From The Dirty Dozen to The Egotistical One: The Expert (1995) — or, The Unmaking of William Lustig’s Brute Force.

Dave sits down with stuntman turned director Rick Avery to learn about the crazy tale of an ever-mutating actioner.

“We had to book two plane tickets. One for him, and one for his ego.” [1]

And with that, it’s fair to say that William Lustig wasn’t particularly enamoured by ‘90s action star Jeff Speakman – but then again, the first half of the decade wasn’t kind to the Vigilante (1982) director either. Lustig had walked off the set of Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993) in the wake of overseas buyers compromising his original vision; he’d missed out on directing True Romance (1993) by a whisker; and now he was faced with BRUTE FORCE: a project mounted as a tough contemporary spin on The Dirty Dozen (1967), diluted to fit the demands of the current video store draw du jour. As screenwriter Max Allan Collins explained to journalist Matthew Clemens:

“Lustig wanted a cast of character actors: Lance Henriksen in the lead, backed up by Fred Williamson, Charles Napier and Robert Forster. Ex-Green Berets on a final mission, invading Death Row after the death penalty is repealed, to perform the executions the state had reneged on. Speakman was thought to be a good investment, so The Dirty Dozen idea was jettisoned, and, at the eleventh hour, I did a page one rewrite, turning it into a one-man show. Too bad.” [2]

Pimped in Variety in mid ’92, the industry bible teased a production date of October but that came and went, and it was two years before Brute Force landed in front of cameras, with Larry Cohen’s original script the biggest casualty of development hell.

“The story credit isn’t mine,” said Collins. “It’s a pseudonym of Larry Cohen’s. Cohen wrote the original screenplay, but after umpteen of my drafts, only Cohen’s basic premise and a couple of character names remained.” [2]

However, speaking to author Michael Doyle for his book, Larry Cohen: The Stuff of Gods and Monsters, Cohen himself muddied the waters further:

“I only did a little work on [Brute Force]. My daughter, Jill Gatsby, wrote that movie. I just got the job for her, that’s all. I really had nothing to do with the film, so I couldn’t comment on it. I saw it, but I don’t remember much. I thought it was passable, but it wasn’t very good. Once again, somebody fucked around with the script.” [3]

Finally, on 27th June 1994, after numerous false starts and several bumps in the road, Lustig and his trusty team (which included cinematographer Levie Isaacks) assembled in Nashville, Tennessee to commence the six-week shoot for a film that was now being called THE EXPERT. Loosely based on the then recent trial of Scott Panetti [4], Speakman was John Lomax: a tactical defence trainer whose sister is brutally murdered by schizophrenic serial killer Martin Kagan (Michael Shaner). Initially sentenced to death, the advice of a sympathetic psychiatrist, Dr. Alice Barnes (Alex Datcher), leads to Kagan’s sentence being commuted to life in an asylum. Naturally, Lomax is furious and he attempts to infiltrate the facility in order to exact his own brand of justice.

The shoot seemed to begin in harmony, but, halfway through, it was clear that cracks were beginning to show in the relationship between Lustig and producers Walter Gernert and Andrew Garroni.

Enter stuntman extraordinaire Rick Avery:

“I was hired on The Expert as the second unit director and stunt coordinator. Half-way through filming there was a disagreement between the producers and Lustig late on a Friday. We were on location in Nashville. On Saturday morning they called me in for a meeting and said Lustig would not be finishing the film and they would like to have me complete it as the director.”

“I told them they should reconsider. First, it wasn’t my cast, and second, I was in the DGA, and it was not a signatory. I recommended that they shut down for a week and find a new director, but they told me that the feature was funded solely by them and they couldn’t afford to shut down. After some arm-twisting, I agreed to finish the movie. I asked my friend Buck McDancer, a seasoned second unit director who was already there doing stunts for me, to take over as the stunt coordinator. He hemmed and hawed as I did but finally relented and we continued the shoot to the end.”

