I have a VHS problem. They are my Chapstick; bought frequently, replaced before sufficient use, and lost from my pockets as collateral damage when I retrieve change overzealously. Adventures in VHS is an attempt to subsidize that problem and justify its consuming ruin by digging into three loosely connected, barely discussed VHS tapes that I happen to own. There’s no telling what we’ll find when we rewind. You’re all enablers now. Join me, won’t you?
I have the same entertainment tolerance for buddy cop movies that’s usually reserved for horror and Hallmark Originals: I can appreciate absolute trash. The chemistry conundrum provides an accidental fail-safe. On a good day, when the alchemy works, you get Lethal Weapon, but even when the “buddies” seem matched by poorly thrown darts, there’s grim satisfaction in it.
This installment features three examples of the latter: Loose Cannons (1990), starring Gene Hackman and Dan Aykroyd; Off Limits (1988), starring Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines; and Renegades (1989), starring Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips.
I started with Loose Cannons because, at least on paper, it’s the strangest: Written by the father-son duo of genre legend Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Hell House, probably your favorite Twilight Zone episode) and Richard Christian Matheson (Tales from the Crypt, Masters of Horror, Three O’ Clock High); directed by the staggeringly versatile Bob Clark, who brought us everything from Black Christmas to A Christmas Story and Porky’s to Baby Geniuses; starring Aykroyd and Hackman, both recent Oscar nominees; produced by TV legend Aaron Spelling.
An overqualified gaggle of talents gathered on something none of them were really qualified for: a zany buddy cop comedy. (Yes, Aykroyd was in Dragnet, but he played the straight man.) Everything wrong with the movie is summed up in the name Loose Cannons, parody-exhausted shorthand for everything predictable and worn out about buddy cop movies.
Hackman takes no shit, but does enjoy philosophy now and again. Aykroyd takes a lot because he’s a recovering schizophrenic, which is a tired excuse for impersonations and the movie’s closing line: “You know why we make such good partners? Because you’re crazier than I am!” In truth, Road Runner meeps and cartoon boxing aside, neither of them are especially crazy by genre standards. They drive recklessly, shoot indiscriminately, and provide frequent pain in villainous asses, but so do all mismatched partners. Take away the two stars giving it more oomph than it deserves and Loose Cannons is a shapeless homunculus of every late ‘80s buddy cop comedy you slept through on TBS.
The plot leans hard into politics — the MacGuffin is Hitler’s sex tape, which features a cameo by a German leader-to-be — but tries to play it off as an apolitical race between good and evil. The only surviving witness to a crucial crime is comic relief with legs. There’s a near-self-conscious abundance of character actors. The movie even has the jack-knife tonal shifts of its worst contemporaries. If the opening trailers didn’t warn you — a nuclear ‘90s preview of Look Who’s Talking coming to home video chased with a red-band warning for an I Love You to Death trailer — the bad guys dangling a severed head from the end of a fishing pole in the first scene should do the trick. Loose Cannons is a strangely chaste R, more in line with our modern PG-13 standard. There’s no nudity; the S&M club they visit is just a bunch of leather fans doing the proto-Carlton dance that Eddie Murphy demolished in Raw. But Dom DeLuise sporting a submachine gun and telling a bunch of Nazis, “They’re f*****’ with the wrong Jew this time!” isn’t a bad way to earn a rating.
About the only thing Loose Cannons did for the careers of anyone involved is briefly implicate Dan Aykroyd in a homicide investigation, when a still of the movie was found in a Canadian landfill. Once someone familiar enough with its Comedy Central reruns intervened and the star’s name was cleared, he went on record to say a landfill is “where it belongs.”
But I disagree. Spending 94 minutes on Loose Cannons was entirely worth it for a single sight gag. A gag so powerful in its shameless glee that it makes one yearn for the surrounding 93-and-a-half minutes to show just as little restraint. When Aykroyd is still in therapeutic hiding with a fraternity of monks, he passes the days painting. At first we only see a painstakingly rendered plate on his recreation of The Last Supper. But as he steps away we see it: Jesus and the apostles have been replaced by 13 Dan Aykroyds. It is the kind of pure expression that cinema was made for, and a piece of art I would pay embarrassing sums to own.
