So, after watching The Exterminator this morning, I chose to follow that up with a 1988 entry into James Glickenhaus’ filmography starring Peter Weller and Sam Elliott. Backed by Universal Pictures, this film is a warp speed jump ahead in polished filmmaking, tight storytelling, and an entertaining picture with lots of energizing action. Yet, it has plenty of substance and strong characters realized by great actors. Shakedown was a fun ride that I would like to share with you now.
When a local drug dealer shoots a dishonest cop in self-defense, lawyer Roland Dalton (Peter Weller) and renegade undercover cop Richie Marks (Sam Elliott) join forces to clear him. But when their investigation leads them into a maze of greed and corruption, they learn that in a town where everything is for sale, anything can happen. Amidst this, Dalton realizes the prosecutor in this, his last case, is a former love interest, the smart and sexy Susan Cantrell (Patricia Charbonneau). Throughout the trial Roland rekindles this former affair with Susan unbeknown to his fiancée Gail (Blanche Baker). All of this twists and turns around Dalton and Marks as they battle through the web of corrupt cops who’d sooner see them dead at every turn.
This is a top notch movie all the way through. We’re given a story that is sharply put together that always holds your attention, and keeps something moving forward at a tight rhythm at all times. There are enough interconnected threads to allow the film to do that, but not remotely so many as to complicate things. The trial of the drug dealer ties into the corrupt dealings of these New York cops, and with Dalton being the central focus of this plot, his own personal relationships branch out from that. So, there’s always something unfolding and weaving its way into the momentum of the story to keep that energy and pace up. Yet, even though the film has a polished style, it still delves into that seedy underbelly of New York that James Glickenhaus enjoyed spotlighting in his films. So, we get something sharp, sleek, and immensely entertaining while still having that underlining presence of the sleazier side of things. Glickenhaus hits the mainstream with great success fueled by a very well written script, and a spectacular cast of talent at his disposal.
Peter Weller is just amazing in this movie. As Roland Dalton, he’s a very charismatic and lively guy who loves his Jimi Hendrix and has plenty of enjoyable flare. He’s a very relatable and intelligent character portrayed by an actor who exemplifies those qualities. Weller works the courtroom scenes with compelling energy and sharp wit. He also carries strong emotional and dramatic weight throughout the film. The building romantic relationship with Susan is touchingly handled with beautiful chemistry. It help creates a full, well-rounded character that has various aspects to his life that all tie into the threads of the plot. Weller really does have the meat of screentime, and thus, properly gets top billing. Weller’s character never shies away from action or danger in his pursuit of truth. He regularly gets himself into dangerous scenarios, but is able to handle himself competently. Weller takes all of this in stride melding together a very fascinating, dimensional, and entertaining character. I loved watching him every minute he was on screen.
Of course, this takes nothing away from Sam Elliott who fits comfortably into this rugged loner. Richie Marks is very grounded, soaked into the thick of the grit of the city. We first meet him waking up in a 42nd Street grindhouse movie theatre with crack vials littering the floor, and brushing his teeth in the graffiti laden restroom. This is a guy whose luck is just about dried up, but he’s still a solid cop that can rundown the worst the New York streets have to offer. Sam Elliott was only 43 years old when he made this film, and so, his shaggy gray hair and beard make him look older and gruffer than he truly was. Thus, he was still able to throw himself into some physically demanding action scenes, which are great. Elliott has a sly personality and fine charisma that make Richie charming in contrast to the filthy environment he surrounds himself with. He’s a straight arrow cop that knows the crooked dealings in the department, but until now, hasn’t had much motivation or back-up to do anything about it.
Elliott and Weller simply work excellently together. It’s not the typical buddy cop formula where two conflicting personalities clash with a single purpose to bond them. Dalton and Marks might be distinctly different in how they lead their lives, how they present each other, but they are similar-minded men of law and justice that don’t need convincing to join forces. They’re friends from the outset, and we see they are more alike than superficial appearances would suggest. The two actors are tight fits, and have a sharp chemistry and wit that keeps the film energetic and entertaining.
