While I don't particularly wish it well, I suspect that "I, the Jury," a luridly provocative update of Mickey Spillane's ultra-hardboiled private eye classic, is destined to do well. In fact, it could open the door for a fresh exploitation of the Spillane inventory, which alarmed Nice People a generation ago but never duplicated its success with an avid reading public at the movie box-office, where a quartet of Spillane's Mike Hammer thrillers -- "I, the Jury" with Biff Elliott, "Kiss Me Deadly" with Ralph Meeker, "My Gun Is Quick" with Robert Bray and "The Girl Hunters" with the author himself -- proved small potatoes.
The new edition of "I, the Jury," which opened yesterday at area theaters, may benefit from fortunate strokes of casting and timing. An alert, magnetic young actor, Armand Assante, seen previously as Sylvester Stallone's embittered older brother in "Paradise Alley" and Goldie Hawn's French mismate in "Private Benjamin," brings a cynical, smoldering potency to the role of Mike Hammer, Spillane's remorseless detective-hero, a scourge of urban criminals animated by the following sense of mission: "I lived only to kill the scum and the lice that wanted to kill themselves. I lived to kill so that others could live."
Assante prevents a bewildering plot and frequently slapdash production from becoming calamitous liabilities. Barbara Carrera, who also smolders picturesquely while impersonating the treacherous femme fatale, Dr. Charlotte Bennett, the director of a preposterously posh, sinister, sex clinic, probably summed up the fundamental appeal of "I, the Jury" admirably when quoted as follows: "Women will love watching me in this movie, because I do what every woman secretly would like to do: I stop at nothing . . . And men will love watching Armand -- if someone gets in his way, he socks them or shoots them." Back to basics, as it were. The movie's fortune will be made if Assante's rejuvenation of the direct-action, borderline-psychopathic hero strikes a vicarious chord in action fans, who have good reason to fear that the older exponents of the tradition, notably Clint Eastwood, have gone soft on them.
A notoriously troubled production, "I, the Jury" was completed on short notice and under severe time and budget constraints by Richard T. Heffron after the original director, Larry Cohen, was fired. Heffron has done several indifferent theatrical features ("Outlaw Blues," "Futureworld," "Foolin' Around"), but he has a sturdier television reputation ("A Rumor of War," "A Whale for the Killing," "I Will Fight No More Forever," the pilots of "Toma" and "The Rockford Files"). Cohen, still credited as screenwriter, originated the project and has a remake of "My Gun Is Quick" in the works. He's a luminary of sorts in the exploitation field -- the director of the horror shocker "It's Alive!" and its sequel and the ludicrous Washington epic, "The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover."
Apart from Assante and the random effective bit player -- notably Frederick Downs, a Veterans Administration official who plays the first murder victim, Jack Williams -- the level of acting tends to be perilously amateurish. It is the inexplicable shooting of Williams that motivates Hammer, a friend and war buddy, to wipe out the culprits responsible. There are moments when you wonder if an Andy Warhol company might have been hired to perform Mickey Spillane. Even Assante takes a reel or two to assert himself. At times he seems vaguely facetious, scowling about town with a permanent 8 o'clock shadow while slipping into vocal echoes of Peter Falk.
The plot remains as hopelessly tangled and murky as Spillane contrived it, but Cohen has attempted to accommodate shifting fashions by turning the material ideologically inside-out. Where ruthless Commie agents once lurked behind the evil deeds avenged by Mike Hammer, one now finds ruthless CIA renegades, masterminding an international assassination service alleged to be awesomely far-reaching and efficient before Hammer cleans house. It's a waste of time trying to make narrative sense of the author's shock tactics. Most of the victims seem to be killed for no plausible reason, and the killers are equally hard to figure.
What you begin to realize, however, is that the lapse of a generation allows a curious enhancement of Spillane's gaudiest scenes of carnality or brutality, because there's no longer a strict censorship apparatus inhibiting film depiction. As a matter of fact, the Spillane standard of tawdriness has become a trifle archaic, requiring systematic charging up instead of toning down. While true to the spirit of the source material, a number of vicious new highlights illustrate how far the movies have come since the olden times when "I, the Jury" had to be bowdlerized.
The most sensational example is a virtuoso slashing, so outrageous conceptually and yet stunning pictorially that it's certain to give audiences an unforgettable, throat-clutching jolt. Like Charles Bronson lining up three prisoners in a row to execute them with a single bullet in "Villa Rides," it's one of those farfetched, appalling stunts that nevertheless commands a grudging professional respect and even amusement.
On the other hand, I saw no reason to humor the attenuated sadism of a series of sex killings perpetrated by a Manchurian Candidate named Kendricks, portrayed by Judson Scott, who's allowed to linger over voluptuous naked victims, grooming and taunting them for ritualistic slaughter. Hammer finally catches up with this brainwashed fiend in time to save his unreasonably loyal secretary Velda, who should probably assume a prominent role, both romantically and professionally, if sequels are contemplated, because Laurene Landon, the blonde bombshell from the recent bomb "All the Marbles," plays her enjoyably. She is a big, healthy cat of a girl who looks like she can take care of herself and maybe locate the Lighter Side of Mike Hammer if given half a chance.
Hammer's visits to Dr. Bennett's Evil House of Sex Therapy invariably turn up something irresistibly silly, especially the group grope in the drawing room accompanied by a solo harpist. Assante and Carrera do justice to the famous merciless fade-out. Although it seems a delicious comic moment when the dying Carrera lifts her elegant noggin from the parquet to inquire, "How could you do it?," Assante delivers Hammer's cruel reply with stinging authority. A hard case, this Hammer, and it's possible that he's arrived just in time to create a new vogue in make-believe hard guys.