Every time I saw this on the video library shelf I moved past it as the title was wholly unappealing, Dead Bang. I didn’t even care to find out if the title was representative of something in the story or just that mechanism of making something sound flashy and tough by having two punchy words together, like Die Hard. Some releases go with Dead-Bang for some reason.
I wasn’t a big fan of Don Johnston in my teenage years and knew very little of John Frankenhemir. Over the years the film continued to pop up making me a little more curious about it, however, it was when I was looking at the career of William Freidkin and John Frankenheimer that I felt it best to have a go. Freidkin had done The French Connnection, Frankheimer had done French Connection II. Friedkin returned to the cop action thriller with the incredible To Live and Die in L.A. Frankheimer returned with the lesser known Dead Bang. Perhaps there was something in it… and there is!
Dead Bang is a terrific 80’s action flick with a number of refreshing turns, ambitiously fun plot, unexpected twist and exceptionally likeable leading man. Johnson is a great place to start with recommending Dead Bang. He’s got the chops for everything going on here. Fit for the action, perfect delivery for the quips and oozing edge and anger when needed. A little reading about the film’s background reveals that the cop on which this character is based was on hand to reinforce realism and combined with Frankenhiemer’s eye for details really boosted the film’s depth and perspective.
The plot revolves around a young white supermist robber murdering a cop one evening. Assigned to the case Johnston uncovers a movement that might destabilise the state. His investigation takes him out of his comfort zone of California and on to Oklahoma (in the winter, without a coat.) Johnson has to deal with the FBI, some repugnant attitudes of the local police force in order to track down his foes and a chill in the air.
The action doesn’t exactly fill the film, however, there were a few enjoyable action sequences throughout. Unlike the Lethal Weapons and Die Hards out there, Dead Bang keeps its action within the confines of reality. Most boil down to a gun battle or a chase, although there is one spectacular explosion mid film. The climax shows a hint where it might go early on and you’ll be yelling at the screen during the minutes it takes for Johnston’s character to notice what was so obvious as their plan is put into action.
There is quite a bit of humour in the film, yet some of it has a sting in it’s tale. Little moments, like Johston’s character’s limited funds raise a smile as a character remarks he is going to have Johnson’s pile of junk car towed, raise a smile. Or Johnson’s morning after the night before resulting in him vomiting over someone he has apprehended. The psychiatrist scene is strange. On the one hand it starts with a hilarious Woody Allen reference, yet, what happens afterwards might be seen as pretty cool back in the 80’s but today it’s quite scary that Johnston’s cop could be sent back into operation.
Penelope Ann Millar appears and then disappears; this is one thing that is missing from the film. As the film’s female lead, I wondered just how the film was going to reintroduce her later. It doesn’t. Apparently her character had more to do later on yet it didn’t feel natural and the scenes were removed. It’s a shame, however, given how much Frankenheimer got right throughout, I would trust in his judgement. William Forsythe plays a neat and tidy FBI agent Kressler, who would be the opposite of Johnson’s Beck in many ways yet the two develop some interesting on-screen chemistry.
Dead Bang took me by surprise and I really enjoyed discovering it. It’s a bit dated, however, it works nicely as a quality 80’s action romp. Whilst it is not as stunning as To Live and Die in L.A it is a quality outing and worth checking out. Looking back at the elements, I do whilst this had become a franchise with Dead Bang 2: Dead Banger continuing the adventures of Beck and Kressler.
Posters for the film declined in quality over the years. The initial poster captures the punch and trench-coat nicely, however, it conjures images of Beverly Hills Cop II. Artwork quality declined after this. The horrific UK video cover features “Based on a true story” across the top, at a time when TV movies were landing with this and I’m sure Dead Bang was lost amongst those titles, especially with the lacklustre image of TV star Johnson brandishing a gun, another hallmark of those TV movie releases. US video release came with Johnson on the phone/radio to entice viewers… bet it didn’t.
Dead Bang has not had a significant release in HD in the UK. You can stream it from Amazon for an over inflated price, or try to find a cheap DVD.
This is a quality film and in need of treatment from and outfit like Arrow, 101 or 88 film who would be prepared to pull Johnston and Jerry Beck in for a commentary.