Off Limits, by gracious contrast, makes little attempt to be funny. It does once in a while — more movies should have Gregory Hines kicking off a group interrogation by reminding the suspects, “You’ve all just been treated for drippy dick… your dick’s been drippin’” — but the humor is a reflex, a safety valve in the history-scarring pressure cooker of 1968 Vietnam. Willem Dafoe and Hines play a special kind of cop — sergeants in the United States Army Criminal Investigation Command, an organization with the honest-to-God motto “Do What Has To Be Done.” That’s already a gray area for any self-respecting buddy cop, let alone in the middle of the Vietnam War when jurisdiction between military matters and the local police gets blurry. The movie’s regrettably flat title, ready-made for a Cannon Films classic starring Charles Bronson’s body but not his attention, refers to an Army-banned section of Saigon where prostitutes start dying by American bullets. It does a B-movie disservice to the best thing about Off Limits.
You’ve seen good cop/bad cop grillings in claustrophobic rooms. Threats of violence to perps with no ear for sincerity. Strip clubs dense with the unmotivated haze of neon sleaze. But dropping it all into a war zone where sweat is the only common language changes the overall effect. When Dafoe and Hines press an always-welcome Keith David about a possible conspiracy among top brass, he refuses to speak to anyone but a decorated colonel. The duo bend over backwards to make it happen, setting him up with armed protection and an illegal safehouse in the no-go zone. He’s found out and gunned down within the night. This is nothing new to the buddy cop formula; every invaluable witness should be issued a T-shirt with a bullseye on the back. But for these particular buddy cops, it’s about as common as jaywalking.
Off Limits may be the first movie in Adventures in Home Video that I popped into my VCR knowing nothing about and ended up rewinding to watch again. It trips over the line in the closing minutes with too much triumph for an ending that casts a long shadow over everything that came before, but it’s still a distinct pleasure to see Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines, all limbs and sweatstains, run their asses off across Saigon with Fred Ward and his mustache bailing them out as needed.
Renegades represents a different kind of buddy cop movie, with a different kind of buddy cop mustache. A 23-year-old Kiefer Sutherland plays a borderline-dirty undercover cop who should be somewhere in his 30s, with a borderline-porn mustache working overtime to bridge the gap. Through a violent mix of bad luck and worse judgment — he helps his mob-boss target lift a bunch of jewels and takes a bullet in the back for it — he’s semi-kidnapped by Lou Diamond Phillips, a Lakota Sioux tough guy. He’s on the trail of a sacred spear that was stolen in the same heist. Five points if you can guess how they kill the mob boss. Five more points if you guessed Renegades is lazily racist. Like most American-and-Other buddy cop pairings, Renegades handles the Other with sarcastic disdain, then overcompensates with ignorant respect by treating their culture as mystical, if not explicitly magical. Kiefer’s character refuses to call his de facto partner anything but “Chief,” despite repeated objections. But it’s OK because they show a medicine man healing a day-old gunshot to the stomach in a rathole motel room with nothing more than smoke and the proper chant. Also, Lou Diamond Phillips is Filipino. He turns in good work, but it’s still a decision that dates this movie more than any mustache. A single exchange of half-hearted banter lays it all out: “You don’t believe that s***, do you?” “I am that s***.”
Like Loose Cannons, Renegades is surprisingly violent, but at least feels like it’s supposed to be. Director Jack Sholder, coming off two great under-seen horror movies I’ve written about before, Alone In The Dark and The Hidden, keeps the action respectably reckless. One cop jumps between passing subway cars. The other steers a getaway car down a busy sidewalk with a gun to his head and his foot to the floor. Curlers get blown out of salon patrons’ hair. A dead henchman falls off the top of a barn onto the ground with no cuts or apparent padding. It’s exciting stuff even on mute — my tape added a ticking audio tear to the whole movie and I kept expecting a foot chase from Beverly Hills Cop II to break out the entire time — but everything around the Fall-Down-Go-Boom business seems like Sholder pulled a short straw in the journeyman-director-does-buddy-cop sweepstakes.
Every buddy cop movie worth its weight in celluloid ends with a hopelessly upbeat credits song (the freeze-frame is optional). All three of these do. None of them remotely earn it. And so, in that spirit, I’ll wrap up this edition of Adventures in Home Video on a positive note it did not justify: The Adventures in Home Video Home Game. Just print out this article, draw a line from each actor’s name to the entirely real name of the buddy cop they played, and mail your results to Crooked Marquee. First one to do it all correctly gets a Crooked Marquee sticker. Good luck. I lied about the sticker.
Gene Hackman Dan Aykroyd Willem Dafoe Gregory Hines Kiefer Sutherland Lou Diamond Phillips Buck McGriff Hank Storm MacArthur “Mac” Stern Buster McHenry Albaby Perkins Ellis Fielding
Lou Diamond Phillips
MacArthur “Mac” Stern