Writer/director Shane Black made his bones with the greatest buddy action movie of the ’80s. His first produced screenplay was for Lethal Weapon, and while it wasn’t the first crime drama that decade to put a mismatched pair of heroes, one black and one white, up against crims and each other (that’d be Walter Hill’s 48 Hours), it certainly made the most cultural impact. Black returned again and again to the buddy movie well (The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), culminating in his latest offering, The Nice Guys, which sees Ryan Gosling’s no-hoper detective team up with Russell Crowe’s paunchy leg-breaker to unravel a labyrinthine mystery in ’70s Los Angeles.
But even great writers like our man Black don’t work in a vacuum, and we’re pretty sure we’ve got an idea of the earlier films that have found a home on his DVD shelf (or DVR – we’re down with the new paradigm). So, if you’re in the mood for more over-the-top Naugahyde-clad action from the Decade That Subtlety Forgot, check out these gems.
Across 110th Street (1972)
Not the song you remember from Jackie Brown – the Bobby Womack tune is the theme to this gritty police drama, which sees Yaphet Kotto’s straight-laced black cop team up with Anthony Quinn’s racist detective scouring Harlem for $300,000 in stolen mob money – and the guys who killed seven men to steal it. Grim and gritty, this has more in common with the likes of Taxi Driver than some of the other, more light-hearted fare here.
Elliott Gould was bound to show up in any halfway-decent list of ’70s cinema, but did you know that he was in this, the direct inspiration for Starsky & Hutch? Directed by Peter Hyams (Running Scared, another great buddy cop flick), Busting sees Gould and Robert Blake as a couple of Los Angeles vice cops trying to take down a crime kingpin, with mixed results. Busting casts a dour, cycincal eye on the cops and crooks genre, painting a bleak picture of a world where the good guys seldom win, and crime does pay – an attitude that was quietly but completely edited out of the hot TV show it spawned.
Cotton Comes To Harlem (1970)
The legendary Ossie Davis brought Chester Himes’ Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) to the big screen in this adaptation of the seventh novel in his long-running Harlem Dectectives series. As you can tell by their nicknames, our two heroes may be cops but they’re not averse to dropping some serious pain on any transgressors who stand in their way when they’re tracking down over $80,000 stolen from a black church’s Back-to-Africa campaign. Cotton predates Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song by a year – a useful fact to keep in your pocket for your next discourse on the origins of Blaxploitation.
Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974)
The buddy pairing here isn’t Peter Fonda’s NASCAR wannabe, Larry Rayder, and his mechanic, Deke (Adam Roarke), but rather Fonda and Susan George’s Mary, who gets caught up in the action after Larry and Deke knock over a supermarket to fund their dreams. A classic ’70s chase movie filled with more muscle cars than people, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as Vanishing Point, Two Lane Blacktop, or even Smokey and the Bandit, but it’s got New Hollywood existential charm to spare.
Every Which Way But Loose (1978)
The buddy pairing here isn’t Clint Eastwood’s bare-knuckle fighting trucker, Philo Beddoe, and his mechanic, Orville (Goeffrey Lewis), but rather Eastwood and Clyde, the beer-swilling, raspberry-blowing full-grown orangutan that they travel with. A weird, shapeless knockabout comedy that follows Beddoe as he woos Sondra Locke’s country crooner while tangling with outlaw motorcycle glang, The Black Widows, Every Which Way But Loose is downright bizarre to modern eyes used to a more somber Clint, but was hugely popular in its day and spawned a sequel, 1980’s Any Which Way You Can.
Freebie and the Bean (1974)
James Caan is the maverick Freebie, while Alan Arkin is the uptight Bean, and that should be enough to get you running down this title, which sees the two mismatched San Francisco cops trying to get a lock on a mob boss before an assassin punches their collar’s ticket for him. Freebie and the Bean ups the comedy and the over-the-top action in ways that must have influenced Lethal Weapon and its ilk – at one point our heroes manage to crash a car into a third floor apartment, which is a cut above the more grounded action most films of the period offer. Stanley Kubrick was a big fan, too, calling it the best movie of the year, so your film geek bonafides are safe.
A low-key character piece, Scarecrow sees Gene Hackman’s pugnacious ex-con taking avuncular authority over Al Pacino’s simple-minded sailor as they traverse the country so the latter can meet his child, born while he was at sea, for the first time. Director Jerry Schatzberg had previously gotten a great performance out of Pacino in 1971’s The Panic in Needle Park and he does so again here, while Hackman is remarkable as the begrudgingly empathetic elder partner. At the time, Scarecrow was lauded, sharing honours at Cannes with The Hireling. Now it’s largely unknown, which is a crime; this is an astutely observed character comedy that deserves reappraisal.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
The late Michael Cimino made his directorial debut with this cracker, which pairs Clint Eastwood’s steely professional crim with Jeff Bridges’ happy-go-lucky ne’er-do-well; guessing which character matches which nickname is left as an exercise for the reader. A combination of road movie and heist picture, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot marries Eastwood’s unreconstructed masculinity with the more artistic concerns of New Hollywood in a way no other movie ever did, resulting in a thoughtful, funny, quite moving experience that still delivers on action.
Uptown Saturday Night(1974) /Let’s Do It Again(1975) /A Piece of the Action (1977)
Firstly: yes, we know. Bill Cosby. Ugh. Hard to watch. But this is worth your attention – back in the day, Cosby teamed up with Sidney Poitier for a trilogy of loosely-connected caper films, which Poitier also directed. Each film saw the pair playing different characters, caught up in a different wacky scheme: in Uptown Saturday Night, the two are trying to get back a stolen wallet containing a winning lottery ticket; Let’s Do It Again sees them trying to rig a boxing match in order to save their fraternal order; and A Piece of the Action posits them as a pair of burglars blackmailed into working with at-risk kids at a youth centre. Light, flip and fun, these are all worth a look, as long as you can temporarily forget everything you’ve read, seen, or heard about Bill Cosby in the past few years.
The Nice Guys is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital.