Matty revisits William Lustig and Joel Soisson’s much-maligned Maniac Cop 3, an unheralded gem of a sequel that’s part B-movie thrills and part social commentary.
To me, nothing says ‘creep’ like a well-placed tongue waggle.
I’m not entirely sure why, but from Freddy jiggling his lingua within the confines of his dingy Elm Street boiler room; to the androgynous psycho terrorising the teens of Skip Schoolnik’s kinky body count gem Hide and Go Shriek (1988), the sight of someone flapping their saliva-coated mouth-slug about freaks the hell out of me. I guess it’s the gross, salacious nature of the gesture. It oozes predatory threat; an ickiness that seems to say “I’m going to fuck you and kill you, and not necessarily in that order”.
Yeah, that’s it.
It’s the hallmark of a truly dangerous, oversexed nutcase.
Enter stage right Frank Jessup.
Brandishing a shotgun and screeching “give me a smooch!” at a pitch that’d have dogs howling, Jessup is the deranged crackhead at the heart of the much-maligned MANIAC COP 3: BADGE OF SILENCE (1993).
He also waggles his tongue.
A twitchy, unhinged performance from Jackie Earle Haley (who, fittingly, would go on to play Freddy in Platinum Dunes’ abysmal A Nightmare on Elm Street remake in 2010), small-time hood Jessup is turning over a grocery store when we first encounter him. Viciously laying to waste the five-o called to the scene, there’s an unmistakable hint of Paul Verhoeven to the overblown staging of the scrawny smack-rat’s bullet-sprayed intro; an allusion furthered thanks to the cribbing of a line from the Dutch maestro’s own hyper-violent depiction of law enforcement, RoboCop (1987). “Does it hurt?” Jessup squawks, echoing the twisted sentiments of those who blast poor Alex Murphy to pieces in Verhoeven’s sci-fi masterpiece. “Does it hurt?!”
If you’re clued up on Maniac Cop 3‘s making, it’d be tempting to read Jessup’s scornful battle cry as a moment of stark self-awareness. After all, it’s a question that the film’s original director, William Lustig, would answer with a resounding “yes”, seeing as though this shoved aside second sequel – to a series that he helped create, no less – was pretty much pulled from under him. As Lustig explained on the Monster Party podcast last year, Badge of Silence was “a situation where there were too many [cooks] in the kitchen”. Plagued with producer interference, the rights to the Maniac Cop series had been sold to the Overseas Filmgroup, and they demonstrated little affinity for the fright saga’s already established fanbase. Worse, Overseas were even less enthusiastic about Lustig and franchise co-creator Larry Cohen’s plan for the film.
In short, Maniac Cop 3 suffered as follows:
The Japanese investors who’d stumped up the lion’s share of the film’s budget baulked at the thought of it being fronted by a person of colour, as per Cohen’s mooted screenplay. Deeming it unsellable to Asian territories, Overseas insisted that the character, a black homicide squad detective, be switched to Robert Davi’s grizzled gumshoe from Maniac Cop 2 (1990). But although video draw Davi was happy to reprise the role of Detective Sean McKinney, pinning down the mercurial Cohen for a rewrite was a different matter. According to Badge of Silence‘s producer, Joel Soisson (who spilt the beans in a deliciously warts and all featurette on Blue Underground’s 2013 Blu-ray), besides an offer to dictate a new script over the phone (!), Cohen failed to submit a revision of his voodoo-soaked screenplay. Shocked – and with Maniac Cop 3 due before cameras – Soisson hurriedly slung together a draft of his own, uncredited; a draft that he hoped remained as faithful to Cohen’s Angel Heart (1987) by way of Bride of Frankenstein (1935) premise as possible. Alas, an already unhappy Lustig grew more and more disaffected with the increasingly compromised project. And with fifty-one minutes of material in the can, the helmer would ultimately walk away from Badge of Silence mid-way through shooting, leaving Soisson to pick up the megaphone and finish the film.
All things considered, it’s amazing that the completed film works as well as it does. Granted, there’s a fair whack wrong with it, but by and large Maniac Cop 3 is a triumph of style and spectacle that’s infinitely – infinitely – better than its numerous naysayers claim; a real peach if you ask me, and an unheralded high point of a generally excellent trilogy. True, Maniac Cop 3 ain’t the best Maniac Cop film (let’s face it, the rip-snortin’ part two takes some topping). But Badge of Silence is the most fascinating of the three; offering a cavalcade of B-movie thrills, as well as serving as a disarmingly provocative snapshot of a Los Angeles rocked by Rodney King’s barbaric beating at the hands of the LAPD.
If there’s a commonality to be found in Maniac Cop 3‘s behind the scenes shenanigans, it’s a chest-thumping sense of tribalism.
Of a noticeable split in cinematic disciplines.
