Dead Bang

September 28, 2011

Don Johnson is without his pastel T-shirts and his palm trees in Dead Bang, but he’s in familiar territory all the same. The Miami Vice star is playing another sour, growling policeman absorbed in a big murder case.

And doing a pretty decent job of it, too. Johnson’s character is a guy who’s just split with his wife, drinks too much, and is in danger of getting kicked off the Los Angeles police force. Don Johnson may not have a lot of range, but he does convince you that he’s looked deeply into the bottom of a few whiskey glasses in his time. He provides a good, angry, ravaged center to the film.

The movie is good in other ways, too. It’s well directed by John Frankenheimer, a powerful moviemaker who has been restored to good graces recently by the re-release of his long unavailable masterwork, The Manchurian Candidate. Frankenheimer has had a curiously errant career since the late 1960s, but with 1986’s 52 Pick-Up and now Dead Bang, a couple of competently mounted action movies, he could be on his way back.

Dead Bang is a movie with personality, thanks to Johnson and Frankenheimer, but it sure doesn’t have much of a script. (What there is of one is credited to Robert Foster.) It’s about the murder of a policeman that eventually leads to the uncovering of a large organization devoted to white supremacy.

That’s a meaty topic and it provides plenty of opportunity for Johnson to get involved in shootouts. But it’s also nonsensical. A woman (Penelope Ann Miller) picks Johnson up at a party early in the film, reveals a secret about herself, and then absolutely disappears, never to be referred to again. A parole officer (Bob Balaban) helps Johnson, to some comic effect, then he too vanishes.

In fact, the funniest scene in the movie has Johnson and Balaban chasing down a suspect; when Johnson finally catches the man, the exertion has so traumatized Johnson’s broken-down body that he proceeds to vomit all over the prisoner (a technique that turns out to be a useful threat when trying to get information, minutes later.)

Frankenheimer does stage all of this very well. The final half-hour is the big showdown, competently managed but rather standard; the movie loses its quirkiness, save for the eccentric performance by William Forsythe as a stiff FBI agent. Still the signs are promising: Frankenheimer could be one movie away from another great one.

First published in the Herald, March 1989

Of the Frankenheimer pictures during this erratic time in the director’s career, this one really fades from the memory, but obviously I got something from it in the moment. I have a certain inexplicable fondness for Don Johnson’s end-of-Vice streak, which also includes The Hot Spot and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man; there’s something so seedy and blown-out about his person then, and it works for the movies. I sincerely apologize.