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.
In 1980, writer / director James Glickenhaus brought us a gritty exploitation vigilante film known as The Exterminator. I have some mixed statements to make about this film. It has some great elements, but also some qualities that felt less than great. A bad film it is not, but it has a few lackluster areas where some more refined filmmaking techniques would have sold me stronger on it.
Vietnam vet John Eastland (Ginty) launches a bloody vendetta against the New York underworld when his best friend Michael Jefferson (Steve James) is brutally beaten and paralyzed by a vicious street gang. Eastland becomes a vigilante hero to the public, but to police The Exterminator is a psychopath capable of dangerously undermining an entire government administration.
What’s of the most special note here is that Robert Ginty is a surprisingly solid fit for this role. He looks like an average guy, clean cut, regular slender build. He doesn’t look like the muscle bound bad ass the poster infers the Exterminator to be. If made in the latter half of this decade with studio backing, you would’ve seen a Stallone or Schwarzenegger type actor mandated by a studio. Ginty is unassuming, but delivers on the grim mentalities of the role. He has his moments of compassion, showing that humanity is his motivating factor, but when he shifts into that vigilante mode, he’s a merciless, graphically violent force to contend with. Overall, Ginty does a very, very good job in this role. His performance compelled my interest in the movie.
The action and vigilante violence sequences are all excellently executed. This is the film’s energy and weight. Whenever Eastland goes out into that night to exact his own brand of justice on the criminal element, the film becomes alive and riveting. These are expertly done sequences portraying the violence in a very gritty, realistic fashion, and having the visceral reaction desired. The violence he inflicts includes a lot of bullets, burning a guy alive, and dropping someone into a meat grinder. It’s all done in a very cold, decisive fashion. Eastland is calculating and intelligent. He’s not being controlled by passions. He remains focused and level headed all the way through the film, and it creates a solid, intimidating screen presence that I really liked. This is clearly an exploitation film showcasing the violence in unrelenting fashion, but with enough restraint to not try to shock you at every turn. You get enough to sell the violence and gruesome victimization at hand, but it never drowns you in graphic visuals. When I talk about gory horror films, I say it takes no skill to splatter gore all over the camera lens, but to know how to use the violence effectively against the audience does show skill.
The rest of the cast is okay, but with no standouts. Christopher George is quite good as Detective James Dalton, and especially early on he seemed like a perfect fit for a tough cop. His performance never goes down in quality, but the character is softened through the Dr. Megan Stewart romantic storyline to where he loses some weight and edge that was demonstrated from the outset. He handles all the aspects of the role well, but he never really jumped out and gripped my attention. I was more intrigued by Ginty’s screentime, frankly.
In the least, everyone in the film feels authentic to the time of that late 70’s New York grit. There are the seedy, sleazy characters that are entirely credible, and are presented quite matter-of-factly. Their sadistic, salacious acts are unsettling to a viewer, but it’s presented as being an honest look into the darker side of this urban criminal underworld. This is reality in this era, and this film is not going to make any apologies for it. This is the despicable activity going on in the shadows of this city, and Eastland is not going to allow it to continue. I really like that idea, but I do think the film could have done a stronger job building up the character and his emotional motivations.
The Exterminator does feel very indicative of the time it was made. Beyond just the violent, dark, cynical film that the late 1970’s would produce, the style of filmmaking is not uncommon for something of this ilk. I would hold Walter Hill’s The Warriors to be the finest example of a 1970’s style hard edged, urban action movie. The Exterminator is a much more methodically paced film, and tries to focus on mood more than a fast-paced intensity. Still, there are aspects of pacing, structure, and atmosphere that I feel could’ve been improved to enhance that intention. These are relatively minor things, but elements that make a marked difference.
For instance, the film feels like it cuts out a huge chunk of character building scenes early on. Scenes of emotional motivation and a build up of dramatic momentum between where Jefferson gets attacked by the gang and Eastland goes after those responsible. There’s not even a scene of Eastland reacting to the news of Jefferson’s paralyzing attack. The attacks happens, and the next scene has him telling the news to someone else. Then, he’s interrogating a street thug with a flame thrower. Then, he exacts his revenge. The character building scenes do occur after this, but they would have added more weight and dramatic drive to the film if they instead bridged the gap between the attack itself and Eastland becoming the Exterminator. Those sorts of scenes would help delve more into John Eastland, and more sharply focus the narrative on him. Up to this point, Jefferson seems like the protagonist of the film because he’s the one saving Eastland from danger and we see him with his family. Little time is spent with Eastland to know much about who he is. It’s a matter of dramatic structure, and while all the elements are there in the 104 minute director’s cut runtime, I don’t think they were arranged in the most effective way.
