Editor’s note: After we’d published two of these columns, we discovered that Noel Mellor already has a well-established podcast and book called “Adventures in VHS.” We chose the name at the last minute and neglected to check whether anyone was already using it — totally our mistake. We apologize to Noel and encourage you to visit his site. We will return to being perfect most of the time. Thank you.
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?
Everyone talks about buddy cops, but what of the cops without buddies? What about the down-on-his-luck detective who doesn’t have a noticeably messier or neater partner off whom to bounce barbs that mask a deep, loving respect and appreciation? Who weeps for the officer who faces alone the chief’s withering hail of insults and accusations of jurisdiction overstepped, with nary a sympathetic soul to glance at as if to say “Who pissed in his cornflakes?” Nobody cares about them. Nobody but me. Which is why I chose three movies with titles that explicitly refer to a singular cop — One Good Cop, One Tough Cop and Supercop. Cop-and-a-Half was mathematically ineligible.
So far, both times I’ve had an Adventure in VHS™, I’ve planned the line-up like parachutes before a skydive. I know in my gut, that if I pull the ripcord on two of these, all that’s coming out is a cartoon spare tire and a little flag that says “BANG” on it. I’d like my hypothetical plunge to be a repeatable, perhaps even enjoyable experience, so I packed a ringer. I will pull that chute last, when I’m falling fastest.
That means I’m saving Jackie Chan for later and diving headlong into Stephen Baldwin.
One Tough Cop (1998) is exactly the cartoon spare tire I knew it would be. That’s the only reason I bought it for a dollar. The cover hid an ominous warning just below the Blockbuster Pre-Viewed $6.99 price tag: “From the producer of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Scarface.” With all due respect to producers, this means nothing. The team behind Life of Pi may have been nominated for a Producers Guild of American Award, but not before one of them gave us Dude, Where’s My Car? The producers of One Tough Cop, for instance, immediately went on to birth The Adventures of Pluto Nash, which makes them war criminals in some countries.
Name-dropping Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Scarface on the cover only tells me three things – they’ve done well with crime pictures before, there was no other way to sell this movie, and Al Pacino was busy.
Stephen Baldwin is also on the cover, which probably worried me more than the producing thing.
Soon as the opening credits – a static shot of black-and-white rubble set to 101 Cop Soundz – gave up, One Tough Cop revealed itself as a filthy liar. Baldwin may be a single, durable police officer, but so is his partner, Chris Penn. The movie’s still distinctly a Stephen Baldwin vehicle – a mythical beast as rare as it is dangerous – but he’s not nearly as lonely as I’d hoped. One Tough Cop played me, and not for the last time. In a Dirty Harry rip-off shot with all the grit of network television, Baldwin and Penn come upon a tense hostage situation already in progress. It’s so tense, the paramedics have forgotten that gurneys come with wheels and tend to wounded not five feet from a still-active shooter. Thank goodness a certain tough cop takes charge despite knowing nothing about the situation. Baldwin tears his shirt off to convince the shooter he’s unarmed. The negotiation thus continues with a thoroughly shirtless Stephen Baldwin and surprise character actor Luis Guzmán, who’s holding his daughter hostage because his wife cheated on him. Penn, meanwhile, yells at some other officers for risking the child’s life by barging in and doing exactly what he and Baldwin just did. Then Guzmán lets his daughter go and shoots himself with a white fade-out. Baldwin grabs the kid and pulls her away before either of them witness the shot, though he will later have soul-searching flashbacks to seeing the suicide he very clearly only heard. Regardless, Baldwin walks out with the daughter held on his hip and a hero’s smolder on his face, still entirely shirtless.
One Tough Cop does not improve on this perfect storm of clichés, try-hard darkness, and sweaty effort to make Stephen Baldwin look cool. The entire plot hinges on just how perfect he is and how his one potential misstep — openly cavorting with a known crime family — is, somehow, Internal Affairs’ fault for caring. The man sleeps with his childhood best friend’s freshly separated ex and said friend only wishes he would’ve told him about it first. This friend is also a member of the aforementioned crime family. But it’s fine, because nobody can resist that Baldwin smile.
