Dead Heat/Shakedown

September 6, 2011

Last year Robocop proved that you could make an exciting cop movie even when your hero dies in the first reel. Now Dead Heat tries the same thing. Except this time, the revived police officer isn’t mechanically brought back via robotics. Dead Heat simply gives the dead detective a good jolt of electricity, in the Frankenstein tradition.

So, the cop (played by Treat Williams) goes back to work looking pretty normal. Until his flesh begins to decompose. It seems there’s a time limit on his revived status. This provides the impetus for him to find his killers, fast.

Dead Heat staggers along in a discombobulated way; the movie, written by Terry Black and directed by Mark Goldblatt, wants to be both comedic and action-packed. Occasionally it veers into absurdity, as when a restaurant meat locker gets a dose of the reanimating effect, and the cops are attacked by a malicious side of beef.

Williams’ partner is played by Joe Piscopo—a fairly formidable side of beef himself these days—who supplies what is intended to be the comic relief. But both actors take a back seat to the special effects and the make-up, which go into yucky detail. See, resurrected people can’t be killed again, so when dead guys begin riddling each other with bullets, there’s a lot of shooting per square inch. For a long time.

You can tell that the people who made this movie thought it was funny. Every now and then there’s a long pause after a punch line, which makes for some dead air, just one of the many dead things about this film.

Speaking of Robocop, the leading man who was encased in that movie’s hardware, Peter Weller, is back with another police thriller. But in Shakedown, Weller looks like himself. In fact, he’s all too human; he plays a lawyer who came of age in the ’60s, has worked for legal aid for years and, despite his straight-laced appearance, still listens to Jimi Hendrix over breakfast.

He’s about to take a high-paying job with his fiancée’s father’s tony law firm when he lands a case that leads to evidence of police corruption. He should just let it go and ease into his new life, but he can’t. And the presence of his old flame (Patricia Charbonneau), now a district attorney, isn’t helping him keep his head clear.

The outcome of all this is predictable, but it’s an interesting set-up, and Weller gives an offbeat performance. For no apparent reason, he’s given an old pal on the police force (Sam Elliott, last teamed with Whoopi Goldberg in Fatal Beauty), who helps him crack the case. The buddy-picture stuff looks suspiciously as though it’s been added to make the movie more like Lethal Weapon, but Elliott is an enjoyable actor.

The movie’s only skin deep, but it does have its moments, one of which is Elliott’s comic monologue describing how he lost his ideal woman when he accidentally killed her dog.

Writer-director James Glickenhaus goes for a few big sequences, including a tussle aboard a roller-coaster (a good idea that should’ve been better executed) and a chase that ends with a guy catching a ride on the landing gear of a plane. Shakedown is one of those movies that might look better (in a few months) as a 99-cent video rental.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

Dead Heat sounds as though it ought to be better than it is. I’m not sure how I missed mentioning that the Treat Williams character is named Roger Mortis, or that the supporting cast includes Vincent Price and Darren McGavin. Shakedown also stars John C. McGinley, Shirley Stoler, and Blanche Baker; and let us note in passing that for this brief moment, Patricia Charbonneau was understandably considered to be a possible big-time star, although that didn’t happen.