Grindhouse Classics : “Vice Squad”

Posted: April 1, 2010 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

"Vice Squad" DVD from Anchor Bay

Mean, my friends.  Mean is the word we’re looking for.Director Gary (Dead And Buried, Poltergeist III)  Sherman’s 1982 crime thriller Vice Squad is one brutal bastard of a movie, and it’s largely down to one reason : the sensationally unhinged performance of future-direct-to-VHS mainstay Wings Hauser as Ramrod, an insanely over-the-top Country-and-Western/cowboy-style pimp with no conscience, no remorse, and absolutely no morals whatsoever. Truth be told, Hauser’s Ramrod is one of the great villains not just in exploitation film history, but in all of movie history in general. The guy should’ve won a fucking Oscar, but too many members of the Academy would literally puke their minds out of their heads if they saw this flick. The Hollywood establishment doesn’t much like to acknowledge the seedy underbelly of the city their industry calls home, you see, and that seedy underbelly is exactly   where Vice Squad lives .

The plot’s almost elegant in its simplicity : a single mom maintaining a carefully-sculpted middle class facade (Hardcore‘s Season Hubley)is, in reality, a streetwise hooker who goes by the name of Princess. One evening while she’s working the streets of that aforementioned seedy Hollywood underbelly, one her good friends in “the life,” whose street handle is  Ginger (future original MTV veejay Nina Blackwood), is brutally — and folks, I do mean brutally — if you’re at all squeamish, avoid this flick like the plague — beaten and murdered by her psychotic pimp, that Ramrod fella I was just talking about (and incidentally, our guy Ramrod doesn’t seem too concerned about the cops knowing who he is and what he’s up to, since the custom paint-and-decal job on his Ford Bronco says “RAMROD” in bold capital letters right on the side). Princess knows who did it, of course . Furthermore, the cops investigating the case, led by only-semi-grizzled veteran detective Tom Walsh (Gary Swanson) know damn well who did it, too. To that end, figuring that Ramrod will be needing a new breadwinner soon, they set up Princess to lure him back to his own apartment, wearing a wire, and get a confession out of him on tape. All goes according to plan — Ramrod ‘fesses up, the cops bust him, and his swears his revenge on Princess as the boys in blue haul his ass off to jail.

And then, naturally enough, a cuffed-up Ramrod escapes his public servant captors, and spends the rest of the movie trying to track an unsuspecting Princess down.  The audience is brought along for the action — and once it gets going, it’s genuinely non-stop — from three different vantage points : we separately follow the (again, unsuspecting) Princess as she turns tricks looking to earn bread to feed her kid, Ramrod as he does anything and everything to try to find her before the evening is out, and detective Walsh as he does anything and everything to try to find her first.

Sherman is a master of pacing as he intercuts from one point of reference to the next, displaying a seriously deft touch and always seeming to know exactly when to break from one character’s story arc (sorry for the pretentiousness) to the next. We should probably give screenwriters Sandy Howard and Kenneth Peters some credit for that, as well, but it’s Sherman who’s capturing all the deranged “ambiance,” for lack of a better word, along the way. And as for one of a director’s other primary responsibilities, namely getting great performances out of his cast — well, he really hits it out of the park there.

I don’t know what stroke of genius possessed him to cast Hauser in the role of lunatic-Joe-Buck-as-pimp-rather-than-hustler, but in lesser hands the idea of a fucking cowboy “player,” of all things, would have been comical, at best. As it is, however, much as I hate to give a guy named (by himself, no doubt) “Wings” credit for anything, all you can do it sit back in awe and watch him do his thing. Trust me when I say he’ll scare the living shit out of even the most jaded viewer.

Hubley  turns in an extremely believable portrayal as the damsel in distress, exuding a kind of cool confidence up until the downright frightening conclusion, where she pulls out all the fucking stops.  According to the commentary track on the Anchor Bay DVD (featuring Sherman’s sharp recollections  and moderated by exploitation film historian, as well as filmmaker himself, David Gregory), she was going through a bitter and exceptionally painful divorce from actor Kurt Russell (see, there was another woman before Goldie) at the time that centered around a custody battle over their daughter, and Sherman told her to channel all of her anguish into this climactic scene (about which I’ll refrain from divulging any pertinent details) and just “let it all out,” so to speak.