Every other actor in this film does a tremendous, expert job. I’ve loved Larry Joshua in everything I’ve seen him in, and he portrays the main corrupt cop Rydell. He’s got that streetwise, slimy quality mixed in with Joshua’s usual charismatic edge and energy. Rydell is enjoyably corrupt with just the right amount of despicableness to make a villain you love to hate. You really want to see him taken down well before the end Patricia Charbonneau is excellent as Susan Cantrell. She brings a lively vibe with her, but balances that with a solid, assertive dramatic presence in the courtroom scenes. It’s a full, well-rounded performance that holds up strongly opposite Peter Weller. Richard Brooks, who portrayed Paul Robinette on the first few seasons of Law & Order, portrays the drug dealing Michael Jones, and he is a really, strong fit for this role. It’s also a very well written role that works very much to Brooks’ strengths, and he couldn’t be better. And for those that love him, John C. McGinley has a brief energetic and funny role as a lawyer and friend of Dalton’s. There are no weak links in this cast anywhere at all.
Shakedown also has some first rate action sequences. Glickenhaus seems very proficient in this realm as he always finds a way to amp up the scene at some point beyond your expectations. He never settles for the standard chase scene. He adds something especially exciting on top of what already was a damn good sequence, and gives you that memorable punctuation. I was genuinely blown away at the intensity and impact of many of these scenes. They really deliver in full force on every bit of adrenalin and pay-off you’d expect from a solid action film. And I love that the film easily balances the action with the drama of the story. The struggle for justice in the courtroom is given as much poignancy as the crime on the street. They go hand-in-hand with this story, and it’s great to see that both sides are executed equally as well making for a very satisfying narrative.
As I mentioned, there’s more to the film than just action. With Roland, you can see that the relationship with his fiancée does have its turbulence, but doesn’t come off as something that’s falling apart. He starts out as a man on the verge of changing his life with a new career and a wedding on the horizon. However, the man that he is becomes anchored by Susan coming passionately back into his life both professional and intimately. It strikes a sentimental and deep chord with Roland, and I love where the film takes him by the end. It’s a very satisfying character arc, and it never feels clichéd or contrived. It’s smartly written with touches of levity, tenderness, and honesty. All of the dialogue in the film is smartly written highlighting personality throughout, and keeping things fresh, sharp, and entertaining.
Shakedown is also really damn well shot. I liked the use of wide angle lenses which highlighted either the excellent scenery of New York, or simply enhanced some big, dramatic action shots. The film has a slick, polished quality that still delves into the seedier areas of 42nd Street with the grindhouse theatre and a sleazy sex club. We get some nice uses of light and shadow mixed with neon colors that create a solid atmosphere. There is nothing here that is not shot superbly. I find it amazing what good filmmakers could do with $6 million back in the 80s. This film is high quality all the way with great authentic on-location shoots in New York, crane shots, steadicams, and just a big budget polish to everything while never losing an edginess or personality for the film. The editing is also excellent. Editor Paul Fried had a short career that ended the following year, and it’s a shame because I can’t levy a single critique against what he did here. It’s an exemplary editing job from start to finish. It’s tight and sharp hitting all the marks and beats dead-on-the-mark.
The music of Shakedown is also really good. It’s a solid action score using more of a rock driven style that really complements the energetic quality of the film. Jonathan Elias doesn’t have many notable credits to his name, but the fact that he worked alongside John Barry, the regular composer of the James Bond films through to The Living Daylights, is a big mark of quality in my eyes. If this film is any example, he learned quite a lot from Barry, and applied to with his own style that couldn’t have been better for this film. Add in a little Jimi Hendrix “Purple Haze” and a solid upbeat rock/pop tune to close out the film, and you’ve got something that is greatly appealing and fun. It’s a shame no soundtrack was ever released for Shakedown, and that aforementioned end credits song “Lookin’ For Love” by Nikki Ryder is really nowhere to be found.
