Rent-A-Cop (1988)

Immediately announcing that it was made in the ‘80s, we open with a nighttime helicopter shot gliding over a waterway and then pulling up to reveal a brilliantly lit city. This is the ‘Miami Vice’ shot that opened seemingly hundreds of TV shows and movies around this time, and the one aspect that sets this one somewhat apart is that the helicopter stays much lower as it flies over the city, cruising between buildings rather than rising well above them and shooting down upon their roofs.

In this case, the distinctive architecture reveals the setting to be Chicago. The score, meanwhile, is strange for what we assume will be a violent cop action flick. The music has a lightly triumphant cast, and sounds more like something you’d expect from a romantic comedy featuring a beleaguered woman who finds love against all odds. The music isn’t bad—it was composed by Hollywood pro Jerry Goldsmith—but it just doesn’t fit with our expectations. The credits, meanwhile, are a B-movie lover’s dream. I’ll address the cast in more depth as things go along, but let’s just say that you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at a ‘special’ credit announcing, “And Robbie Benson as Pitts”.

We cut to high heeled feet walking down a nearly deserted city sidewalk. The surroundings look a bit desolate; suggesting that the film will present what it imagines to be a ‘gritty’ perspective. The camera pans up and we see that the shoes are, in fact, worn by a particularly unconvincing and heavily mascara-ed male transvestite, one obviously overly influenced by Tim Curry’s Frank N. Furter, and who…. Oh, my mistake. It’s not a male transvestite, it’s Liza Minnelli. Ms. Minnelli is wearing what appears to be a short red dress—waaay too short, if you don’t mind me saying—accessorized with a sparkly, glistening red jacket and a long white fur stole, complete with animal head.

As she nears the entrance to a swank old downtown hotel, she is observed by several men who are obviously watching over the place, one of whom is Blaxploitation mainstay Bernie Casey (!). Minnelli enters the lobby and greets the desk clerk in a jocularly familiar fashion, whereupon we learn her character’s name is Della. He asks her how things are going, and she quips “It depends if the client wants Mommy, Little Bo Peep or Helga the Bitch Goddess!” That’s right, Liza’s Della is a been-around, seen-it-all, saucy high priced call girl. Yep, and surely the most intuitively unconvincing example of the breed since a middle aged and similarly portly Barbara Streisand assayed a similar role in the aptly titled Nuts.

Meanwhile, we cut up to room 333, where a multi-million dollar drug deal is going on. Following classic B-movie traditions, one of the buyers tests the merchandise by slitting open one of the plastic bags, dipping a finger inside and tasting the stuff. Really, how would you keep potentially tens of thousands of dollars of drugs from spilling out after that? Here’s an idea: store your two million dollars worth of powder in resealable Zip-lock bags, you mooks.

We quickly perceive where things are going when Della reveals that she can’t read the room number her, uh, manager has provided her with. Needless to say, however, it’s on the same floor where the above referenced drug deal is occurring. Upstairs, an obviously psychotic killer is in a nearby room, readying his automatic weaponry. Since this was made in the ‘80s, and I mentioned a psychotic killer, knowledgeable buffs are no doubt wondering, “Michael Ironside or James Remar?” James Remar.

Della, who comes staggering out of the elevator—no offense, but Ms. Minnelli is well past the stage where she should be attempting high heels—inevitably misreads the note and knocks on Remar’s door. For no good reason, considering that he soon dons an opaque motorcycle helmet to disguise himself, he opens the door rather than ignoring her. I can’t imagine there were many viewers of this film who didn’t quickly figure out that Della’s look at Remar was to place her life in great jeopardy. But then, I can’t imagine there were many viewers of this film, period.

Informed that she has the wrong room, Della heads down the hall. There she finds a nebbishy middle-aged man wearing kid-styled pj’s and clutching a teddy bear. (!) “Hello, sweetheart!” she comically enthuses, going into ‘Mommy’ mode. Meanwhile, the drug deal is actually a police sting, run by veteran undercover detective Tony Church (Burt Reynolds) and his aforementioned partner (Casey). Before the arrests can go down, however, Remar kicks down the door and sprays bullets through the room, killing nearly everyone.

He grabs the money and drugs, and then runs down the hall and kicks open the door where Della has thankfully not yet begun to service her john. He shoots up this room as well, while putting several bullets through her would-be client. However, a wounded Church has come around and begins firing on Remar, chasing him from the place before the assassin can take care of Della. Again, if he had just ignored her when she knocked, or even just looked through the spy hole and answered her through the door, all of this unpleasantness—by which I mean this movie, of course—could have been avoided.