And damn, does she ever.

Lastly as far as the acting goes,  Swanson hits just the right notes in his portrayal of Walsh as a detective who’s seen it all but still, improbably, gives a shit — in a general sense, but also in a specific sense when it comes to protecting the woman who he blames himself for putting in harm’s way.

It all adds up to an expertly-paced, more-than-expertly acted frantic pursuit story that will keep you on the edge of your seat and holding on for dear fucking life just to see what happens next.

Plenty of critics at the time took issue with Vice Squad‘s unrestrained sadism, brutal violence, and overall supremely sleazy tone, but the film had its defenders too, including Mr. Mean Streets himself, Martin Scorsese, who recognized it for the powerful gut-punch of reality that it was.  Needless to say, the fact this this movie has stood the test of time and is just as shockingly immediate and unreservedly in-your-face today as it was at the time proves which side was right in that particular argument.

Wings fucking Hauser, man!

As I alluded to (well, okay, downright said) earlier, Vice Squad was released on DVD by Anchor Bay in 2007. The anamorphic wide-screen transfer has been brilliantly digitally restored and looks sensational, the remastered soundtrack is superb (the cult favorite theme tune “Neon Slime” has never sounded better), and the extras package features the theatrical trailer, a selection of radio spots for the film, a comprehensive poster and stills gallery, the fantastic commentary track I also made reference to a minute ago, and a superb liner-notes essay by  Richard Harland Smith.

Simply put, Vice Squad is the most agonizingly nasty crime flick you’ll ever see that didn’t come from a country shaped like a boot, and in truth it even puts most of the Italian stuff to shame. It features superb performances all around, with Hauser putting in an absolutely historically psychopathic turn, and it’s got more adrenaline pumping through its veins than a guy trying to lift a car off his trapped child. It’s raw, it’s devastating, and it’s just plain bad-ass stuff all the way around. And if that’s not enough, there’s even a cameo from “Rerun” himself, What’s Happening?‘s Fred Berry, as a wimpy-ass pushover of a pimp.

Some movies show you the ugly underside of human life. Vice Squad sticks you right the fuck in the middle of it and dares you to look away. There are times you’ll surely want to look away — I haven’t described in detail any of the seriously sick shit in this movie for a reason —but the story itself, and the performances — especially Hauser’s — just won’t let you.

I guarantee, if you’ve never seen this flick before, that you won’t be able to take your eyes off it, no matter how loudly your brain screams at you to do just that . But it’s gonna burn, baby — it’s gonna burn.

  1. Craig Higgins says:

    I saw this movie in the theaters with my dad when I was about 12 years old. You’ve absolutely hit on all the main points of relevance here. It’s only too bad they didn’t make a sequel, but then how could they have topped the original?

  2. I know that everyone compliments Wings Hauser’s performance in this one but having just seen it on DVD, I’ve got to say — Wings Hauser was absolutely terrifying and disturbing. I think we’ve gotten so used to film villians being either these calmly European figures that have got a one liner for every situation or else being these inhuman machines with zero personality that we’ve forgotten that the scariest monsters are the ones that we know we could actually run into if we walk down the wrong street.

    As for the charges that this film is brutal or sadistic or whatever, I have to say that as a woman, I did not find the film to be offensive because this movie — unlike a lot of movies made both back then and today — is clearly on the side of Ramrod’s victims.

    Excellent review, by the way. 🙂

    • trashfilmguru says:

      Thanks, excellent comment!
      You make a good point about the viewpoint here — definitely Ramrod isn’t supposed to be a cool or sympathetic figure in any way — the director is telling the story from the standpoint of the victims and he’s supposed to be seen as the monster he is. Which is not to say that it isn’t both brutal and sadistic — I think it is, but that doesn’t mean we’re supposed to sympathize with the brutal sadist, we’re supposed to be scared shitless of him. I think the complaints about this film are somewhat similar to those leveled at “I Spit On Your Grave.” Yes, that movie is shocking and violent and sadistic and brutal, as well — but it’s not the victimizers we’re supposed to be “siding” with, it’s the victims, and when she comes back and starts hacking them all to bits, any right-thinking person is cheering. So this idea that these films have nothing but prurient appeal to misogynists strikes me as being a a load of utter nonsense.
      As for Hauser, too bad he never reached this level again — just saw him in “Tales From the Hood” last night, and while he was good as the asshole cop in there, he never quite sunk his teeth into another performance the way he did here.