The rest of his face does not move. That may be a low blow, but it comes from a place of genuine appreciation; few other actors have so mastered the look you give someone while thinking about sandwiches, half-listening to what they’re saying and trying your best to piece together the topic of conversation before they expect a response. When he’s shouting lines written by eighth graders who know all the bad words but not how to use them or the volume at which they’re most effective — like, “You wouldn’t know right from wrong if it kissed you on your TIT” — Baldwin may get heated, but his eyes are still ogling a turkey club somewhere in the lustiest recesses of his imagination. Often, this is hilarious. When Gina Gershon has to hit on him as best she can, Baldwin’s masterful glaze comes off as frank annoyance that this woman is not getting out of his car. Sometimes, however, it’s downright ghoulish. When flawless hero Baldwin rails on a black man’s head with a trash can lid and eyes like marbles, it doesn’t matter if that guy hit him first or offers his begrudging respect from One Tough (Suspected?) Criminal to One Tough Cop, it’s just disturbing. This is to say nothing of the movie’s central case — a nun was raped and bludgeoned to death with a statue of the Virgin Mary before the killer carved crosses into her. One Tough Cop establishes this crime with exposition from Baldwin, heavy piano music and a dramatic cutaway to Chris Penn looking sullen with donut sugar on his face.
That’s a pretty solid metaphor for One Tough Cop, a movie that makes much more sense as a student film made by the kind of college artiste that thinks the only way to be taken seriously is to make a Serious movie with a capital S.
But it ends with a twist so shocking, it almost made me watch One Tough Cop again. Here, in its entirety, is the pre-credits admission:
Except for the character of Bo Dietl, all characters and events depicted in this film are fictional.
Bo Dietl is the name of Stephen Baldwin’s character. It’s also the name of one of the movie’s executive producers. I took the tagline for granted: “There are still real heroes. Sometimes they get lost in the headlines.” To review, this heavily fictionalized “real hero,” a faultless stack of muscle who’s good with the ladies and better on the mean streets, appeared in a completely fictionalized story, overseen by the actual guy it was all based on. Dietl even got to approve the actor that would play him. In one of those inspirational, “Next-Thing-I-Knew” stories usually saved for Inside The Actors Studio, Stephen Baldwin nabbed the role-of-a-Lifetime-Original-Movie by whispering to Dietl, “I’m the guy for this part and if you can’t see that, you’re an idiot.”
Thus, the only true satisfaction found in One Tough Cop is that such a bald act of self-mythologizing masturbation was entrusted to a leading man with all the commanding presence of a hungry mannequin.
And it wasn’t even a singular cop movie. Despite Chris Penn talking about drinking problems, gambling debts, and his beloved daughter so much that I wrote down “Chris Penn will die” in my notes, God doesn’t demand his gun and badge until the last 10 minutes.
Fortunately, a dead partner is the entire point of One Good Cop (1991). Inter-Batman Michael Keaton and Anthony LaPaglia are detectives the likes of which, we’re assured, are hard to come by. Seemingly every day they wander into pressure-cooker gunfights that leave them bloody, bruised and screaming their mantra: “We’re alive!” Until LaPaglia no longer is. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but the duo stumble upon a hostage situation in which a crazed man with a gun holds his family hostage because of a perceived slight by his wife. They volunteer to talk him down. LaPaglia charges in and takes a bullet to the head, which is revealed by Keaton pushing over his slumped partner in a manner usually reserved for comedies about the inconvenience of hiding a dead body. LaPaglia left behind three daughters, who come under the care of Michael Keaton and his wife, Rene Russo. But how will he adapt to fatherhood? How will he afford a house for his unexpected family? The answers are “charmingly” and “robbing a drug lord,” respectively.
One Good Cop is two movies fighting for dominance, and the one it favors is the clear loser. This is sitcom New York City. The cop bar is directly across the street from the criminal bar. Everyone’s whacked out on meth, but they exclusively refer to it as “ice.” Shootouts are more common than parking tickets, bare-knuckle brawls more common than that. Keaton throws himself into it with both eyebrows and makes the occasionally goofy police business — a basement bust goes pear-shaped because the rats on the floor gross everyone out — almost work. It might not try as hard as Stephen Baldwin’s opus, but One Good Cop gives up any illusions of grit or grounding by the finale, wherein Michael Keaton fights the villain with an ornamental sword in a Molotov-cocktailed penthouse.
It’s the other half of One Good Cop, with Keaton and Russo learning to live with three little girls, that gives it a pulse. I don’t know which arcane magic brought the producers three non-annoying child actors, but the results speak for themselves. It’s delightful to see Michael Keaton dive for his dripping coffee machine with a mug because the middle daughter borrowed the pot for a Barbie hot tub. A momentary shot of Rene Russo passed out on a chair with the youngest kid sprawled on her chest works better than the Hallmark commercial it should be.
If only One Good Cop were comfortable enough to be quiet. Rene Russo wants to adopt the kids because she can’t have any of her own. We know this because she reminds Keaton, who’s already mentioned the same, that she can’t have kids and would like to adopt these ones on account. Everyone expounds on their innermost demons until the exposition rag is wrung dry; One Good Cop wants you to know precisely why everything happens in One Good Cop, despite none of it being confusing or new.