Back at headquarters, Church—the lone survivor amongst the massacred undercover team—is reamed out by his slimy, glad-handing precinct commander. (Cue again our figurative movie buff: “Slimy precinct commander? John P. Ryan or Ed Lauter?” Ryan.) When Ryan enthuses about how the botched operation and dead cops will at least net them some sympathetic press, Church grimaces, “You mind if I open a window? It’s starting to stink in here.” If you wanted to pick one moment to sum up how utterly generic this film is, that line of dialogue would certainly do.

I hope you’re sitting down, because Church’s contempt for his putative superior is based on the fact that Ryan has never been a street cop, but rose through the ranks due to his political connections. There’s some original characterization there, by golly. In the end, Ryan even suggests that Church was in on the robbery. Church angrily assaults Ryan, and then turns in his badge in disgust.

Next, Remar again attempts to get rid of Della. In a ludicrous scene, he attaches a spring-loaded spike projecting rig (!) on his arm—why that’s better than simply carrying a knife in his pocket isn’t explicated—dons a valet jacket and a comic fake beard that makes him look strangely like Ashton Kushner, and impales Della as she leaves a restaurant with her latest client. Needless to say, the fact that she eventually proves to have survived this assault doesn’t exactly amaze us.

Church, at odds, walks through the city, allowing for some time-wasting scenic footage of Chicago, as well as a shot of some homeless guys, which were de rigueur in urban films made during the Reagan and Bush the first administrations, but mysteriously disappeared after Clinton became president. I guess this was because there weren’t any homeless people under his beneficent stewardship.

We later move on to Church in his new job as a department store Santa, or a security guy in a Santa outfit, or something. This is when the ‘funny’ part of the movie begins, with Church being hectored by his middle-aged female manager, who incessantly insists that he study the employee policy manual.

Soon Church, being a trained cop, spots the World’s Most Obvious Shoplifter. As he stalks this fellow, his manager continues to hector him, even as a kid discovers he’s a fake Santa and kicks him in the shin, and Della, wearing a bulky fur coat and sporting a dead white Andy Warhol wig, pops up and tries to hire him to bodyguard her. Eventually Church tackles the shoplifter into a display and then pulls a .45 on him. This gets him fired, as you might expect. “No guns!” his manager sourly tells him. “You didn’t read your policy manual!” That’s the punch line.

With the Santa Claus scene, the film’s essential schizophrenia really starts working against it. Prior to this the movie’s played like a typically violent ’80s cop film. The robbery scene saw twitchy nut bag Remar bloodily dispatching at least a dozen people, including a number of innocent bystanders. The graphic slow-mo murders of Della’s nerdy john and the comic desk clerk are particularly distasteful moments. Moreover, the sight of the not exactly svelte Minnelli trundling around in tight red lingerie and matching garter belts doesn’t exactly help things.

Then, once Della and Church hook up, the film suddenly transmogrifies into a really, really bad Neil Simon sort of deal. The two stars trade poorly crafted insults and quips in a broad, mugging Borscht Belt manner before inevitably, if none too convincingly, falling for each other. This material jars badly with every reappearance of Remar, who further establishes his psycho credentials by at one point dancing shirtless and sweaty before a bank of mirrors—a distaff rival image for that of Ms. Minnelli in her underwear, perhaps—before playing a cackling round of solo Russian Roulette.

This one runs on autopilot. When we see Church in his strangely huge Chicago apartment—especially strange given that he’s been mostly unemployed for several months at this point—he’s wearing a spanking new Bears football sweater. Because, you know, that’s what a guy who lives in Chicago would wear. Meanwhile, Remar proves utterly deadly whenever he isn’t trying to kill either of the leads, and utterly inept when he is. There are, of course, several car chases, dirty cops are plentiful, and given the decade this was made, there is inevitably a scene set in a disco.

The film’s most painful aspect is, naturally, its woeful attempts at comedy. One typical example involves Church and Della breaking into police headquarters to get access to files—don’t ask—and who should walk in during the middle of this but Church’s ex-boss Ryan. Being a jerk, he immediately hits on the ‘foxy’ Della, whereupon she manages to sweet talk him into leaving before he notices that Church is hiding under the desk she’s sitting at. By the way, Della comes along on the job because he-man Church naturally doesn’t know anything about computers. This being 1986, remember. Why Della would know about them isn’t explained.

The cast is really weird, and as noted before, heavily seasoned with B-movie actors (Ryan, Casey) as well as TV stars (Richard “One Day At A Time” Masur) and Liza’s fellow singer Dionne Warwick. Meanwhile, Robby Benson plays a comic relief exaggeratedly naÔve new street detective, and presumably was cast so that there was an actor in there that someone under the age of thirty might recognize.

