There is no way in Hell I can talk about Terry Leonard’s Death Before Dishonor without discussing the greatness that is Stephen J Cannell’s Hunter (I know, so jejune, right?). Back when cop/private dick shows were fun, more than a little exploitive, and downright formulaic, Hunter hit an eleven-year-old me right in the kisser. The true beauty of the show (outside of Cannell’s stylistic thumbprints) was the dual charm of its leads. Stepfanie (I still can’t get used to that spelling of her name) Kramer was fiery brunette Dee Dee McCall who launched a thousand pubescent you-know-whats. She was equal parts feminine and steely, sexy and flinty. To this day, she is one of my all-time favorite female cop leads, and not simply because of her sex appeal (Mitzi Kapture, I’m also looking at you). Of course, as befits this specific review, the other half of this dynamic duo was Fred Dryer as Detective Rick Hunter. The character is a total Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry pastiche, but Hunter had a bigger heart and even, perish the thought, just a bit more charisma than Callahan. Dryer, a former defensive end in the NFL, had a gruff but endearing (apologies for the cliché) magnetism that translated well to the screen. I watched this show religiously, something I couldn’t say about Cannell programs like Riptide or Hardcastle & McCormick (though I definitely could for Stingray, 21 Jump Street, and Wiseguy). Hunter had some harsh storylines, and the characters got put through their paces. The episode I loved the most was “Dead or Alive,” which starred Wings Hauser as a cowboy-outfitted bounty hunter with a nasty streak wider than Hunter and McCall’s combined. I recall it distinctly because it may very well have been the first time I saw a “good guy” kill a villain on a television show (I may be misremembering this, but I don’t believe so, otherwise it may not have been as impactful). I’m truly surprised that Dryer’s acting career never really took off like some of his contemporaries (maybe he came into the action genre just a little too late, who knows?), though films like this one give plenty of evidence that even an actor as likable as Dryer can only raise some material up to a certain level.
Dryer plays the gruff but endearing (I am going to run this motherfucker into the ground now) Gunnery Sergeant Burns, an old Devil Dog trying to teach his young pups some new tricks. Burns is picked by his mentor Colonel Halloran (Brian Keith) to lead his security detail in the (fictitious) Middle Eastern country of Jemal, where they run afoul of “Freedom Fighter” Abu Jihad (Rockne Tarkington, Black Samson himself) and his army of terrorists.
These types of action setups can be tricky to pull off. Burns is a career SNCO (Staff Non-Commissioned Officer), and this doesn’t naturally lend itself to a film that needs to be cartoonish for the sake of the genre’s fans. What this means is that Burns will have to go rogue at some point, all the more to satisfy the audience, but the script seems to not want to let him go full Rambo/Braddock/etcetera. The filmmakers eventually let him cut loose, but he is, always and forever, a starched shirt (one could argue that this is an example of how “We” are superior to “They”). The sort of antagonist in the picture also needs some distinction, because terrorists tend to be faceless masses until they distinguish themselves individually. While the caricature-esque Jihad (literally “Holy War”) provides a nice physical threat for the towering Dryer, the true villains of the piece, the spotlight hogs, are the Teutonic Maude Winter (Kasey Walker) and Gavril (Mohammad Bakri). Both are icy in demeanor, reptilian in their methods, and as hand-wringingly arch as Snidely Whiplash ever was. Nothing that comes out of their mouths isn’t laced with menace. They have a purpose. They believe in what they do. But they are also totally mercenary about it. Of the two, the real attractant (sort of like Dee Dee McCall, minus any nuance) is Winter, with her pixie haircut, leather jacket, and oh-so-suggestively holstered pack of smokes. The instant she shows up in the film, you want to know more about her. Needless to say, we’re not given much more than superficial flourishes, but, I will admit, that was enough for me here. I would strenuously argue that the characters of Simon Gruber and Katya in John McTiernan’s Die Hard with a Vengeance are taken directly from Death Before Dishonor’s contemptible couple but given far more shading. Regardless, in juxtaposition to Gavril and Winter, how could our True-Blue heroes possibly measure up?
Movies of this ilk can be seen as jingoistic, or they can be seen as simply a sign of their time and enjoyed on their generic merits. Or both. The protagonists and antagonists are depicted as zealots on both sides. The difference lies in their cause. Burns and his men are about brotherhood, even more than they are about a love of their country. During training for the newest recruits, the young men are hazed by chugging helmets full of beer. They are then inducted as Brothers of the Golden Wing. Dryer takes a golden pair of Force Recon wings and jams the pins directly into the newbies’ chests. Then each soldier in the platoon takes a turn punching the wings until crimson blots their tee shirts. These men are now united as brothers-in-arms, baptized in blood. They stand up for each other, and their deaths mean something to their fellow Marines. They have earned respect. Jihad and company are religious fanatics, and this is easily comparable to patriotism. However, the filmmakers clearly place the former over the latter in terms of nobility. The terrorists also haze their recruits. Young jihadi Amin (Daniel Chodos) is held in a headlock during a bomb training exercise, watching in terror as the lit fuse burns down. Unlike the Americans’ hazing, this is no fun. The contradistinction is further illumined in a couple of interrogation scenes. In the first, Amin is intimidated (dare I say terrorized?) by Burns. You can see he has been roughed up a little, but he’s far from crippled. There is no music in this sequence. In the second, Sergeant Ramirez (Joseph Gian) has had the living crap kicked out of him by the terrorists. He is bloody, brutalized, and the score looms ominously. We’re meant to give a shit about Ramirez. Amin is just a gormless youth. Further to this is the idea of sacrifice, again shown by these two characters. Both give their lives for their beliefs, but Amin’s is senseless, destructive, and the boy has been manipulated through his convictions into this fate. Ramirez’s sacrifice is in service of his superior officer, his country, and his brothers. It is honorable, and it is his choice, made with eyes wide open. It is obvious which of these has the moral high ground in the film.
Leonard, being primarily a stunt man (this is his only directing credit), naturally handles the action in the film very well. The big car chase, admittedly, is standard, but just about everything else is gratifying enough. The script by John Gatliff (this is his only screenwriting credit) puts forth a nice amount of effort, and there are a couple of reveals that twist nicely. But the film’s biggest detriment is the general banality of its protagonists. Granted, they are meant to identify to a certain segment, but they are dry, even when they strain halfheartedly to be colorful. While hardly a standout of the action genre from any decade, Death Before Dishonor certainly can’t be called dishonorable. More like undistinguished.
MVT: As much as I like Dryer, I have to give it to Leonard and his able-bodied handling of a mostly solid action film.
Make or Break: The finale cuts loose just enough and finishes with a moment that almost lives up to the promise of its premise.