      • Personally, I think of I Spit On Your Grave as being a feminist film. Now, it’s possible and probable that it’s an accidental feminist film but still, I find it to be empowering because 1) the film makes it impossible not to be on Camille Keaton’s side and 2), as opposed to most mainstream films, Keaton is allowed to get her revenge herself without having to depend on the help of a “good” man to get it.

        I occasioanlly do see Wings Hauser is various straight-to-DVD exploitation films. I have a feeling he’d be an interesting interview subject if nothing else.

      • trashfilmguru says:

        No question, ISOYG is definitely a feminist film. It’s just critics didn’t see it that way at the time, and it was skewered for being misogynistic, hateful, etc. No less an authority than Joe Bob Briggs has called it “the most feminist film ever made” — and who are any of us to contradict him? I think it was intentional, as well, to be honest — notice the lack of close-ups even in nude scenes, for instance, or the nontraditional layout of the revenge sequence, where the ringleader guy kids killed early on and his cronies die later. Instead of “saving the best for last,” Zarchi was essentially saying that all of these bastards were just as bad as each other and the order they get killed in doesn’t matter. I think there’s nothing accidentally feminist going on there —and let’s not forget that “Day of the Woman” was the film’s original title!

  3. I’ve always felt that Zarchi is being sincere when he describes the film as being feminist (just as I think the film is feminist). I think that I Spit On Your Grave is a film that has been judged too often on the basis of the people watching it as opposed to what is actually shown in screen. Unfortunately, there’s always going to be an segement of the population that’s going to get off on the rape scene in I Spit On Your Grave but that’s not because of the film. Its because those people are sick and they were sick long before they ever saw the film.

    Perhaps the oddest criticism that I’ve heard of I Spit On Your Grave was the argument (which I’ve heard from a lot of people and not just men, either) that Jennifer should have shown mercy to Matthew on account of the fact that Matthew was portrayed as being retarded and he was the most reluctant of the four rapists — as if his reluctance somehow excused the act itself. (Not to mention the fact that, when he went to her the second time, he was carrying a knife and planning on killing her.) It’s just an odd reaction, one that — to me — sums up just how misunderstood the film is.

    To be honest, I could probably go on for days about this but I’ll just make it quick here by saying that I think films like Vice Squad and I Spit On Your Grave are just examples of the fact that the grindhouse and the exploitation can capture the ugly truths that the mainstream films — in their need to appeal to as many filmgoers as possible — simply can’t risk acknowledging.

    • trashfilmguru says:

      No question about that, the exploitationers were able to tackle the big issues way before mainstream Hollywood would touch them because their product wasn’t viewed as being serious, reputable, worthy, etc. Bob Clark’s “Deathdream” dealt with the fucked-up state of Viet Nam vets coming home years before movies like “The Deer Hunter,” Ted V. Mikels’ “The Black Klansman” dealt with racism every bit as honestly as films like “In The Heat of the Night” and did so earlier, the list is literally endless. Sometimes these themes were “safely” buried under genre trappings, but they were there nonetheless.

  4. […] However, there was a darker side to Van Nuys Blvd. and here it is: Vice Squad, starring Wings Hauser.  Eventually, I’ll review this film but until I do, check out our new friend Trash Film Guru’s review. […]

  5. I wasn’t really into this one. Love these kinda films, but wasn’t feeling this one. Great write up though like usual.

    • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

      Wow! Surprised you didn’t dig this one!

      • Yeah I just couldn’t get into it. Seen it twice. Felt the same each time.

      • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

        Surprised that Wings Hauser’s performance alone wasn’t enough to keep you glued to the TV set!

      • Yeah lol. I really thought I’d be into it since that’s my kinda film. While totally different but released not far a part I loved Savage Streets. Vice Squad was what 82? Savage Streets 84.

      • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

        Yeah, that’s exactly right. And I love “Savage Streets” as well, but it’s more a standard “out for revenge” flick while “Vice Squad” is more like “desperately hide from psycho pimp.” They’re sort of similar, I guess, but overall not really.

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