As if I need to say it, I really, really liked this movie! It was a lot of fun, and it gave me entertaining, dimensional leads with a lot of fresh chemistry and charisma to offer. I cannot reiterate it strongly enough that Peter Weller is stellar in every second of screentime here. I loved the character and his performance. Meanwhile, Sam Elliott delivered beautifully on his end of things. Shakedown was decently successful on its theatrical release grossing $10 million from a $6 million budget, and I think it deserves exposure to a wider audience. I rented this off of iTunes, which has the film available for purchase or rental in high-definition widescreen. I was thoroughly satisfied with this movie, which was released in international markets as Blue Jean Cop, and this gets my full fledged recommendation. I will be glad to add this to my DVD collection, and I hope you will give this 112 minutes of your time. It’s an exciting, fun ride that has a lot to offer the action movie fan.
For whatever reason, I just felt the need to review something of a different style, a different whatever from everything I’ve been doing lately. I’ve come to find that what I most enjoy spotlighting here are films that are hidden gems. Stuff that’s not too widely known, but is of a certain admirable quality. I really like allowing others to discover movies through my reviews, and that’s not going to happen reviewing Star Wars or Terminator movies. Showcasing something that also inspires me as a filmmaker on a more personal level is the other thing I gravitated towards with this review. I’ve previously reviewed the film Paranoia from internet comedic personality and independent filmmaker Brad Jones. Midnight Heat is a 2007 feature length effort from him that was made with a lower grade production value, but for me, the quality of the writing, most of the acting, and the direction really shines through the very rough digital video camcorder, micro-budget quality of the movie. This is the type of movie that really inspires me and drives me to be a creative and ambitious filmmaker. Seeing someone else achieve this with even less resources than I have today is further inspiration, but let’s breakdown the plot of this sleazy 1980’s exploitation film homage first.
Midnight Heat is a story of cops, hookers, killers, and pimps; all centered around one sleazy night in the late 1980’s. A cocaine addicted homicide detective (Jake Norvell) is brought out of suspension in order to trail local prostitute Donna Diggs (Bianca Queen) who may become the next victim of The Scalper (Nick Foster), a serial killer who preys on the city’s hookers. Meanwhile, her mentally unstable pimp Martin (Brad Jones) attempts to get out of the business while finding it harder to protect his girls from both the killer and from an abusive rival pimp (Buford Stowers).
I will make one preface about the technical quality of Midnight Heat and the relative standards of quality I judge this by. I’ve both been an independent filmmaker for several years, and have watched these types of movies since the late 90’s. In this realm, you make the best story you can make with the equipment and resources you have at your disposal. Not every independent filmmaker has the cash to buy boom mics, pro lighting gear, or a high quality camcorder. If all you have is a Digital Hi8 camcorder and a solid screenplay, you go for it. It may indeed be difficult for some to acclimate themselves into the experience, but if you can get beyond the digital grain from the low lighting and less than perfect audio, there is a very entertaining and well written sleazy crime thriller waiting for you. The film is only available, completely free, through Brad Jones’ website. So, all it costs you is time to give it a chance.
This film is Brad’s tribute to 1980s sleaze flicks like Vice Squad, Savage Streets, and The Exterminator while taking strong vibes from Miami Vice. This really translates from both the story being soaked in the nighttime world of sex, drugs, and murder, and the choice of soundtrack. The reason the movie is only available for online viewing is because it features tons of unlicensed 1980s pop songs. I greatly used these sorts of songs as temp music for my feature film The Fixer, and I wish I could commercially release it with those tracks because they perfectly capture the vibe I was going for. Brad Jones was just interested in putting the film out there without a mind towards commercial release. With it being specifically set in 1987, I couldn’t imagine Midnight Heat working without these era-specific tracks. Songs from Glenn Frey, Phil Collins, The Cars, Scandal, Loverboy, Kim Carnes, Animotion, and many more pulsate throughout this movie. They are the entire score, and it instills the film with energy and a very familiar emotional feeling for me. At times, it would be preferable if the songs were lower in the mix so they don’t compete too strongly against the dialogue, but the music never drowns it out. Brad Jones did the best he could with the actual production sound, as is stated in his intro video to the movie on his website. Still, if there’s one thing that could’ve been improved, it is just the mixing of music and sound effects around the dialogue. Often gunshots and other dramatic sound effects don’t have the sonic impact they should have, but I am able to forgive and move beyond that to understand the intentions on display. If this was a multi-million dollar budgeted film with professional sound engineers, you could rightfully attack that with great zeal, but not in this case, not at all.
