Monday, October 14, 2013
1974 was apparently the year of the mismatched male buddy comedy drama. Ones we've covered: THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, THE DION BROTHERS, FREEBIE AND THE BEAN. BUSTING came out earlier in the year and disappeared quickly. It was quirky and filled with action like the other films, with a healthy dose of 70s cynicism, but perhaps proved to be too much of a downer to succeed, even while films by Ingmar Bergman and Robert Altman were box office champs. What a beautifully odd time for cinema.
Keneely (the omnipresent Elliott Gould) and Farrell (Robert Blake) are Los Angeles vice cops who dutifully accept their lot on the shit detail including, appropriately enough, staking out a public mens' room for perverts. They also find themselves busting prostitutes in massage parlors and even one who services a dentist - in a patient chair during office hours! There's an uncomfortable shakedown in a gay club that is followed by an even more humiliating court date in which Keneely is grilled on the witness stand.
But the big prey is a crime kingpin named Carl Rizzo (the omnipresent Allen Garfield). A man who prizes his ability to remain absolutely unflappable when constantly badgered by the duo, at least initially. He likes to give speeches, explaining the sad reality to the boys. They'll never nab him, and if they do, he'll serve a short stint and then get right back to his business.
After each misadventure, our heroes are dressed down by the chief in the same tradition as other movie mavericks. The pair's desperation grows with their obsession. They decide to up the stakes on Rizzo - constant stakeouts of his home, setting his car on fire, and busting one of his strip clubs in a raid, frightening away every patron. Hitting the slippery SOB where it really hurts.
BUSTING is likewise similar to a cache of 1970s cop dramas such as THE NEW CENTURIONS and SERPICO - films examining police corruption. Keneely and Farrell are sardonic cut-ups but unrelenting about upholding the law. And they suffer for it. Get bloodied up and berated. Those things come with the job. But when they learn that their fellow officers are on the take, in Rizzo's pocket, they find that they may well be alone in their pursuit for justice. That crime may indeed pay.
Peter Hyams, in his directorial debut, navigates a bumpy but engaging drama; a straight faced movie with many humorous moments, but rarely as goofy as FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, to which it's often compared. There are plenty of wisecracks and even a few pranks, but otherwise there's serious business here. The two films do share a penchant for elaborate action scenes. In BUSTING, Hyams stages wild chases/shootouts through an all-night farmer's market type grocery and also a climatic ambulance spree. His camera races far ahead, pointed back at the actors, as if leading them. The atmosphere is vivid in each sleazy location. It's as '70s as any movie could possibly be.
Gould is just about right as the tired, forever gum chewing sad sack. He mumbles and growls his way through the movie effectively and believably. Blake, seen in far fewer movies than his co-star in those days, is more of a straight man but gets a few good moments. BUSTING is not a satire, but a bleak, defeatist reminder of the ambiguity of good versus evil. A really cynical essay that questions why anyone would dare, or even bother to fight the good fight. Possibly, the film is also a denigration of capitalism, but that may be reaching.
And in the great tradition of downbeat '70s wrap ups, ponder the final moments. The final shot - a freeze frame on Keneeley just after he apprehends Rizzo. We hear a flash forward to a few months later, when the exhausted lawman is applying for a civilian job.......