William Lustig, for instance, is a New York filmmaker. And despite the Bronx-born genre specialist relocating to the West Coast following his tasty, LA-lensed twosome of Hit List (1989) and Relentless (1989), Lustig’s finest cinematic achievements are characterised by their gritty and distinctive Big Apple lilt; with grubby creeper Maniac (1980), grindhouse thriller Vigilante (1983), and, of course, Maniac Cop 1 and 2 as quintessentially ‘New York’ as any of the obvious touchstones by Martin Scorsese, Abel Ferrara, and Woody Allen.
Joel Soisson, meanwhile, is Hollywood. He’s less intuitive than the from the hip Lustig. He’s polished. He is – for lack of a better term – a studio kinda guy, as evidenced by his long association with the Weinstein-led mini-major, Dimension Films; a fruitful pair-up that’s yielded a wealth of glossy straight-to-video programming, chiefly the five-strong Prophecy franchise (1995-2005), and a slew of variable Hellraiser (1987) sequels (Inferno (2000), Hellseeker (2002), Deader (2005), Hellworld (2005), and Revelations (2009)).
Naturally, such markedly different artistic sensibilities bled into Maniac Cop 3, causing a schism in the series’ rich New York mythology. Indeed, for a saga that’s built around the murderous exploits of a homicidal NYPD officer, knowing that Badge of Silence was actually filmed in Los Angeles is quite the trip – especially as the film is still set in NYC (presumably, the City of Angels was more conducive to Maniac Cop 3‘s budget, which by all accounts was a dot or two lower than the $4million that British distributor Movie House had ponied up for Maniac Cop 2). Moreover, neither Lustig nor Soisson even bother to disguise the fact. Badge of Silence unfolds at some of LA’s most recognisable locations, such as the former Japanese Union Church (which had previously been used to memorable effect in John Carpenter’s bone-chilling sleeper Prince of Darkness (1987)), and the streets of downtown, which the titular boy in blue shuttles along aflame during the film’s awesome closing car chase (kudos to Lustig regular Spiro Razatos and his stunt team; the chase is easily among the finest action set pieces ever).
Judged in accordance with the continuity of the preceding Maniac Cop outings, Badge of Silence‘s location misnomer is disastrous. However, in and of itself – or, as I found, once you stop crying for textural consistency and merely accept this impossible to ignore ‘quirk’ – Maniac Cop 3‘s unmistakable LA sheen is actually a boon. It’s the key that unlocks the film’s surprisingly biting core; a sharp sense of topicality that elevates Soisson’s pass at Badge of Silence‘s screenplay from a hastily assembled blueprint (the producer candidly admits to belting it out over a weekend, purely so they had something – anything – to use), to a zeitgeist-surfing satire as current and as reflective as any of the socially conscious classics that have burst from credited scripter Cohen’s bottomless ideas pit (It’s Alive (1974), Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), and The Stuff (1985), to name but a few).
Because in the Los Angeles of the early 1990s, as images of purported gang violence unspooled in a perpetual loop across the city’s news stations, the mistrust of authority and the mistrust of the mainstream media had reached boiling point.
In the wee hours of March 3rd, 1991, black motorist Rodney King was hurtling down the Foothill Freeway in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley when his speeding caught the attention of the California Highway Patrol. Driving under the influence of alcohol and knowing that being busted would violate the terms of his parole for a previous conviction, King and his two passengers attempted to outrun the police. A high speed pursuit ensued, with several more patrol cars and a police helicopter joining in before King was cornered eight miles away from the stretch of road where his vehicle was initially sighted.
Sadly, events would taken an even graver turn. King’s passengers were manhandled and verbally abused upon their exit from the vehicle. In a moment of madness, King tried to flee, and his perceived combative behaviour resulted in him receiving two tazer blasts, thirty-three connecting baton hits, and six kicks in an eighty-one second beatdown as police officers swarmed and cuffed him. Amazingly, the beating was captured on camera by an amateur videographer who lived nearby and had heard the commotion. And when the footage aired on local Los Angeles TV station KTLA two days later it became an instant media sensation; sparking intense debate on the subject of police brutality and lighting the fuse of the LA riots, which would blow the city apart in the spring of 1992 after three of the officers involved in King’s thrashing were acquitted in the ensuing court case.
With the chaos and carnage of the riots eerily preempted in LA-based actioners Predator 2 (1990) and The Taking of Beverly Hills (1991), the Rodney King incident would immediately seep into an array of productions, with films as diverse as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) and the Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society (1993) full of nods and winks. But as is so often the case, it was within a handful of horror-fuelled projects where the most potent probing of these heinous events were to be found.