Considering it was his debut feature as a director (Deadly Takeover (1995) lensed three months later), you have to hand it to Avery for assembling something that’s both relatively cohesive, and fairly engaging in the face of obvious adversity – although props to editor Bob Murawski, too. It helps, of course, that Avery had known Speakman for a few years, so he managed to extract the best from his limited acting abilities – although contributions from a deliciously manic Shaner, as well as a superb Jim Varney cameo are very welcome. Avery, however, is more critical about how The Expert turned out.

“Some of the picture that Lustig shot did not match my vision,” he explains. “I had to go over all the dailies that had been shot and try to fix what didn’t appeal to me. Sadly, there was too much of that, so no, I wasn’t happy with the finished product. I was happy with what me and the crew shot, though. The producers were very happy because they made money with the movie and paid a small fine to DGA for my indiscretion which was taken care of on my next movie.”

As a residual Lustig and Cohen vehicle, The Expert struggles to inject its mix of right-wing vigilantism and jingoism with the same degree of biting satire that typifies their early collaborations, Maniac Cop (1988) and Maniac Cop 2 (1990), or, indeed, their subsequent star-spangled shocker, Uncle Sam (1996). For instance, Datcher’s left-leaning doctor, who harbours a hankering for rehabilitation and understanding, is harshly shrugged off as a liberal loon. Having said that, James Brolin’s warden, who likes nothing better than a little soiree in order to celebrate the one-hundred and twenty-fifth execution of his institution, does carry the appropriate level of crazy. Still, if it wasn’t for the whole Brute Force-cum-Expert debacle, then we might not have the aforementioned Uncle Sam – and that’s a trade-off I’ll take any day of the week. As Lustig remarked to the Flashback Files in 2019:

“I was working on a movie in Nashville. It was an ill-fated movie with… Oh god, who starred in it? [!!] When I was there, I got to see how middle America celebrated the Fourth of July. You know, in New York and LA nobody really cares much about the Fourth of July.” [5]

Above: Brute Force‘s Variety ad, Below: The Expert‘s video store poster

[1] Unpublished Interview with William Lustig by William Wilson, Video Junkie, c.1995
[2] Interview with Max Allan Collins by Matthew Clemens, http://www.maxallancollins.com
[3] Larry Cohen: The Stuff of Gods and Monsters by Michael Doyle, Bear Manor Media, 2015
[4] Panetti’s case is often used by advocates who argue against the death penalty for the mentally ill. Previously diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he waived his right to counsel during his original trial more than twenty years ago and attempted to call The Pope, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ as witnesses.
[5] Here’s What Happened: An Interview with William Lustig, The Flashback Files, March 2019

3 thoughts on “From The Dirty Dozen to The Egotistical One: The Expert (1995) — or, The Unmaking of William Lustig’s Brute Force.

  1. I got the screenwriter credit, not Cohen. I got it because I wrote it. 100%, except for one-set fiddling. I quit (from my home in Iowa) when shooting was under way, when I heard that the Richard Kimble-type character was now being killed by the One Armed Man-type character. When the film wrapped, it was assembled by Andy Garoni, who hired me back to write dialogue on the backs of actors and in transitional shots, to make sense of the re-ordered material. I am a Cohen fan. But the script I was given with his name on it was both unfilmable and unreadable. Maybe Jill Cohen wrote that. They gave her story credit on screen.

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  2. Thanks for adding clarity to that Max. Interesting. Appreciate you getting in touch. Coincidentally, I picked up Tough Tender this week, and I’m really excited to read it.

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  3. I meant “on-set fiddling.” One of the reasons for that is that my script had the warden played by James Brolin in the story through the end. When Garoni gave me a copy of the edited film for me to fix with ADR, I asked what had become of Brolin and was told they couldn’t afford him through the end of the shoot. My ending had the Fugitive-type character cleared by the warden, who redeems himself. Brolin was letter-perfect with my dialogue. I always said Speakman and the rest of the cast had read my script once and then just tried to remember it.

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