Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Vice Squad (1982)

I have been offroading maybe a handful of times (I may have talked about this before, so bear with me if this is old news for you).  The first once or twice was voluntary, but subsequent outings were forced upon me (to the point of kidnapping).  In fact, one time my “friends” went so far as to tell me we were going to a party (in a house, like normal humans do), only to swerve off the paved roads and out into the woods before I could make good my escape.  Never mind that I find it difficult to drink a beer while I’m bouncing around like the G-14 ball in a Bingo cage, my main grievance with these sojourns was that the vehicles we would take would invariably become stuck, stalled, or otherwise take a shit and always at the worst possible time.  This turned something which had a small potential for enjoyment into an impromptu workshop on how not to fix an automobile in the rough.  My dislike of the great outdoors has been documented in previous entries.  These trips are one of the things that soured me on them.  Because one of the last things I wanted to do after getting a good drunk on was trying to figure out how to get the fuck out of the woods before some animal decided I might make a tasty snack (actually, back then I was heftier, so I’d likely have been more like a three course meal).  Maybe if we had a badass truck like Ramrod (Wings Hauser) does in Gary Sherman’s Vice Squad, things would have turned out differently.  Then again, I don’t see Ramrod (an urban cowboy if ever there was one) as the type to take his cherry ride into the wild to begin with. 

Princess (then-Mrs.-Kurt-Russell, Season Hubley) is a prostitute working the weird streets of Hollywood.  When her friend and colleague Ginger (MTV VJ Nina Blackwood) calls in a panic, Princess fails to help out her pal before Ginger’s pimp (the aforementioned Ramrod) beats the woman to death.  After being strong-armed into aiding in a sting operation by douche bag cop Sergeant Walsh (Gary Swanson), Princess goes about her nightly routine, unsuspecting that her troubles are far from over.   

This film is not especially kind to women (and not that this was an expectation I had going into it).  The very first shot of the film is a camera tilt up the body of an anonymous hooker; the high heels, the leg warmers, the short shorts, the knit halter top, and finally her impassive face.  This type of shot will be repeated at several points in the movie.  First is when Princess finishes off her ensemble for the evening, again traveling from the ground up.  It’s an interesting way to reveal the character and what she does, because just one scene previous, we have seen her dressed very conservatively, so the switch works nicely.  Later, there is a shot traveling up the body of a woman from feet to head, although this time, the woman is lying down, her clothing torn, her face bloody.  Hauser slaps women at the drop of a hat (and he really connects, to boot), and even takes a stool to a woman’s head at one point.  His specialty, though, is whipping their naked bodies with a wire hanger.  A character is rolled by a trick who‘s dissatisfied with the service.  Even our supposed hero Walsh will snap a band and fly into a rage at the drop of a hat, going so far as shoving Princess’ face at Ginger’s corpse.  He screams, then comforts.  In this respect at least, he is the exact opposite of Ramrod.  In fact, had he not coerced Princess into trapping Ramrod, Princess’ life would likely have gone on as usual, for better or worse. 
The issue is that if part of the film is supposed to be about how mean the streets are to women (and especially women in this profession), that’s fine and dandy.  However, by leering as this film does at these female bodies, as objects of both sexual and violent urges, it takes some of the air out of that theme.  After all, prurient and empathetic feelings will often collide when placed in juxtaposition to each other.  I would also argue that if that’s not a partial reason why this film was made (especially considering we’re told at the outset that this story was culled from multiple actual events, though using the truth to sell the exploitative is nothing new), why spend so much time following Princess around, picking up her oddball tricks (and they are genuinely oddball), and not paying off on the more salacious elements?  If it’s nothing more than pure exploitation, the material could certainly use sprucing up in that regard (not that it isn’t an entertaining film; I’ve definitely seen movies like this done more poorly).  No, we’re supposed to feel something for Princess.  We’re supposed to sympathize with her troubles.  After all, she works “outlaw” (i.e. without a pimp), so she has no protection from johns who would take advantage of her.  It’s never indicated that she enjoys her work, but by that same token, it’s never indicated that she is ever anything less than professional.  She is, in effect, just a working stiff (pardon the pun).  That she and her colleagues have it so rough is lamentable.  That we linger on their curves one minute and their anguish the next is a bit creepy.

The film is in some ways also about duality and performances.  As stated above, our two male leads seesaw between rage and consolation, and both switch between the two instantaneously.  They can be dangerous or beneficial, though the situations under which they change posit them where they need to be on the friend or foe scale.  If someone in a film has a tongue coated in purest silver, nine out of ten, they will have the blackest of souls.  By contrast, people who start off coarse will usually wind up showing you their soft, endearing side.  Princess has a house in the suburbs and a daughter she is raising by herself, but she keeps her worlds separate (she even dislikes the babysitter calling her daughter “princess;” no surprise there).  She dresses primly for appearances to her friends and neighbors, but on the Strip, she dresses to impress.  It’s implied that all of her tricks involve her doing things she wouldn’t normally do (golden showers, roleplaying a bride at a funeral [shades of Buñuel’s Belle de Jour], et cetera) with people she (likely) wouldn’t do them.  She puts on an act for her clients (that is part of her job description, naturally).  Nevertheless, since we see far less of her in her home life, and in both of her aspects she lies to the people she encounters, one has to wonder which of these faces is the true one?  Our predisposition would be to the one she shows at home.  We expect the masks to come off when a person has entered their personal sanctuary.  Yet, she shows a mask to everyone in the film with the exception of Walsh, and even then she’s not totally forthcoming.  This leads me to the conclusion that there is no “true” Princess.  She is both of these things, mother and whore, when she needs to be, and because she can never be completely herself (whatever that may be), either to protect herself or to protect those she cares for, she will never find peace.  Like she states at the film’s close, “You’re never gonna change the streets…”

MVT:  Hauser gets the award.  He is one hundred percent psychotic for the entirety of the film, and even when he tries to disguise it (which is not often); it’s with the thinnest of veils.  The brazenness with which he rampages is something to behold.

Make Or Break:  The best example for me of Ramrod’s untethered nature is in the scene when Princess helps to ensnare him.  He goes off the rails like twenty freight trains.  And then he keeps going.

Score:  6.75/10      

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