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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 25, 1989


John Frankenheimer
Don Johnson;
Penelope Ann Miller;
William Forsythe;
Bob Balaban;
Tim Reid
Under 17 restricted

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There's a particular kind of cop in movies and on television that seems to fascinate audiences. Usually, he's separated from his wife and kids because he cares too much for his job and spends too much of his time doing it and not enough with them. Or dehumanizing violence has taken too big a bite out of his psyche for him to keep company with women and children. As a rule, he eats pizza three times a day, he's out of shape and he drinks too much. The company he keeps does nothing for his vocabulary. And the first thing everybody tells him is that he looks like hell.

In "Dead-Bang," Don Johnson plays just this sort of cop.

His name is Beck and on the night before Christmas he's assigned to investigate the murder of another Los Angeles policeman. Checking his files, he comes up with the name of recently paroled convict (Frank Military) who, it turns out, is involved with a scraggly group of white supremacists on their way to join up with others of their persuasion for a big powwow.

Along the way, there are a couple of shootouts and confrontations, and an FBI agent named Kressler (William Forsythe) becomes involved. Also, because of his renegade conduct (which seems rather tame compared with that of most movie cops), Beck is instructed by his chief to receive clearance from a department psychiatrist or be taken off the case. But because the shrink looks just like Woody Allen (he really does!), Beck gets tickled and the doctor gets sore and the chance of staying on the case appears slim -- that is, until Beck has a very unclinical, unambiguous and unfriendly discussion with the little man.

John Frankenheimer's direction is taut but rather workmanlike. He keeps the action moving but doesn't give it much personality. Robert Foster's script, on the other hand, is flecked with bits of oddness, almost all of them marginal.

Johnson is better here than you have any reason to expect. His eyes still seem stone-dead, but he's in there, doing the work and actually making something interesting out of the cliche's. As the less-than-helpful FBI man, Forsythe is the epitome of small-mindedness. At one point, he looks a freezing Beck straight in the eye and says, "You didn't bring a cold-weather coat? What's wrong with you?" Also, Bob Balaban, as a henpecked parole officer, and Tim Reid, as a local police chief, give their roles a little mustard.

Still, none of the performances distracts us for long from the overwhelming reality that "Dead-Bang" isn't much good -- that it isn't ever as good as "52 Pick-Up," Frankenheimer's last picture, which at least had a chilling performance by John Glover. Early on, there's a baffling digression in which Beck sleeps with a young woman (Penelope Ann Miller) who, unbeknownst to him, was the wife of the slain policeman. But once he confronts her with the information, that's that and we never lay eyes on her again.

From then on out it's all boys, and there is some bafflingly suggestive dialogue in which Beck and his colleagues talk about "going through doors" together.

Beck says there's only one thing that matters: "Is there anyone who'd be afraid to go through a door with me?"

And later, he's answered by the police chief, "I want you to know that I'd go through a door with you anytime."

Am I missing something with this door thing? What exactly are we talking about? Actually, I'm probably making too much of this. Maybe, in this case, a door is just a door.

"Dead-Bang" is rated R and contains strong language, violence and adult situations.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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