Arthur Marks has certainly been getting a lot of love around these parts lately, hasn’t he? Recently I more or less politely begged for a long-overdue reappraisal of his fine Pam Grier flick Friday Foster, and today I’m here to spread the good word about what is undoubtedly his absolute masterwork (a term regular readers of this site will know I don’t toss around loosely), 1973’s Detroit 9000.
Honestly, this is one of those movies I probably should have reviewed ages ago, but now’s as good a time as any seeing as how Lionsgate has recently re-released it on DVD alongside The Mighty Peking Man and Jack Hill’s Swtichblade Sisters in a nifty little package called “Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures Triple Feature,” Tarantino having acquired the rights to all three titles back in the 1990s for the midnight screening/revival circuit. None of the films contain any extra features to speak of, but they do feature nicely remastered widescreen transfers and perfectly serviceable mono sound, and seeing as how the disc retails for under ten bucks from most online outlets — well, how many ways can you say “essential purchase?”
But enough with the free plug for Lionsgate product. What sets Detroit 9000 apart from much of the other blaxploitation fare of the time (a category which this flick may or may not actually fall into — it’s certainly debatable) is the intelligence and extra level of humanity and characterization that Marks, his fine cast, and screenwriter Orville H. Hampton inject into the proceedings. Sure, this is a pretty goddamn violent pressure-cooker of a flick, with uneasy police partners Lt. Danny Bassett (the legendary-in-my-book Alex Rocco) and Sgt. Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes) tasked with tracking down the armed masked men who ripped off $400,000 from a black-tie fundraiser for ethically-questionable African-American congressman Aubrey Hale Clayton (Rudy Challenger), and okay, Scatman Crothers pops up along the way as — gosh, what a shocker — a crooked preacher-man, and fair enough, some bits of dialogue are “borrowed” directly from Dirty Harry, as is a heavy dose of atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a slice of B-movie bad-ass-ness worth taking seriously.
For one thing, nobody here is a saint. Both leads are deeply flawed, all-too-human individuals, and Rocco and Rhodes turn in superb performances that bring out all the nuances in the script. This is an intelligent story delivered by intelligent performers with a firm grasp on the surprising subtlety inherent in the material. sure, the old “this is a conspiracy that reaches all the way to the top” angle was predictable even by 1973, but come on — would you honestly have it any other way? Some things become formulaic simply because — well, they work. And Detroit 9000 doesn’t just work, it works overtime, providing a very real sense of the intense political weight being brought to bear on these guys to crack this case open, and crack it open quickly. As long as they find an “acceptable” solution, of course —
And that means, of course, even more stress for our fallible-yet-intrepid twosome, since it’s a lead-pipe cinch that the answers they find aren’t going to be what the higher-ups want to hear. Rest assured, though — in a world where the good guy aren’t so great, the presumed bad guys aren’t necessarily so bad, either (even when they are, if you get my meaning), so definitely expect a few surprises along the way.
Marks, absolute master of pacing that he is, keeps things moving along at a very nice clip here, and there’s never a dull moment — the action scenes are explosive and fraught with drama and tension, but even the quieter moments aren’t so quiet as every word in every off-handed exchange does at least something to propel the main narrative forward. This is a very economical film (both metaphorically and, I’m sure, literally), and the always-resourceful Arthur doesn’t waste a frame. Run to the kitchen or bathroom and you’re guaranteed to miss something — good thing for that “pause” button.
Detroit’s a simmering powder keg of barely-subsumed racial tensions here, as well, and that only adds to the brooding-bordering-on-oppressive vibe that this film captures. Anything could happen at any moment — look at a guy the wrong way and things are gonna blow sky high. Any alliances formed are temporary, purely for the sake of expediency, and susceptible to fracture without a moment’s notice. Buckle up, folks — the road start out bumpy and it only gets bumpier. All of which is fun, of course, but it means you’ve gotta keep your wits about you, as well — and trust me, when the shit hits the fan at the end, you’ll be glad you did.
There’s no two ways about it, friends — Detroit 9000 (the title refers to a distress code on the police radio band, if you were wondering) is the real deal. There’s no slack in its act. It’s not afraid to get its hands dirty because they were never clean to begin with. Good times are fun and all, but they’re transitory, fleeting; the best times come with a price and force you to remember them, even when it’s inconvenient. This flick is a terrific piece of crime drama from start to finish, but it demands — and takes — its pound of flesh along the way. Get your ass off my blog and watch it right now.