Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Swimming In The River Of The Neon Slime

Director Gary Sherman's brutal Hollywood-set actioner Vice Squad (1982) is a film that most Gen-X genre fans were first introduced to through the 1984 horror 'greatest hits' compilation Terror in the Aisles. Why this film and other crime thrillers like Nighthawks (1981) and Klute (1971) were included in that film alongside the likes of Halloween (1978) and When A Stranger Calls (1979) is a mystery. But thanks to the glimpse that Terror in the Aisles provided of Wings Hauser's electrifying performance as the villainous pimp 'Ramrod,' those clips made seeing Vice Squad a priority. What's amazing about Vice Squad is that the film - and Hauser's performance - manage to surpass whatever expectations one may have. If you see one movie about a killer pimp in your lifetime, it absolutely has to be Vice Squad - otherwise you haven't seen shit.

While household names like Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader are always mentioned in the annals of classic movie villains, Ramrod could school them all. To call this character 'villainous' is like calling Saddam Hussein a capricious malcontent. As Ramrod, Hauser is on fire from start to finish in this film. While almost every movie villain is allowed at least a small moment of empathy, or some insight into their deeds, Ramrod is irredeemably evil and yet somehow Hauser avoids coming off like a cartoon bad guy. Even as you can't believe the extremes that Ramrod goes to as a character, Hauser's performance never feels overplayed or exaggerated. He makes it easy to believe that someone like Ramrod is really stalking the streets of Hollywood, able by sheer tenacity and force of will to frustrate the efforts of an entire police force to stop him. He's not superhuman, he's just bad but he shows just how far being truly bad can get you.

A lot of pimps in TV and film may have beaten hookers to death over the years, but not with the gusto that Ramrod does (and to MTV's Nina Blackwood, no less, in her role as a not-so-savvy hooker named 'Ginger'). Ramrod is so hardcore that he even literally rips the balls off a lesser pimp (played by Fred "Rerun" Barry of What's Happening fame), just because he hates it when other pimps can't keep their bitches in line. In the course of Vice Squad's tight 93 minute running time, Ramrod is on a mission to kill the hooker (Season Hubley as 'Princess') who helped the cops set him up after Ginger's murder. Once Ramrod escapes from custody while en route to the police station, the chase is on with Princess still turning tricks, unaware that Ramrod isn't safely in a jail cell. And whereas other criminals may have used their lucky break to flee further away from the law, Ramrod has no thoughts of letting Princess survive the night. To paraphrase a famous movie tagline, you will believe a man can choke a bitch.

Vice Squad is a movie that sadly could no longer be made today. It's lurid in a way that genre cinema is no longer allowed to be - an example of an era of exploitation when violence was still allowed to be ugly and hard to watch rather than sensationalized (ironically, one of the executive producers is Frank Capra Jr.!). Even the 'gritty' crime films of today, like Street Kings (2008), have a sanitized quality to them whereas Vice Squad - outside of the occasional canned-sounding cop dialogue - still feels like the real deal. And as riveting as Hauser is here, Hubley matches his intensity in her own way with a bravely unguarded and unapologetic performance. No movie made today with a hooker as a protagonist would ever pass on forcing an element of redemption onto the character's arc. But in Vice Squad, there's no change of heart for Princess. Even though she has a young daughter to think of (who's unaware of her mother's occupation), she isn't turning away from prostitution. A lesser movie than Vice Squad would've surely had Princess find a way off the street through the attentions of the concerned police sergeant (Gary Swanson) who's out to put Ramrod away - a movie-style romance between these two would've been a guarantee. But there's no such false sentiment to be found in Vice Squad. Princess has no illusions about life and she isn't waiting to be rescued. No matter how degrading her existence is, it's the only way she knows how to make a buck and throughout Vice Squad she never turns down an offer.

Even though Sherman allows Princess to make it through her ordeal intact, the sting of Vice Squad is that we know that the next night will only bring more of the same. As one character says, "this city sucks." And while you'd be hard-pressed to disagree, the movie itself is another story altogether.


Arbogast said...

There's just something about 80s movies about LA that can't be denied. They feel entirely different from movies from the previous decade - they're brighter, more candied, there's less dust in the air. God, I love 'em.

Word verification: afibrast

Jeff Allard said...

I agree - '80s movies like Vice Squad and Terminator just wouldn't have been the same if set in any other urban area. Trancers, too - I love the moment where Tim Thomerson is looking out of Helen Hunt's window at an unsubmerged LA for the first time in his life.

Arbogast said...

I need to revisit Trancers, which I haven't seen in over 20 years, I don't think. I'd add to this number Bobby Roth's Heartbreakers, Jim McBride's remake of Breathless, Robert Dornhelm's Echo Park, Wayne Wang's Slamdance, James Bridges' Mike's Murder, and Steve DeJarnatt's Miracle Mile, too. To name but a few.

Matt-suzaka said...

I had never even heard of Vice Squad until recently, and you are yet another trustworthy person that speaks pretty highly of it. I love movies like this and I can tell I would love this film based off the trailer you posted. I'm gonna have to put forth some effort and seek this sucker out!

Unknown said...

Ah, yes! MIRACLE MILE is a keeper. The way the tension is gradually built up over the course of the film is crazy. Not to mention, once things get rolling, it plays out almost in real time.

Was NIGHT OF THE COMET supposed to take place in LA? That's another good one, if so.

Jeff Allard said...

Miracle Mile is a favorite of mine, too - after twenty years, though, I'm still afraid to revisit it for fear it won't live up to the experience of my initial viewing. And to the list of great '80s LA movies, I'll put up John Landis' Into the Night as well - I think it's the best film of Landis' career.

Matt, definitely check out Vice Squad ASAP - I guarantee you'll love it!

Arbogast said...

Right, I should have mentioned Into the Night, my favorite Landis movie as well.

Dave@Two13.com said...

Your comment about Terror In The Aisles resonated with me, because that's exactly where I first spied this movie, and I love the US movie output from 1982. Definitely a vintage year!

I've STILL never seen a full version of this movie.
I dig Hauser's singleminded veracity, and the L.A polished grime of this movie.
Check out an awesome movie called 'Hardcore' (Paul Schrader, 1979) - again featuring Season Hubley, along with the great George C Scott for another fantastic example of L.A neon slime!

I promise you'll be quoting the dialogue for years after you see it!

Wicked blog :)