Until The Fear Stopped: Relentless I – IV

Matty takes a retrospective stroll with William Lustig’s stellar serial killer flick and its three succulent sequels.  

William Lustig is as New York an institution as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Abel Ferrara. The bulk of the Bronx-born genre wiz’s films — of which there aren’t enough — throb with the energy and rhythm of the Big Apple. Maniac (1980), Vigilante (1983), and Maniac Cop (1988) are all distinctive New York stories, and Lustig has consistently used the textures and ambience of the city to reflect the psychology of the characters that line his two-fisted tales of murder, mayhem, and laconic social commentary. However, Lustig has never shied from touting his wares on the West Coast either. Prior to relocating to Hollywood permanently with his boutique DVD and Blu-ray company, Blue Underground, Lustig called ‘action!’ on Hit List (1989) and Uncle Sam (1996): two pictures that are as typically gristle-strewn as Maniac et al, but whose brooding themes and dispositions are instead juxtaposed with sunny California backdrops. It’s the brilliant RELENTLESS (1989), though, that should be considered Lustig’s definitive West Coast movie. 

A stringent ‘cops versus killer’ thriller, at Relentless’ core is a scintillating performance from Leo Rossi. While Judd Nelson and Robert Loggia receive top billing (as the killer and Rossi’s veteran partner, respectively), Rossi is the film’s star — something Relentless’ three sequels would go on to emphasise. Here, in the original Relentless, it’s tempting to view Rossi as an avatar for Lustig. Affable and genial, yet confident and sure in his own intuition and abilities, Rossi is Sam Dietz: a former New York City beat bobby turned rookie L.A. detective who can’t get his head around the Los Angeles way of doing things. Replace ‘beat bobby’ with ‘filmmaker’ and ‘detective’ with ‘directorial gun-for-hire’ and the parallels to the gregarious Lustig are glaring. After all, post Relentless, Lustig did struggle to reconcile his brash, indie-minded NY style with the demands of the sun-kissed money men on three of his Hollywood-rooted productions: the helmer somewhat famously walked away from Maniac Cop 3: Badge of the Silence (1993) and The Expert (1995), and was bumped from an earlier iteration of True Romance (1993) once Tony Scott caught wind of the Quentin Tarantino-penned script.  

Of course, such a reading is based on hindsight. At the time of Relentless’ making, Lustig was at the peak of his bankability. Maniac Cop generated a tidy chunk of change in pre-sales for its backers, Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment, and its robust tech credentials and hearty financial success led to Paul Hertzberg’s CineTel Films immediately poaching Lustig to take the reins of Hit List a fortnight after he locked Maniac Cop. Not only did Lustig’s sterling work on Hit List impress CineTel, it also earned plaudits from Warner Bros., with whom CineTel had a foreign distribution deal. As Lustig explained to author John McCarty in his exemplary 1995 book, The Sleaze Merchants: Adventures in Exploitation Filmmaking:

“When I finished the movie and it was screened for some executives at Warner Bros., they stood up — and over-exaggerated, I think — but honestly, they said “Hit List is a better action picture than Steven Seagal’s Above the Law (1988)”. Well, I don’t know about that. But they got all excited so I went overnight from being a bum to a king.”   

Having procured Relentless’ script via Shapiro-Glickenhaus somewhere in between, both SGE and CineTel were happy to work with Lustig again when he expressed interest in the project — particularly as Relentless’ script, then called ‘The Sunset Slayer’, was written by Phil Alden Robinson, who was already a ‘name’ as his Kevin Costner-starring sports fantasy, Field of Dreams (1989), was poised to come out (on Relentless, Robinson ended up pseudonymously credited as ‘Jack T.D. Robinson’, presumably as a gritty psycho caper doesn’t sit as nicely on one’s CV as a wholesome film about baseball). As SGE were undergoing behind-the-scenes turmoil, Lustig ultimately mounted Relentless with CineTel and was gifted a $4million budget — the biggest of his career.

Despite Robinson’s character-focused script suffering from several narrative contrivances and convenient plotting, Relentless is so consummately done and so masterfully orchestrated by Lustig that its minute flaws are easy to ignore. Stylish but not in a showy, in-yer-face way, Lustig infuses the film with a mesmeric observatory quality, presenting Relentless as a naturalistic but hard-boiled exercise in matter-of-factness.