First out of the gate was the music video to ’80s rocker Billy Idol’s 1993 track, ‘Shock to the System’. Directed by The Lawnmower Man‘s (1992) Brett Leonard, the promo was the perfect visual accompaniment to Idol’s King-reffing electro-punk ditty, featuring the platinum blonde ‘Rebel Yell’ crooner transforming into a camera-eyed, vigilante cyborg (courtesy of some cool FX by the dearly missed Stan Winston) after being tenderised by a gaggle of baton-happy policemen. Next, Adam Rifkin’s gory slasher comedy Psycho Cop Returns (1993) – the superior sequel to Maniac Cop‘s closest cousin – snarkily flipped the situation; presenting a hilarious finale in which the film’s badge-wearing bad guy is pulverised – and filmed – by a throng of barflies who catch him mauling a victim. Finally, a segment of Rusty Cundieff’s cult portmanteau Tales From the Hood (1995) would see a trio of racist police officers getting a grisly, supernatural comeuppance following their murder of a black civil rights activist.
All paint a scathing picture of law enforcement – and rightly so given how needlessly savage King’s bludgeoning was. However, there are two sides to every story, even if one of them trudges into rocky terrain. With that in mind, Maniac Cop 3 offers perhaps the boldest – if the most troubling – assessment of what happened; suggesting that all of those involved – from the assaulting officers, to King himself – were all subservient to the manipulative power of the media.
It’s an audacious thesis for sure, yet not entirely untrue either.
Consider this: We live in an age in which news outlets are constantly pushing an agenda. The sole difference between the ’90s and now is that now we’re more aware of it. And curiously, whenever the King footage aired, it was often missing what the legal team of the assaulting officers would argue were the most crucial seconds: some fleeting, blurred frames right at the start of the recording that, they said, showed King – who could have been armed – charging at police.
In the film’s world, Maniac Cop 3 makes it pointedly clear that the only people scummier than the vile Jessup are a pair of truth-bending nightcrawlers; two unscrupulous gonzo journalists (Bobby Di Cicco and Frank Pesce) who video Jessup’s armed robbery, and who edit it in such a way so as to make mortally wounded officer Kate Sullivan (Gretchen Becker) culpable for the violent murder of Jessup’s accomplice, whom she really shoots in self-defence. Their justification? As Pesce’s character sneers, “Cop brutality sells, OK? Just ask Rodney.”
Thankfully, in good ol’ stalk n’ slash fashion, the hulking Matt Cordell – the eponymous ‘Maniac Cop’ – is on hand to mete out bloody vengeance and clear the comatose Sullivan’s name. The leitmotif of the Maniac Cop saga, with good-guy-driven-bad Cordell’s tarnished reputation restored as he’s laid to rest at the end of the second film, Cordell is resurrected as a full-blown zombie here in Badge of Silence, with a sinister voodoo preacher (Julius Harris) tapping into his still restless spirit.
Essayed for the third and final time by Robert Z’Dar, Cordell’s Badge of Silence iteration is undoubtedly his scariest. The late schlock icon veers close to a Karloffian level of monster movie greatness. Clad in the striking make-up of KNB FX, Z’Dar’s turn is ferocious yet poignant; he’s a beast who – to paraphrase the tagline to one of Cohen’s intended touchstones – just wants a mate.
The problem, though, is that amidst the scintillating gothic trappings of their coupling, Cordell and Sullivan’s kinship is built upon their mutual love of excessive force. Accusations of such are what doomed Cordell to his fate in the original Maniac Cop; and in Badge of Silence, Sullivan is christened with the Cordell-indebted moniker of ‘Maniac Kate’, so renown is her hot-headed temperament with perps. Worryingly, aside from an image-obsessed politico, few characters in Maniac Cop 3 appear to condemn their hard-arsed, Dirty Harry-gone-loco approach to policing. Hell, it’s lauded by ground-level coppers, as a gun range-set dialogue exchange between Sullivan and Robert Davi’s McKinney demonstrates; the latter encouraging Sullivan, who’s already in bother for breaking a suspect’s cheekbone, to do more than that next time she’s toe-to-toe with a felon. Furthermore, the sole civilian of note to voice their concerns is presented as an obnoxious idiot who makes the mistake of doing so to the understandably tetchy Cordell. “It’s about time you figured out this ain’t the wild west, pal!” he smugly opines, before the undead Cordell flings him through the air like a fleshy clay pigeon and pumps him full of holes with his revolver.
Post-King, reasoning that the police should be able to do whatever they deem necessary to get the job done just leaves a bad taste in the mouth. So too does the idea that King was an opportunist out to exploit what happened to him for financial and celebrity gain; a particularly crass notion that can be gleaned from Jessup’s slim development across Badge of Silence‘s brisk running time.
Of course, that last bit is probably an unfortunate coincidence more than anything else. Really, any proper similarities between Jessup and King are non-existant. Jessup is simply a sturdy dramatic tool. The centre of Maniac Cop 3‘s orbit, he’s a drugged-up enabler who boots the film’s entertaining and socially savy story into motion; a scuzzy piece of shit who happens to bring as many of the dangling threads of Badge of Silence together as possible (along with Cordell and McKinney, Jessup is one of only three characters who interact with the majority of the film’s principals).
And that ain’t bad for a guy who’s on screen for a grand total of five minutes and six seconds.
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