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.
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.