For instance, the relationship between Rossi and Loggia is what it is: initially, it’s a total culture clash, with Rossi’s energetic Dietz repeatedly whining to Loggia’s weary Malloy that his laid back approach to crime solving isn’t how they did it in New York. How, what, why — as his name suggests, Dietz is obsessed with the details whereas Malloy is content to quietly wait for the departments under him to do their jobs and report back. Naturally, the longer they spend with each other, a respectful, banter-laden alliance forms, and Relentless’ greatest pleasure is how Lustig simply shows their burgeoning, blokey friendship as it happens (and until it’s cut shockingly short in a gasper of a moment). Dietz and Malloy feel real, as do the insights we get into Dietz’s homelife with his supportive wife (Meg Foster) and young son (Brendan Ryan, who, along with Mindy Seegar as ballsy receptionist Francine, is tied after series stalwart Rossi in terms of Relentless appearances, cropping up, as they do, in the first three films).

At the nastier end of the spectrum is ex-Brat packer Nelson’s softly spoken wacko. With his pallid, sickly complexion and Rivers Cuomo dress sense, there’s an element of caricature to Nelson’s extremely good but hardly inspired turn; his Arthur ‘Buck’ Taylor is as gawky a rent-a-loon as they come. But Lustig is a dab hand at this kind of material — and as clichéd as Buck is, he’s still as tragic and savage as Joe Spinell in Maniac. Like Spinnell’s eponymous fiend, Buck was subject to horrific abuse as a child: his ferocious, late father was a decorated police officer, and his domination of lil’ Buck was meant to prepare him to join the family tradition. Alas, Daddy’s twisted behaviour has caused several defects in Buck’s personality — defects that ensure his application for the LAPD is swiftly rejected. 

Shifting Relentless into arse-twitchingly tense passages of eerie voyeurism whenever he’s on screen, Lustig coolly zeroes in on Buck’s fractured psyche as he goes murderously crazy and terrorises Los Angeles with a spate of random, picked-from-the-phonebook killings. Precise and fat-free, Relentless’ murder set pieces are as intense as the film’s title implies, Lustig demonstrating his flair for sweat-inducing suspense and unleashing a slew of potent jolts. No shot and no blocking is out of place — but it’s Lustig’s refusal to pass judgment on Buck that’s the kicker. The key is in the tragedy: Buck hates himself and when he refines his M.O., Lustig makes it clear that, as reprehensible as he is, he’s a pathetic creature as much a victim as his prey. 

Upon release, response to Relentless was mixed. In favour, Variety rightly called it “riveting” and “splendidly acted”, but reviews from the L.A. Times, People, Empire, and Time Out London were quick to dismiss it as “routine” and “laboured” — which misses the point of Lustig’s no-nonsense delivery. Regardless, Relentless did rake in $2million profit at the U.S. box office, and did incredible business on VHS for RCA/Columbia, where it shifted over 90,000 units. And with Relentless going straight-to-tape here in the U.K. through Warner Home Video, when talk of a sequel began in autumn 1990, CineTel opted to reinvent the series as a direct-to-video property.

Praise be that they did as far as I’m concerned: Relentless’ subsequent chapters are as equally awesome as Lustig’s inaugural outing. My favourite Relentless changes daily, but if you were to push me, I’d probably say it’s DEAD ON: RELENTLESS II (1992) that tickles my pickle. 

In Relentless II, Rossi returns as Dietz. Set twelve months after the original film, this time, Dietz’s marriage is crumbling and his Mrs. is unable to forgive him for putting her and their son in danger at the end numero uno. Adding to Dietz’s woes is a strange new case: a hulking new serial killer (Miles O’Keeffe) is on the prowl, garrotting a string of seemingly disparate victims, and the smug fed overseeing it (Ray Sharkey) boasts a worrying penchant for withholding important information… 

Written by sequel specialist and DTV scribe par excellence Mark Sevi, Relentless II begins with a brawl between O’Keeffe and perennial henchman Sven-Ole Thorsen and doesn’t let up. Exquisitely paced, Sevi’s script twists and turns with phenomenal verve — but it’d be remiss not to note that the ink-slinger’s reliance on faffy and deliberately tricksy developments does cause a little confusion in regards to who is who and where they fit. Thankfully, it’s in the journey where the fun lies.   

Bolstered by a wealth of satisfying performances (Rossi and Sharkey’s alley cat circling is the prominent delight, but it’s O’Keeffe’s thoughtful and multi-faceted assassin who resonates), the aesthetic contrast director Michael Schroeder employs to tether the cop and killer sides of Sevi’s story together is  rapturous. Taking over from Lustig, who left due to unhappiness with the script (which he nearly recruited a green Tarantino to rewrite during his True Romance tenure), one thread is a down n’ dirty police procedural, Schroeder perching his camera at eye-level, echoing and homaging Lustig’s raw, template-forging blueprint. The other is more overtly snazzy; Schroeder channelling Brian DePalma and John Woo to underline the weirdly poetic heart of O’Keeffe’s silent but disarmingly relatable villain.

