Of course, the whole point of Dr. Strangelove is that the world’s become so insane that one sane man can not make a difference. )

Sellers earned a best actor nomination for playing three different roles and he deserved it but, for me, the two best performances in the film come from Slim Pickens and George C. Scott.

Pickens, of course, is the bomber pilot who ends up riding an atomic bomb like a bull in a rodeo.  As a character, Maj. Kong may be a bit too much of a spot-on stereotype but Pickens brings such sincerity to the role that it doesn’t matter.  Oddly enough, you feel almost happy for him when he rides that bomb to his death.  You know that’s exactly how he would have wanted to go out.

And then there’s George C. Scott, playing the role of Gen. Buck Turgidson.  From the safety of the War Room, Turgidson looks forward to nuclear war and worries when President Muffley invites the Russian ambassador to join them.  (“But he’ll see the big board!” Turgidson exclaims.)  Turgidson is both hilariously stupid and hilariously confident.  Perhaps my favorite Turgidson moment comes when he trips, falls, and stands back up without once losing his paranoid train of thought.

(Though he doesn’t have a big role, James Earl Jones makes his film debut in Dr. Strangelove.  The way he delivers the line “What about Major Kong?” makes me laugh every time.)

50 years after it was first released, Dr. Strangelove remains a comic masterpiece of a nightmare, a film that proves that political points are best made with satire and not sermons.