Something else that I thought was not done consistently well were scene transitions. This is not wide spread, but there are a few instances where Glickenhaus just didn’t film any sort of artistic or dramatic segue from one scene to another. So, instead, it just fades out from one random shot and fades into another. This creates a bit of a disjointed flow in the narrative, and also, robs us of certain impactful moments. Certain scenes could’ve ended half a minute earlier on a stronger note than allowing them to linger on monotonous activities. Some scenes just don’t end with enough dramatic punctuation for the intent of the scene to resonate into the next. For instance, Eastland kidnaps an Italian mobster, goes to his house to steal money, and gets mauled by the attack dog. The scene ends with the attack dog, and leaves the issue of stealing the money unresolved. Not every plot element really connects or is followed through on. Even the romantic subplot between Detective Dalton and Dr. Stewart seems like a diversion from the vigilante plot, and honestly, has little to do with anything else in the story except to allow Dalton and Eastland to cross paths in the hospital. It’s a nicely done subplot, but it just didn’t do anything for me. Even Dalton’s own hunt for the Exterminator is not exactly dogged. He’s enthusiastic about the investigation, but it never feels like an urgent manhunt or a personal determination on his part. I would’ve preferred spending more time delving into Eastland, and creating more of an overall storyline for him besides just killing criminals at random.
The film is generally competently shot. The cinematography is nothing to get excited about, but it’s also nothing to speak negatively on. Although, the scene where Eastland interrogates the street thug with the flame thrower has horribly inconsistent lighting. As the scene cuts from one angle to the next, the light source flips around 180 degrees. First, it’s behind Eastland, then it’s behind the thug, then it goes back behind Eastland. It was horribly distracting and blatantly obvious to me. It’s just a bad piece of work, in only one scene, from whoever shot and lit this scene. The rest of the film has no such problems.
However, on the editing front, I think the movie could have benefitted from some tightening up. It unnecessarily takes its sweet time in too many instances where some smart editing and the right shots could’ve given the pacing and rhythm much more punch. There’s extraneous footage all over this movie. One great example is that there’s a scene where Eastland is drilling holes into bullets and filling them with mercury, then sealing them back up again. I’m sure someone with firearms knowledge understands the idea behind this, but it is never given context or explanation to the audience what the purpose of that methodical scene was. Doing some quick research, apparently, filling a bullet with just regular mercury, in actuality, would soften the lead of the bullet to the point where it would likely fly apart when fired. In movie myth, it creates a grenade-like exploding bullet, but in truth, that is only potentially possible if using mercury fulminate. This is strongly NOT recommended as you would probably die or be horribly maimed attempting to fire such a bullet. Regardless, this idea felt like extraneous content that was part of a scene that ran on longer than it needed to. Basically, it’s an arming up scene for Eastland that goes on for five solid minutes with the mercury bullet segment taking up three of those minutes. If you’re not going to explain its supposed importance, or show us what doing that to the bullet is meant to accomplish, don’t bother wasting the audience’s time with it.
My biggest point of contention with this film is its ending. The climax itself is quite good. There’s a nice amount of suspense and tension as Dalton traverses through this docked ship at night searching for Eastland. There’s some good action beats and explosive moments at the end. It’s very well plotted. The problem is, the film has no resolution to its plot, its characters, or anything else. It sacrifices anything like that to appease some extremely unnecessary political subplot where some political figures think the Exterminator is some kind of plot by their enemies to ruin their re-election campaigns. None of which is true, and the film could’ve existed entirely without that subplot. It’s not too far off from my reaction to 2006’s Miami Vice. There’s action and some nice dramatic beats in the final few minutes, but ultimately, it leaves me empty and wondering what the point of the movie was.
Ultimately, I feel The Exterminator had the good building blocks for a solid vigilante exploitation film, but it didn’t have the tight cohesion or driving narrative to really feel like it had all its stuff together. Robert Ginty is really good in this, and makes this unexpected turn as a cold, calculating vigilante who still has his humanity intact. He’s a good man that wants to take out the trash in this city, and has the training and means to do so. The main problem here is that this film doesn’t have a narrative direction. In most revenge films, the protagonist spends the majority of the movie tracking down and killing off those that have incited his needed for vengeance. Instead, we have this self-proclaimed Exterminator dealing with that right away, and spending the rest of the movie mostly just exacting justice for others without a story of his own to follow. Thus, it’s not surprising the ending has no resolution because there’s very little plot to resolve. This is one of those films where I say, if you like what you read here, go ahead and give it a chance. I don’t say avoid it, but I don’t feel it’s worth going out of your way to see it. The film is available in a remastered director’s cut DVD / Blu-Ray combo pack release, if you’re interested.