Warwick plays Della’s long-time manager and best friend, and thus naturally gets herself ‘tragically’ whacked. Actually, Warwick’s character hasn’t even appeared yet, but I’m pretty confident that this is what will be happening. [Future Ken: Wow, believe it or not, that’s exactly what happens. She gets killed, by the way, because Church basically fingers her to a drug kingpin.] It should be noted for fans of either Warwick or John P. Ryan that they appear in the film for such short amounts of time that they are basically cameo players.

I’m sure the film was meant to be follow in the footsteps of such comic-yet-violent cop pictures as 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop, Stakeout and Running Scared. However, those movies featured then hip, young comic actors like Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines. Their style of humor was fresh, fast, profane and urban.

Murphy particularly, a mere twenty years-old when he had his first starring role in 48 Hrs., burst onto the screen with a confidence and swagger that instantly proclaimed him a star. The scene where he backed off an entire bar of fuming, violent rednecks while wielding only a borrowed police badge was the moment he outright stole the film from veteran actor Nick Nolte. (Sadly, the startling presence Murphy exhibited here lasted for only three films, and he never really got it back. He fell prey to the same trait that killed Richard Pryor’s career: he became obsessed with being loved by the audience.)

In contrast, Burt Reynolds and Liza Minnelli are both pretty obviously pushing fifty* here, and the style of humor they employ is extremely old hat**. If you wanted to sum it up in one word, ‘shtick’ would do nicely. The supposed laughs are meant to be inspired by Reynold’s trademark slow burns, canted head and ironically raised eyebrow, working off against Minnelli’s frenetic spaz act. Most of the ‘comedy’ predictably derives from Della being a nonstop motor-mouth whose constant chattering annoys the rather more taciturn Church.

[*Actually, according to the IMDB, Reynolds was 52, while Ms. Minnelli was only 42. All I can say is that the former wears his five decades a lot better than the latter does her four.]

[**Proving that it’s all in the material and the execution, I should note that Minnelli has been hilarious in her recent recurring role on TV’s Arrested Development. She might be poorly cast here as an irresistible sexpot, but she is at least game, and you can’t blame many of the film’s manifold problems on her lack of effort.]

In sum, this appears to be the typical sort of bad Hollywood thinking where they believed they would attract two markedly different demographics—the kids with the violent action, older folks with graying stars Reynolds and Minnelli and their by-the-numbers growing romantic entanglement—but in the end attracted neither, since each audience segment was turned off by the elements meant to attract the other. Younger viewers can’t have reasonably been expected to care much about the budding romance between two old farts, while older audience members must have been constantly wincing at Reynolds and Minnelli’s ongoing employment of then-trendy hard profanity. As is often the case, trying to be everything to everybody leaves you being nothing for nobody.

At the end of the ‘70s, Reynolds was, along with Clint Eastwood, Hollywood’s biggest male lead. However, after the two symbolically appeared in a not very good movie together, 1984’s City Heat, their respective careers sharply diverged. Eastwood increasingly began to alternate more personal films with the ones the studio wanted him to make, and their sensibility grew increasingly dark. About the time Reynolds was appearing in Rent-a-Cop, Eastwood was starring in Tightrope. A look at those two films says a lot about their respective future careers.

Reynolds’ most destructive tendency was to lazily crank out certain types of films until he exhausted their popularity. Eastwood made two very popular country-fried comedies, Every Which Way But Loose and its sequel, and then pretty much moved on. In contrast, Reynolds churned out a whole slew of them—most of which were far less amusing than Eastwood’s casual but pleasing entries—including the high watermark Smokey and the Bandit and its twin follow-ups; a pair of Cannonball Runs, Stoker Ace and so on. Only when audiences began to reject these pictures did he turn to grittier action flicks, from the accidentally decent Sharkey’s Machine to the more typically moribund Stick.

Eastwood became a filmmaker, while Reynolds remained merely a star actor, and that proved the difference. One experimented, pushing the envelope even when working within a genre, while the other was content to do the same old thing and cash his check. Lately Reynolds has claimed the default respect given any actor who hangs around long enough, but its Eastwood drawing real critical acclaim and awards with films like Unforgiven, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby.

Rent-a-Cop’s highly uninspired direction was provided by Jerry London, who unsurprisingly worked almost entirely in television over his long career. Mr. London helmed episodes of dozens of TV series, as well as a healthy list of TV movies and mini-series, ranging from Hogan’s Heroes (1965) to 2003’s telemovie Counterstrike. Undoubtedly his most successful work was the smash mini-series Shogun, although he appears to have been largely unable to move on to theatrical film work. Among eighty directorial credits listed on the IMDB, Rent-a-Cop appears to be the sole theatrical project. I think that says something right there, both about how ambitious the producers of Rent-a-Cop meant to be, as well as about Mr. London’s work here. Still, it’s difficult to be too hard on the man who gave us the immortal Killdozer.