Until the ending. Much like One Tough Cop, the ending plays a lot differently than the filmmakers probably intended. The climax sees Keaton steal from a kingpin to afford a house for his new family. He is later linked to the crime because of the way the thief threw money off a balcony. It was too cuh-razy to be a criminal, despite every other cop in the movie lamenting how “ice” makes addicts cuh-razy enough to do anything, including kill police. Keaton’s goose is cooked until the chief tells him not to worry about it. The entire department looks the other way because Keaton did wrong for the right reasons.
It may be played as pure triumph, but a police force turning a blind eye on the law in support of their own was a lot more uplifting in 1991 than 2018. Especially considering the earlier scene where Keaton shakes his new partner out of a violent frenzy as he screams “I’m gonna kill you!” at a fleeing, wounded suspect. The kids are cute and Keaton is one good cop™, but boy has this happy ending gotten queasy.
Thank God for Jackie Chan.
Like all great works of art, Supercop is actually a marketing scam. After two ill-fated attempts in the 1980s to earn American audiences, it took New Line Cinema’s 1996 distribution of Rumble in the Bronx for Jackie Chan to finally play in Peoria. How fast did he blow up? His next American release, Police Story 4: First Strike, was retitled Jackie Chan’s First Strike and his character’s name changed to his own. You don’t see anyone doing that for Dwayne Johnson, and he already plays himself in every movie. The people wanted Jackie Chan. The studios wanted him more. New Line already had dibs on First Strike, so Dimension Films got creative.
Supercop, which reached the States a few months after First Strike, is, in fact, Police Story 3, the 1992 prequel to the movie it immediately followed in American theaters. You might catch the original title on crew jackets in the blooper reel, but even with a trailer for the sequel kicking things off, no connection is made. Comparing the two only shows the earliest signs of the watering down Jackie would soon suffer for American audiences.
Jackie Chan’s First Strike is a fun and fumbling spy adventure that makes a better fight scene out of a ladder than most movies do with entire armies. Supercop, though, is 90 minutes of impeccably choreographed laughter in the face of God, the reaper, and all natural limits of the human body thinly disguised as an action movie. There’s no fat on Supercop besides the grease Dimension dunked it in.
Supercop opens with a concentrated dose of 1990s attitude that’s damn near fatal. Flicker-fast cuts of a zoomed-in Jackie interrupted with Chinese military stock footage, cartoon fists, and a portrait of Mao Zedong. House music fresh from an X-Men cartoon questionably mixed with 101 Asian Soundz sure to make you anxiously suck in air through your teeth. The new soundtrack, including a Devo title track, an inexplicable cover of “Stayin’ Alive,” and a re-written “Kung Fu Fighting” courtesy of Tom Jones, makes exactly as much sense as you think.
With or without the four minutes of actual movie Dimension shaved off, Supercop finds Jackie Chan’s now-famous Officer Ka-Kui going undercover with Michelle Yeoh to get cozy with a druglord’s right-hand man. They pose as brother and sister, but everyone forgets to let Jackie in on the plan. Hijinks ensue. Higherjinks follow when his long-suffering girlfriend happens upon these “relatives” she’s never met before.
But who cares, because the last 15 minutes of Supercop are better than any action movie I’ve seen in the past decade. When the drug dealer du jour takes off in a helicopter, Jackie sees little choice but to jump onto the conveniently attached rope ladder and dangle hundreds of feet over Kuala Lumpur while Michelle Yeoh chases after him on the streets below. The two converge on a speeding train. He’s swung into it; she lands a motorcycle on it. A fresh round of henchmen provides a handy reminder that Jackie’s one of the fastest in the business, but Michelle might just be faster. This is all while a very real chopper hovers overhead and occasionally jerks along with the very real train to which its ladder is tethered. The explosion that caps the sequence is almost underwhelming compared to the dozen-plus near-deaths leading up to it. How deranged was the crew’s devotion to such stunts?
The trademark bloopers gleefully include a shot for each star that must’ve momentarily convinced everyone behind the camera that they’d filmed a homicide. Michelle Yeoh lands on the hood of Jackie’s car at speed, then slips off the side onto the road, into on-coming traffic. The angle is locked to the car’s hood, so we get a rare glimpse of Jackie in abject panic as the stunt vehicles swerve to dodge Yeoh behind him. Chan’s own flirtation with the grave is almost graceful in its simplicity — he gets hit by the helicopter. He’s hanging from a pole and out of nowhere — BOOM — helicopter.
I don’t know that I can beat that ending, but I do know more movies should end with their heroes, buddy-less or otherwise, getting hit by helicopters.
One Tough Cop comes to mind.