While most of the cast are not professional actors, we are treated to some very strong and substantive performances. Jake Norvell’s Detective Rick Wilson is the perfect sleazy 1980s corrupt cop. A cocaine snorting, prostitute indulging, foul mouthed burn out that is distrusted by the police department, and is stuck with an assignment no one else cares about. Norvell appropriately portrays him in an over the top fashion in a performance that really dominates a lot of the movie. This is a character of ego and abrasiveness, but also has that tinge of emotional value. Norvell intensely portrays the erratic, substance abusing behavior of Wilson making him an unpredictable wild card. This repeatedly complicates matters with Donna, but there’s always that sordid emotional connection between them that really pulls them together. Norvell’s performance grows and solidifies in the third act, and becomes damn near powerhouse in a very fun, indulgent way. He’s really feeling the energy of this character throughout, but it is punched up in that last twenty-five minutes.
Bianca Queen is quite good as the female lead. She brings a lot toughness and grit to Donna, but is not at all afraid to delve into the required sleaze of the role. She holds her ground very solidly opposite Norvell, and the relationship they strike is combative, yet complicated. She wonderfully conveys the sordid, argumentative history between Donna and Rick without ever backing down. She also slinks very enthusiastically into the sexy, seductive aspects of the character. Ultimately, by the end, we see even more depth from Queen that makes her standout beautifully next to her male co-stars of Jones and Norvell.
Obviously, I am a major fan of Brad Jones’ work, and for very good reason. The man is exceptionally talented as both a writer and actor. In the role of Martin, he is channeling something complex and intriguing. He’s this pimp that tries to run a good operation, but just wants to find a clean way out of this life. Yet, this is the night that everything is deconstructing around him. The stress pulls at him too agonizingly, and he can’t help but crack over and over again. Jones portrays this character with a strong wealth of sympathy that transcends all the irredeemable violence Martin inflicts, but also brings plenty of weight in a role that gradually slips into being an antagonistic force. The trippy dream sequence Martin has really pushes the idea of the fracturing psyche even further. Jones is entirely convincing as an intimidating presence, but that complex nature regularly comes back into play where Martin is not just on a violent rampage. He can be a relatable character when baring his soul, but Jones’ performance is never too far removed from that psychologically messed up behavior. By the end, both sides of the character mesh together greatly with some smartly written dialogue and ideas. Overall, Jones’ performance is a major highlight of the movie.
Buford Stowers is a great heavy as the ruthless pimp Phil. He carries himself with a weighty presence and a good measure of sleaze-laden charisma. Every scene he has is punctuated with an aggressive authority. Stowers throws his all into the role, but keeps it grounded and intimidating. He feels like a serious threat that no one would risk crossing. Stowers and Jones have excellent chemistry as rival pimps, and have some solid scenes together.
The remainder of the cast has some good performances including Kim West as Nikki, Phil’s premiere working girl. Sarah Lewis always impresses me in Jones’ films with her best performance coming as the lead in The Hooker With A Heart of Gold. Here, she has only a few scenes as Donna’s friend Mindy, but it is very well acted on all levels. Alex Shyrock is very good as Detective Mike Nero who is a cop who doesn’t seem like he gives much of a damn anymore, and doesn’t enjoy having to screw around with Wilson throughout the night. Shyrock has that right stressed out, frayed quality showing that Nero is sick and tired of this Scalper case, and just wants it done with however possible.
