Not that long ago the video store was a mundane and sometimes obnoxious part of life; driving over to some lonesome strip mall with your friends or family to comb through the all-too-often disorganized shelves of your local shop, argue over a selection, and then be stuck with it, for good or ill. Yet, it was also sublime. And for those who lived during the true video boom, video stores also equate to another bygone commodity: VHS. When JVC’s Video Home System won the early-80’s format war, the motion picture market changed forever. The genre and B-movies that had previously filled drive-ins across the country now often went straight to VHS. Then DVD took the world by storm in the late-90’s. It was a brave new world, and sadly, many films never made the leap, trapped now on a dead format. These often aren’t “good” films, but goddammit, they were what made video stores great. For we here at CHUD are the kind of people who tended to skip over the main stream titles, our eyes settling on some bizarre, tantalizing cover for a film we’d never even heard of, entranced. These films are what VHS was all about.
Some people are still keeping the VHS flame burning. People like my buddy Michael Monterastelli, whose Facebook page Collecting VHS is a glorious showcase for the lost charms of VHS box artwork. His passion for VHS is such that I thought it would be fun to talk him into sharing his vast collection with us. My only rule for him? The movies can’t be available on DVD.
Take it away, Mike!
Genre: Gonzo Action/Buddy Cop
Tagline: What this film exposes about undercover vice cops can’t be seen on your television set.
Released by: MGM/UA Home Video
Director: Peter Hyams
Plot: L.A. vice squad cops Keneely (Elliott Gould) and Farrel (Robert Blake) have an overwhelming enthusiasm for their work, which is why they set their sights on bringing down crime kingpin Carl Rizzo (Allen Garfield) even after they’ve been told by their own superiors to back off. But, this only makes them want the collar even more and they’re willing to do just about anything to get the job done. Bar fights, car chases and public shootouts ensue as the wisecracking duo rips L.A. a new one in the pursuit of justice!
Thoughts: In the mid 70’s Americans were trying to overcome the painful hangover of Vietnam, Watergate and an overwhelming sense of social unrest combined with an increased crime rate in the urban centers. As a result, a new kind of cop movie would rise out of this turmoil. First, in ’71 audiences were introduced to an officer named Dirty Harry, a no nonsense cop who preferred to pop a .44 caliber slug in a perp’s back rather then read him his rights. Then you had The French Connection that featured the buddy cop team of Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman, who’s methods of trying to capture a French heroin dealer included intimidation, illegal searches, beating up snitches and shooting and killing a fellow officer mistaken for the bad guy. These cops were not the goody-two-shoes squares from Dragnet that spoke in quick sentences, wore clean suits and followed all the rules. No, this new breed of cop was pissed-off, self-righteous and almost as dangerous as the criminals they were after.
In 1974 three films came out that would begin a subgenre of the crime thriller known to us all today as: the buddy cop movie. After some extensive research I’ve come to the conclusion that the film Busting was the first and essentially the prototype for this style. You’ve got all the ingredients: snappy dialogue, an untouchable mobster, an unsupportive commanding officer, corruption, shootouts, car chases, and at the center a warm relationship between two men with a very dangerous job to do. According to IMDB it was released in February of ‘74 in New York, but I’ve seen reviews where people claim that it came out in ’73. Regardless, it predates both The Super Cops (a true story about two real life NYPD flatfoots that went on a marathon spree of arresting almost every single lowlife in the Big Apple) that came out in October of that year, as well as the amazing Freebie and the Bean (my favorite and one of the most gonzo buddy cop flicks of all time) released two months later in December. These gritty and witty cop movies led the way for a whole slew that included: Lethal Weapon, 48 Hrs, Beverly Hills Cop, Tango & Cash, Turner & Hooch, Bad Boys, Rush Hour, etc., etc.
This was the debut film from veteran writer-director Peter Hyams, who would go on later to do a quasi-remake of sorts with the 1986 buddy cop comedy, Running Scared featuring Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines as Chicago narcotics detectives trying to bust an untouchable drug kingpin. Sounds familiar, huh? As a matter of fact, there are tons of similarities to the two pictures in terms of the plot, with the glaring exception that Busting’s tone is far more on the serious side with its 70’s cynicism, brutal violence and political incorrectness, as well as being a lot more critical of police corruption. Running Scared is much, much lighter and much, much less socially introspective. In other words, it’s got much smaller balls than the grande huevos on Busting.
This film takes place in a filthy, grimy Los Angeles circa the early seventies and you can almost taste the smog on your lips. Big credit is due to Earl Rath’s brilliant cinematography, which really captures the time beautifully with its dirty streets packed with pimps, hookers, johns, scummy strip bars and flashy Cadillacs. There are tons of low angles, red tinted lighting and incredibly elaborate tracking shots that follow the action so closely it feels like you’re a part of it. One of the most memorable sequences being a shootout that begins in an apartment building and continues on into an open fruit market, where the cops and bad guys fire at each other with reckless abandon, sometimes hitting the occasional innocent bystander. This scene is so kinetically awesome and intense the movie is worth watching just for it alone.
The casting of Elliott Gould and Robert Blake is another genius move. Gould, who at the time was on a real roll as Hollywood’s most offbeat leading man, is typically great as the disheveled, gum-chewing, stoner cop, Keneely. And a pre-Baretta Blake, also riding a wave of great performances, is the perfect example of quiet cool as Farrel. They play very well off each other and the humorous banter between them in the beginning of the film gives the audience a feeling that they have a strong friendship, which is great because halfway through the movie it starts to get a lot more intense and we’ve already made up our minds that we like them and want them to succeed.
There’s also a great deal of pathos generated for these two characters. They come off at times as very lonely, alienated anti-heroes and you can feel their disillusionment with the system growing stronger and stronger every minute as it becomes apparent to them that money and greed will always prevent them from doing their jobs correctly. It’s unusual to watch a film today where the two central characters are more concerned with social justice than with their careers or even their very lives, but this again is an example of the time it was released, a time when the spirit of the sixties counter culture was still very much in the air.
The supporting cast is made up of some great character actors from the era such as Antonio (Huggy Bear) Vargas as a gay hustler with a short fuse, Sid Haig as a mob goon, and the magnificent Allen Garfield as the sleazy and somewhat likable bad guy, Mr. Rizzo. Garfield isn’t introduced until almost halfway through the movie and he immediately starts stealing every scene he is in.
Busting is one of the most badass buddy cop movies ever made. Its tone is somewhere between the intensity of The French Connection and the humor of Freebie and the Bean. It’s also completely neglected, totally underrated and has never been released on any format other than VHS. Hopefully one day it will get the special edition Blu-ray/DVD treatment it deserves, but I’d even settle for a made-to-order disc just to have a nice widescreen copy of it in my collection (like the one they did for Freebie and the Bean on Warner Brothers Archive).
However, if you absolutely can’t wait to see it based on this enthusiastic review and you have in your possession a working VCR, you can buy a brand new VHS copy like I did on Amazon for $19.30. Hurry though, because the last time I checked there was only a few of them left. Until next time folks, remember to always shoot first and ask questions later… and DUCK!