It preps you for a fast-paced descent into an urban hell at the cultural moment when the Seventies turn into the Eighties. No film could deliver on the trailer's promise of relentless mayhem or squalor, but I remember the promise from when I first saw commercials for Gary A. Sherman's film on TV, when I was still too young to see the film in theaters. And I remember a bit of controversy on the premise that Vice Squad had plumbed new depths of depravity. The film doesn't quite live up to that reputation, either. It's more about violence than sex, for one thing, and in some respects it reminds me of urban-misadventure films that would come later in the decade.
We open with a mother (Season Hubley) prepping her little daughter for a trip to grandma's. The girl is going on a bus with a black nanny who makes a faux pas of sorts by calling her "Princess." Mom insists that that name never be used. But the offense is forgotten as she tearfully sees her child off.
But inside the bus station ladies' room, equipped with lockers for this purpose, a startling metamorphosis occurs.Wings Hauser). Vice Squad eventually becomes the tale of a vendetta between Princess and Ramrod after the smooth-talking brute wins Ginger's confidence back long enough to beat her to death with a folded wire hanger. When intrepid vice cop Tom Walsh (Gary Swanson) brings Princess in to show her Ginger's battered corpse, she agrees to wear a wire and help entrap Ramrod. Captured after a struggle in which Princess spits in his face and gets in some decent scratches, and Walsh utters the phrase "Make my day" a year before Sudden Impact, Ramrod swears revenge, and after he escapes two incompetent detectives in a moving car he resolves to hunt her down. Once Walsh learns that Ramrod is loose, he sends his squad to find her as well.
(Top and above) Princess vows revenge on Ramrod and helps entrap him, only to be imperiled for not the last time in Vice Squad.
The creepy set-up is sabotaged a bit when Sherman catches a cameraman in a corner of the frame at one point, but the random irrelevant eccentricity of all this happening in the middle of our story makes it one of my favorite parts of the film. It's also the part that reminds me of future films like After Hours that have that same that same anything-can-happen-in-the-city quality. Like those, I should emphasize, Vice Squad takes place over a single night of frenetic mayhem, and it has other bits meant for laughs like the incompetent detectives' encounter with an old Chinese guy who kung-fus them all over the place.
Robert Vincent O'Neill (who would go back to the secret-hooker well with the Angel movies) are either too realistic or too misogynist to believe that Princess could walk away from a one-on-one with Ramrod. Instead, he has her in his power and is about to administer another bent-hanger beating when Walsh comes to the rescue. But Walsh really hasn't been built up the same way that Princess and Ramrod have, and Gary Swanson is too bland a performer to earn his victory here.
"Down these mean streets a man must go who is pretty frickin' mean himself." With apologies to Raymond Chandler, Wings Hauser plays detective.