Back in 1989 Don Johnson was coming to the end of a 5-year run as Detective Sonny Crocket on TV’s Miami Vice. What had started as a huge success that had an immediate influence on popular culture was now limping to its end. Johnson (and other cast members) wanted out. Despite its waning popularity Don had been made a huge star by the show and was seeking to turn this into film success, something which had eluded him prior to Vice. His turn as the brooding Crockett had elevated Johnson to heartthrob status and it would have been obvious for him to simply try and recreate this for the big screen. But Johnson’s movie roles that followed seemed to be more the choices of a man trying to stretch himself, to do something different.
After leaving Crockett’s pastels behind he’d play a drifter embroiled in sex and death in Dennis Hopper’s neo-noir The Hot Spot. Over the next few years he’d pair up with Mickey Rourke in biker-action flop Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (it bombed on release but now has cult classic status) and with then real-life wife Melanie Griffith in two more bombs, Paradise and Born Yesterday that also did him no favours at the time.
That run of relative box-office duds started first with thriller Dead Bang but like many a film that didn’t connect for whatever reason with audiences at the time, a reevaluation shows that was simply unfair. It’s a tough, relatively restrained action thriller (if you compare it to contemporary cop fantasies like Lethal Weapon for example) that has themes which are sadly just as relevant today as they were at the time of initial release. In it, Johnson plays homicide Detective Jerry Beck, a character inspired by a real-life LASD officer of the same name. Beck is a mess, newly divorced, a wannabe good father but consistent fuck-up who gets a Christmas gift of a restraining order from his ex banning him from dropping by his kids’ school. Beck lives in a shitty motel, is running out of money and drinks too much. He’s in many ways unsurprisingly the anti-Sonny Crockett – there’s no glamour or mystique in Beck’s brooding or failures.
When a corner-shop clerk is brutally murdered during a robbery, and a police officer who tries to apprehend the suspect is himself killed soon after, Beck gets the case. It will lead him on a 1500-mile journey across America that takes him from seemingly random murder through to a white-supremacist conspiracy. During this journey something in Beck snaps back the right way and he goes from puking up on a suspect he’s just chased down to getting his shit together to bust open wide an attempt by disparate supremacist groups to unify their efforts towards ‘purifying’ the United States (not too far away from shit you can actually watch on the fucking news these days). It’s a thoughtful film that manages to tell a coherent, gripping story and drop in several well-executed action sequences (by director John Frankenheimer) along the way but never strays too far from plausible. Johnson is great in it, showing that behind that grinning-TV charm lurked the character actor he is today.
If all that isn’t enough of a recommendation it has an enjoyably straight laced William Forsythe comic relief performance as an upright, uptight FBI agent from around the same era he was masticating scenery like a champ in films like Out for Justice and Stone Cold. It’s a film that was unfairly ignored at the time and is about due some real recognition. Though not an all-time classic it is a strong, compelling thriller that really needs a proper release. Almost all the DVD releases of it over the years have been in 4:3 – a sure sign the studio behind it just doesn’t give a shit about it. But really they should, because it’s more timely now than ever and its tale of a flawed person doing the right thing because it’s just the right thing to do is the type of inspiration we need right now, because that’s who we are and what we should be doing too.