Thursday, July 27, 2017

Retro Review: THE LAST OF THE FINEST (1990)

(US - 1990)

Directed by John Mackenzie. Written by Jere Cunningham, Thomas Lee Wright and George Armitage. Cast: Brian Dennehy, Joe Pantoliano, Jeff Fahey, Bill Paxton, Deborra-Lee Furness, Guy Boyd, Henry Darrow, Lisa Jane Persky, Michael C. Gwynne, Henry Stolow, John Finnegan, J. Kenneth Campbell, Xander Berkeley, Pamela Gidley, Michelle Little, Burke Byrnes, Patricia Clipper, Ron Canada, Tom Nolan. (R, 106 mins)

"Oh, don't give me that 'patriot' shit! Every time you assholes fuck around with the Constitution, you call it 'patriotism.'"

Barely released by Orion in the spring of 1990, THE LAST OF THE FINEST tries really hard to be a Joel Silver production of the era. With its ballbusting banter among buddy cops who play by their own rules, irate captains chewing them out before suspending them, and a drum machine-heavy soundtrack filled with bluesy licks by a famous British guitarist--instead of Eric Clapton, they got former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor--THE LAST OF THE FINEST plays like THE UNTOUCHABLES re-imagined as a post-LETHAL WEAPON cop thriller. It's a lot more overtly political than most, but as we're likely to continue seeing with many films of the last 20-30 years, it takes on new layers of subtext when viewed through the distorted prism of 2017 America and the years that got us to this point. For the most part, THE LAST OF THE FINEST is a routine and by-the-numbers affair, but it makes some pretty angry and cynical points that remain prescient and give this generally forgotten and relatively obscure film some unexpected relevance three decades later.

In a rare big-screen lead, Character Actor Hall of Famer Brian Dennehy stars as Frank Daly, the head of an elite squad of LAPD badasses assigned with busting up the city's drug trade. Daly and his guys work hard and play harder, as evidenced by their regular flag football games with a team of DEA stooges. Joining Frank are brainy, bespectacled smartass Wayne Gross (Joe Pantoliano), straight-from-the-barrio-by-way-of-adoption Ricky Rodriguez (Jeff Fahey), and easygoing Howard Jones, aka "Hojo" (Bill Paxton), and they're convinced local drug kingpin Anthony Reece (Michael C. Gwynne) is running a narcotics distribution ring out of a meat-packing plant but, as per genre rules, they have no proof. Daly is read the riot act and suspended by his captain Torres (Henry Darrow) and warned that he's "close to the edge," to which Daly replies "That's where we live! We're cops, remember?" Daly and his crew's pursuit of Reece ends up getting informant/pimp Fast Eddie (Xander Berkeley) and hooker Haley (Pamela Gidley) murdered, and after a chase, Hojo is killed by a psycho hit man (Henry Stolow) in Reece's employ. Torres isn't interested in hearing about Reece's operation or his ties to wealthy, right-wing businessman R.J. Norringer (Guy Boyd as J.T. Walsh), so Daly, Gross, and Rodriguez turn in their badges in disgust, resort to raiding local drug lords themselves and using the money to launch their own war on Norringer and Reece. Things get really personal when Norringer tries to have Daly's wife (Australian actress and future Mrs. Hugh Jackman Deborra-Lee Furness, really struggling to hide her accent) and family killed. This ultimately leads to a showdown at a baseball diamond (the nearest abandoned warehouse must've been hosting another shootout that night) after they steal $22 million in Norringer's laundered drug money, which he's been secretly funneling to Central American freedom fighters with the help of shady government operative Calvert (J. Kenneth Campbell). Any resemblance to the Reagan Administration's Iran-Contra scandal is 100% intentional.

Directed by British journeyman John Mackenzie (THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, THE FOURTH PROTOCOL) and written by Jere Cunningham (JUDGMENT NIGHT), Thomas Lee Wright (NEW JACK CITY), and George Armitage (MIAMI BLUES, GROSSE POINTE BLANK), THE LAST OF THE FINEST leaves no cop movie cliche untouched, and a scene where they visit retired cop Tommy Grogan (John Finnegan), who busts out his unparalleled lip-reading skills for a silent surveillance video, is ready-made for MST3K mockery. Nevertheless, it gets a lot of mileage from a commanding performance by Dennehy and the enjoyable camaraderie between the actors, even though Paxton is killed off 30 minutes in. Initial villain Reece eventually becomes a non-factor as the investigation turns to Norringer, a villain cut from the same cloth as Cliff Robertson's megalomaniacal Charles Delaney from MALONE, another unjustly neglected Orion actioner from the same era. Norringer goes on and on about patriotism and how the end justifies the means, but he's really just a right-wing fanatic who would probably be holding a key position in the government or hosting a Fox News show if this was made today. There's little subtlety in anything this film does, from Dennehy's barrel-chested bombast ("You just made a fatal fucking mistake!" he yells as he backhands Norringer) to Boyd's snarling villain, and nothing hammers the point home like a climactic explosion of a playground septic tank that's storing Norringer's $22 million, leaving most of the cast standing in a downpour of dirty money and human feces, culminating in the crash of Norringer's getaway chopper because the pilot can't see out of the shit-covered windows. Perhaps skittish about the film's criticism of Reagan-era policies and its direct invocation of Iran-Contra, Orion dumped it in 400 theaters with no publicity at all, grossing just over $1 million. Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), THE LAST OF THE FINEST is hardly an unheralded classic, but it deserved more of a shot than it got at the time and seems to play better now than it did then.

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