Sunday, December 6, 2009


Vice Squad has one of my favorite trailers of all time. This copy was uploaded to YouTube by theflickfanatic.

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.

"Princess" is an outlaw prostitute, a freelancer without a pimp. She gets fresh proof of the benefits of independence as she contemplates her friend and fellow hooker Ginger (Nina Blackwood) who is desperate to get free of her pimp Ramrod (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.

This is where the movie goes into a digression that partially redeems it. Ramrod closes in after beating or otherwise extracting information from various degenerates, from gay bikers to a portly "sugar pimp" played by Fred "Rerun" Berry, and just as you think that Princess has stumbled into his clutches, she ends up getting a limo ride to a mysterious mansion where she's dressed up in a sexy bride outfit and escorted (with a warning not to speak) into a room dominated by a coffin. Inside the coffin is a little old man who happily pops back to life, only to break down in tears under a verbal assault from Princess. "She's not supposed to talk!" he bawls inconsolably as the chauffeur escorts Princess out and inquires whether she'll be working on his next day off.

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.

Probably the most memorable part of Vice Squad for many people is Wings Hauser's performance as Ramrod. He's not the typical pimp, which in this film still means the typical Seventies stereotype, and at first he seemed too ordinary, apart from being big and thuggish, to work as the villain of this piece. But Hauser gradually won me over with his bug-eyed, jut-jawed persistence. It's not a flamboyant performance with eccentric tics or memorable lines, but he stampedes through the film with admirable intensity and does a lot to keep the movie moving.

"Down these mean streets a man must go who is pretty frickin' mean himself." With apologies to Raymond Chandler, Wings Hauser plays detective.

Regrettably, the movie ends in disappointing fashion. That's because it comes down to a chase and shootout between Ramrod and Walsh, which may be realistic but doesn't satisfy our expectation for an ultimate showdown between Ramrod and Princess. Had Vice Squad been made a little later, Princess may well have been the instrument of Ramrod's destruction, but Sherman and writer 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.

I went into Vice Squad thinking it would be like a last stand of Seventies cinema, exploitation category, before the true onset of Eighties culture, but it ended up feeling more like an Eighties film. That might be because there's no pretension of "relevance" or social consciousness, no sense of the oppressive presence of The Man or The System. But it doesn't exactly candy-coat its setting. It accepts prostitution and related vices as givens, while Ramrod needs to be stopped less because he's a pimp (he's one among many, after all) but because he's a brutal pimp. There's an indifference to everything that makes Vice Squad feel more like a game or a "roller-coaster ride" experience than the sleazy expose it pretends to be. As such it's a pretty entertaining ride, but I can't help feeling that something is missing that might help make the difference between Seventies and Eighties cinema.


Rev. Phantom said...

So I assume by your review that your feeling were pretty mixed about this one? If so, that's understandable. I actually saw this film when I was 4(!) at a drive-in with my teenage sister. I can't even imagine letting my 4 year old daughter see this film. lol--but the fact that I did probably says a lot about the kind of movies I like now (thanx, sis).

I used to love the movie when I was a kid and would watch it every chance I got when it was on cable, but I watched it a few years ago with adult eyes and felt kind of so-so about it. You're right about the ending--which seemed to venture in slasher movie territory and didn't fit with the flow of the rest of the film. Still Wings Hauser is just off-the-wall great in the role and I love his vocals on the theme song. "...everybody's drownin' in the neon sliiiiiime!"

Samuel Wilson said...

That was Hauser singing? Excellent! But yeah, I guess there's something just a little campy about this movie that makes me feel so-so about it, too. The trailer made me expect something grittier or even sleazier than the actual product. Hauser is definitely the best thing about it, but I'm not sure if he's enough to let me recommend it to anyone apart from specialized audeinces.