BY Dennis King
Mar 29, 1989
Stars: Don Johnson, Penelope Ann Miller and William Forsythe
Theaters: Promenade, Eastland, Eton Square and Cinema 8
(Broken Arrow, Sand Springs) theaters
Rating: R (vulgar language, graphic violence, brief nudity)
Quality:2 stars(on a scale of zero to five stars)
"Dead-Bang" has that harsh, gritty quality and the abundance
of sharp edges that marked director John Frankenheimer's
best political thrillers of the '60s, like "The Manchurian
Candidate" and "Seven Days in May."
It also has bang-up performances by a top-notch cast of
actors, most notably Don Johnson in an appealingly scruffy
departure from his slick, stylish "Miami Vice" detective.
It has a potentially interesting and timely story involving
the paranoid plottings of a para-military group of white
But despite all this - Frankenheimer's cool hand, lots of
good characterizations, and an explosive plot loosely based
on a true story - "Dead-Bang" comes dangerously close
to being little more than a whimper.
The problem is, the whole movie is shot through with cliches.
Johnson plays Jerry Beck (based on a real-life character
of that name), a Los Angeles Sheriff's homicide detective
who's having some tough times. His marriage is breaking
up, he drinks too much, he lives in a junky apartment near
the airport. Nothing's going right for this guy (he even
has to tape his eyeglasses together when he looses one of
those little screws from the earpiece).
When a fellow cop gets killed on Christmas Eve, Beck is
assigned to the case. Here's where the cliches really kick
Beck is a rough-and-ready sort of guy, so naturally he's
always in trouble with his superiors over his unorthodox
methods and his violent behavior. This stuff is straight
out of every "Dirty Harry" movie ever made.
During his investigation, Beck gets on the trail of three
vicious killers who have strong ties to a white supremacist
army. The trail leads him through small-town Oklahoma (talk
about stereotyping Okies) and into the mountains of Colorado.
He's joined on the case by an uptight, by-the-book FBI agent
(William Forsythe). And, naturally, they clash.
The central plot - dealing with the white supremacist group
and its fiendish plan to launch an armed uprising against
liberal America - is such a tired old gimmick that it's
hard to believe it's coming from the same director who guided
the clever, intricate doings of "The Manchurian Candidate."
All this predictable baggage brings "Dead-Bang" down a
couple of notches on any critical scale.
But the film is not without its rewards. They come in Johnson's
earthy performance as the world-weary Beck. When a hungover
Beck has to chase a suspect on foot over blocks and blocks
of city streets, catches him, wrestles him to the ground
and then upchucks all over the crook, it's an original and
painfully funny scene.
Johnson has another very good scene in which he's sent to
a psychiatrist, who oddly enough looks like Woody Allen.
That makes the uncomfortable cop break out in hysterical
giggles. It's one of Johnson's best moments in what is a
very strong overall performance.
Another very strong turn comes from Bob Balaban as a snitty
probation officer who objects to Beck's roughshod methods.
Forsythe is funny as the mama's-boy fed, and Tim Reid has
a small but well-realized part as a Colorado sheriff who
becomes Beck's best ally.
It's unfortunate that the old pro Frankenheimer didn't have
more original material to work with. Even so, he made the
most of what he had with polished technique. But this film's
best moments occur on the fringes, with sly acting and clever
bits of action. At it's core, "Dead-Bang" is off target.