Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, I have brought you here to the Sunday Cult to talk to you about a little thing called vice. It’s rampant on our streets, in our schools, in the hallowed halls of Washington, D.C, but no where is these scourge to common decent people more disciple than in Hollywood, California. That den of iniquity, nestled below those giant letters on the hill, an alphabetic Parthenon to sin, is a breeding ground for the scum and low life thugs that fuel violence, drug addiction, and prostitution. It’s a good thing that the boys in blue or blue jeans in this case, are out on the streets keeping people safe. Today, I’m talking about a film that details the exploits of the Hollywood Vice Squad, a ragtag group of cops looking to take down a big time criminal kingpin. Along the way, shades of Hardcore get a soft-core wash, a certain space princess goes street walker, and the Riddler comes up with some pretty dirty queries. It’s a neon tinged ride back to the era of big hair in this grind house flavored flick featuring stars both new and old as well as a director that might make you say, “No, way!”
The story revolves around Trish Van Devere as the forlorn mother Pauline Stanton. Coming to Hollywood in search of her daughter, Lori Stanton (Robin Wright), she appeals to Captain Jensen (Ronny Cox), head of the vice squad. He throws the weight of the department behind the investigation (especially once he and Stanton become an item), but that mostly means looking out for the wayward teen while the investigation is on for bigger fish. Leon Isaac Kennedy heads the film’s B-story line as Hawkins, an undercover cop trying to implicate prostitution kingpin Walsh (Frank Gorshin) on charges of slavery. In a neat fashion, the work of Hawkins, as well as street cops Chang and Stevens (Evan C. Kim and Joey Travolta) and new recruit Betty (Carrie Fisher), tie together to track Lori to Walsh’s ring of drugs, girls, and pornography.
The great thing about Hollywood Vice Squad is that it works on so many levels to achieve cult greatness. Some of the ways a film can do such a thing is to either have an old, put out to pasture star playing an inspired part, have a film icon (with a built in cult appear), have siblings of more famous actors, or populate your film with solid character actors. In Hollywood Vice, you get all three and so much more. I can’t wait another moment to talk about Frank “The Riddler” Gorshin as the sleazebag baddie Walsh. I know in his career he has appeared in numerous great roles, but Batman is how the zeitgeist will remember him. Gorshin in Hollywood Vice Squad is the furthest thing from his spandex suited, mincing menace of Gotham. He is a lecherous toady, and I would only put Rod Stieger up there as an actor who could have filled the part better. Every moment Gorshin was on screen, his presence oozed all over the already sleazy scenarios, and the actor was clearly having a good time doing it.
Of course, the biggest “cult” film draw to Hollywood Vice Squad is probably the appearance of Carrie Fisher. The fact that she appears in full 80s hooker garb probably doesn't hurt the film’s chances of being a sought out title, but lets be honest, it’s no Slave Leia getup. Fisher appears as a minor role in the film, but there are almost no major roles to speak of. The entire film plays out like an ensemble drama. A Hill Street Blues with a bigger budget and a more exploitative verve. Joey Travolta, brother to John, appears a bit more as the plot that features him and his partner Chang, Evan C. Kim, is prevalent throughout. However Kim gets the lion’s share of the time in these parts, and he is the most consistently entertaining actor to watch. From the moment his character complains about being called a “Slopehead” when he was raised by Asian parents of Italian origin in Italian neighborhoods, I knew he was going to be something special to watch. Kim has a long and glorious history in genre films as well appearing in Megaforce, Caveman, and in The Kentucky Fried Movie.
Other than Gorshin and Kim, the best performances in Hollywood Vice Squad all come from the seasoned character actors who knew their way around genre film like it was their backyard. Ronny Cox, perhaps best remembered as the Lt. Bogomil in the Beverly Hills Cop films (which I took a look at all at The Lightning Bug’s Lair this week coincidentally), is as solid as solid can be with his portrayal of Captain Jensen. It’s by the books stuff, but Cox makes it fun to watch. Another delight, in an all too small role, was former football player and wrestler H. B. Haggerty. With his tough as nails demeanor (and soft as kitten phone conversations with his daughter) and ever-present handlebar mustache Haggerty brought the same delightful energy to the screen that fans of him in The Big Brawl with Jackie Can will enjoy. The last actor I have to touch on in GGTMC favorite Leon Isaac Kennedy, star of the immortal Penitentiary films. Mr. Kennedy is playing it much slicker here as Hawkins a.k.a new pimp in town DeBussey. His style lies somewhere between a Michael Douglas Wall Street look and The Mack so it’s a real moment in time caught on film. He doesn't really handle any of the film’s action duties, save for one brief scene, but his performance alone makes the film worth watching.
I mentioned the director back at the beginning of this review, and I haven’t brought her up again. That’s because I really wanted to get into talking about Penelope Spheeris. From her first film in 1968, Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales with Richard Pryor as a man accused of raping a white woman, she was working in an area of film that few women were. Unfortunately, the only known copy of the film was shredded by Pryor’s then wife who complained that he was spending too much time on it. During the late 70s, she worked as a producer on Saturday Night Live before producing and directing her own documentary, The Rise and Fall of Western Civilization, the definitive early 80s punk rock time capsule. This punk rock esthetic traveled forth into her work in film as she directed the tale of 80s punk ennui Suburbia (which Todd reviewed back in May)and the adventure mohawk classic Dudes. The same vibe comes though in Hollywood Vice Squad which, thanks to Ronny Cox’s many warning speeches and over the top action, reeks of exploitation parody. Unfortunately, the dramatic elements come a little too hard, and the comedy misses the mark of being wry. Spheeris would go on to achieve mainstream success with Wayne’s World, a movie with an underground aesthetic too it unlike its sequel, but followed that success with kiddie fare Little Rascals and The Beverly Hillbillies. She has maintained her role as a documentarian as well directing The Decline of Western Civilization Part III about Japanese metal, Hollyweird about Charles Band and the making of Blood Dolls, and We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll about Ozzfest. She’s such an interesting person as a director I would love to see her come back and bring a reflective punk vibe to a new project.
Hollywood Vice Squad is not the best film you could watch with any of the three words of the title in it. Hollywood Knights, Vice Academy, and Commando Squad are all better or more entertaining films, but what Spheeris does is make a story that could entertain action audiences (both those cheering for the cops and those down with the mesh shirted thugs), stoner comedy crowds, and fans of classic exploitation elements. The problem is that, even with these elements and the ensemble cast, Hollywood Vice Squad never comes together enough to be cohesive as a good film or campy enough to keep the viewer laughing. It would benefit from a group viewing as there are many quotable and “oh, shit” kind of moments, but the reason Hollywood Vice Academy hangs on the edge of obscurity and not in the vaulted reaches of cult classic status is that it hangs firmly in its own mediocrity throughout. As a curiosity for fans of any of the parties involved (especially Frank Gorshin fans), this should be viewing to add to your list. For the rest of you brothers and sisters, today’s Sunday Cult might not have been for you, but remember you must keep all cult films in your heart. Take them in as your vice, and the world will be better for it. Amen, gentlepeoples.