Relentless II was another smash on tape when it landed on U.S. video store shelves on 26th February 1992 (a 1993 print promo proudly declared that, combined, it and and the first Relentless had sold over 175,000 video copies stateside), and it was quickly followed by James Lemmo’s RELENTLESS 3, which arrived in mid-August 1993. 

Eschewing the action flourishes of the preceding films, writer/director Lemmo ups the serial killer ante considerably, and it’s wholly apparent that Relentless 3 is a pure horror movie. Commercially, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is the unmistakable touchstone; artistically, Relentless 3 is closer to the grubby, verite nastiness of John McNaughton’s Henry or Lustig’s Maniac than the opulent gothic of Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning creepshow — the comparisons to the latter especially valid as Lemmo, a cinematographer by trade, had previously lensed Vigilante, Maniac Cop, Hit List, and the original Relentless for Lustig. Thing is, as immersive and as gloriously bleak and upsetting as it is, the sole niggle of Relentless 3 is, perversely, this very same docu-soaked mean streak.

Yes, by and large, the grotesquerie is insanely effective, and the queasy atmosphere Lemmo fosters is superb. But Lemmo’s flagrant and more self-consciously Lambs-esque cribs — chiefly, a couple of brief scenes in which William Forsythe’s sadistic sexual psychopath flounces around in drag — just don’t gel tonally, and come across as misjudged and camp. The lack of any real backstory to Forsythe’s character is also an irk. Other than the fact he’s raping and murdering women (albeit not necessarily in that order), Lemmo paints Forsythe’s depraved madman too broadly for Relentless 3 to completely work as a proper, in-depth character study. Forsythe, though, does a helluva job bringing the bastard to life. He is bloody terrifying. 

However, acting-wise, it’s Rossi to whom the film belongs. Taking the headline slot for the first time (and bagging a co-producer credit in the process), the ever-reliable Rossi — re-teaming with Lemmo following the also-produced-by-CineTel, We’re Talkin’ Serious Money (1992) — is stupendous. In Relentless 3, the now grizzled Dietz is dangerously teetering on the edge of oblivion and becoming as damaged as the criminals he’s chasing. Divorced, estranged from his son, and apparently inches away from a breakdown, the ‘tec’s low mood is matched by the chilliness of DP Jacques Haitkin’s striking blue colour palette and Scott Grusin’s icy score.

RELENTLESS IV: ASHES TO ASHES — also known as ‘Relentless 4: The Redeemer’ — was released in America on 14th of December 1994. And if I brought the grit, II the gusto, and 3 the horror, Relentless IV brings the sheen. Shepherded by music video man-cum-straight-to-video artiste Oley Sassone (he who was duped into wielding the megaphone on Roger Corman’s infamous shill production of The Fantastic Four the previous year), Relentless IV is a visual treat. Employing a near constantly moving camera to heighten the returning Mark Sevi’s already tightly wound story, it’s all elegant, sweeping compositions, deep shadows, Dutch angles, and peeper-popping filters. Relentless IV is an American giallo: a truth affirmed by the Argento-indebted elan with which Sassone stages the film’s white-knuckle bursts of violent slaughter. 

Supremely entertaining, Relentless IV has Dietz investigating a bevy of weird ritualistic killings that are all connected to a slinky psychiatrist (Famke Janssen, just before her big break as the leggy villainess in Bond-buster Goldeneye (1995)). You can see how the dots connect a mile off, admittedly — but, as with the Sevi-scribbled Relentless II, Relentless IV is so dazzlingly executed and professionally played by its rock-solid cast that predictability doesn’t even factor. Besides, both Sassone and Sevi do throw several richly shaded and surprising flutters of wild imagination into the mix. Dietz’s Twin Peaks-y out of body experience might be a bit of a shark jump, but it’s a powerful, beautifully pitched moment that feeds into Relentless IV’s themes of spirituality, grief, and redemption (Dietz’s estranged wife has passed away, leaving their teenage son in his not-entirely-responsible care). 

The final chapter in the series, Relentless IV’s disappointing VHS sales put paid to the franchise. A damn shame: it’s obvious Rossi had at least another one in him, and it would have been fascinating to see what he and CineTel would have done with the saga in Se7en’s (1995) wake, when these kind of slick killer-thrillers became video trend du jour.

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