The most substantive scene is when Martin and Rick cross paths and have a lengthy conversation together. Both men lay out their troubles, how they got to where they are now, and talking frankly about what has damaged them. Jones and Norvell put in excellent performances here. The two are great, close friends in real life, and that chemistry shows through. It’s a fairly brief pair of scenes between them, but it is a solid turning point that motivates the characters into the third act.. Their confrontation at the film’s end is equally as good.
Handheld camera work is the standard here, as is Jones’ style. He has said that he relies on this so much due to the fact of having only the built-in microphone on his camcorder to record audio. So, he regularly needs to have the camera close-in on the actors to get consistent audio. Still, while the framing can regularly be a little too tight when trying to pan between two actors, and the handheld being a little rough, there are many scenes with quite good camera angles and editing. For the most part, the flow of the movie is very good with only a few rough transitions here and there. I can entirely see that if Jones had the right equipment and the ability to refine his technical quality, this would be a greatly polished movie on all levels.
I really like movies with intercutting stories. They inherently create an energy that propels the narrative forward with great rhythm. Midnight Heat regularly cuts between Martin’s descent into self-destruction and Rick and Donna’s turbulent night together. Both stories parallel one another until they eventually intersect and collide. This structure works beautifully, and maintains a streamlined flow throughout. Jones writes very vibrant and interesting characters with some excellent dialogue. Midnight Heat is an exploitation film through and through, but the quality of the writing is comparable to that of a Michael Mann film like Thief or Collateral. Characters are dimensional and feel quite real and textured. This is the real strength of the movie, and it is what immensely impresses me about it. As I said, beyond the rough, low grade technical qualities there is a wealth of talent on display fueled by Jones’ amazingly written script. There is substance in this story. It never falls back on letting the sleaze weigh down the film for a fun, cheap thrill. Jones absolutely was putting his best dramatic effort forward, and it shows through. That’s what I think makes for a great independent filmmaker – to have the quality of your talent and vision shine through even the most rugged of technical shortcomings.
While I believe Brad has stated that directing isn’t his favorite part of the process, I do believe he put together a cohesive and well directed movie here. While everyone cast in the movie is part of his wide circle of friends, he is able to make the best use of them in key roles, and they gave him their best. The compressed time frame of the film also creates an energy and momentum not too unlike Michael Mann’s Collateral. Everything occurs over a single night, and that creates a compact, compounded intensity that builds as the film progresses. I used to have many extremely late nights out to where I didn’t know late night from early morning anymore, and Midnight Heat gradually captures that feeling in its third act. The film narrows out its cast of characters, and focuses in on its leads of Rick, Donna, and Martin enhancing the sense of isolation and loneliness of those hours of the night. The climax is not action based, but character based. It brings everything to a head in a very solid and satisfying way.
I strongly believe Midnight Heat to be one of Brad Jones’ best films. The writing is excellent and the full cast really puts their all into it. I love the neo noir style of it all taking place at night. It soaks you deep into this grimy, dark world, and that’s just perfectly my style. There’s very little action in the movie as it is built and driven by its characters, which are excellently developed and realized. At nearly an hour and forty minutes, I think this is a well put together independent film that was made with a lot of passion and enthusiasm. At the time he posted this on his website in July of 2011, Brad stated this to be his favorite film out of all the ones he had made up to that point. Knowing him as well as I do through his website, this really is where his love of film is the strongest, and I’m intrigued to know that a sequel is planned, likely for this year. It was a combination of seeing this movie and Brad’s v-log movie review of Drive that got me to see that brilliant movie which is now one of my favorites of all time. Coincidentally, the opening credits to Drive are nearly identical to those of Midnight Heat, same font and all.
As I said, you can exclusively watch Midnight Heat on Brad’s website for free. Clearly, I give the movie a very strong recommendation for anyone that enjoys neo noir crime thrillers or the sleazier side of 1980s cinema. You can watch the rather low quality trailer here. Give it a few minutes of your time, and see if it appeals to your interests.