Absolute Power: Frame Up (1991) / Frame-Up II: The Cover-Up (1992)

Dave’s exploration of Paul Leder’s output unearths a pair of small-town procedural flicks that deliver in different ways.

Drop a film historian into the Leder family timeline at the turn of the millennium, and you’ll see each of Paul’s children on the payroll of the big studios. Mimi had just scored big box office for Dreamworks with Deep Impact (1998); Geraldine was casting high-end TV shows for Warner Bros. like Odd Man Out, Jesse, and Veronica’s Closet; and Reuben was developing the award winning redux of Flipper for Samuel Goldwyn and MGM. The patriarch, who died in 1996, would have been incredibly proud I’m sure, and all three of the Leder kids freely credit their late father with being the catalyst of their successful careers. As Reuben told Vantage Point Interviews recently:

“The one awesome thing about all my Dad’s early movies was that they were an incredible ‘trade school’ for not only myself and my sisters, Mimi and Geraldine, but also for scores of other young people who wished to learn the movie business from the ground up. On Ape (1976) in particular, Mimi worked in the camera department and parlayed those skills into a scholarship at the American Film Institute where she was the first woman graduate in cinematography. This served her to good stead on the way to her career as a director/producer. I worked in virtually every area on many of those films; therefore, when I finally got my mainstream break at Universal, my knowledge of production quickly got me promoted to producing and directing — along with the writing, which is the part I love the most.” [1]

And what a writing career Reuben Leder went on to have. Countless episodes of Magnum P.I. (for which he earned a Daytime Emmy nod), as well as stints on The Incredible Hulk, Baywatch, JAG, and Nash Bridges. It was a spell on the small screen that only paused briefly for a couple of movies. FRAME UP (1991) was one, and it, of course, reunited him with his old man.

David Farmer (Adam Biesk) falls victim to a frat initiation that goes too far. Orchestrated by Don Curran (Tom Hodges), the son of town bigshot Will Curran (Dick Sargent), the pledges decide to frame it as a hit and run and pin the blame on passing salesman Frank Govers (Robert Picardo). Naturally, the influence of the powerful Curran family means that they’re in prime position to get away with it — but they hadn’t counted on newbie sheriff, Ralph Baker (Wings Hauser), who happily flies in the face of corruption, even at the risk of his own life.

Boasting the distributor mandated tagline of “Two fisted justice, double-barreled revenge”, a portion of the audience for Frame Up would undoubtedly have ejected their videocassettes with a hint of malcontent. Any awareness of Paul Leder, though, and you’d be correct in not expecting Hauser to harness his inner Buford Pusser, or for this delicate fusion of genres to be as clear cut as the gut-punching intensity of Walking Tall (1973). Less grindhouse, more townhouse; Frame Up is multilayered with elements of action, romance and politics.

Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of Frame Up is the unconventional depth to each character. Govers isn’t just a patsy for the manslaughter. As in Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988), he’s working under a pseudonym and trying to leave his college days behind, where he toiled making detonation devices for left-wing militants The Weathermen. Similarly, Baker doesn’t fall into the trap of generic backwater flatfoot: he’s an uprooted city lawman with a daughter and bashful nature to his personality. Meanwhile, his love interest, Jo (Frances Fisher), is far removed from being the token female in the station. She’s a kick-ass cop with an unimpeachable set of ethics.

“Why couldn’t you all be content with getting drunk and chasing pussy like I used to?” booms an irritated Will to his son, with Leder regular Sargent revelling in shedding his wholesome Betwitched image. He certainly hits the right bad guy notes — although when it comes to snarling, dead-eyed evil, John Saxon in FRAME-UP II: THE COVER-UP (1992) is as good as it gets.

In this return to Orton Creek, Saxon is Charles Searage: a bank president who’s not the model citizen he’s keen to portray. A serial embezzler with millions stashed away, Searage will stop at nothing to protect his lawless inclinations. When people in his social circle begin to show up dead (a cool cameo from Frank Whiteman), it raises the suspicions of Sheriff Baker, which unwittingly puts Jo and his daughter in the firing line of an unhinged monster.

Paul Leder takes over screenwriting duties for the sequel, which, in turn, brings a slightly different tone to the movie. Considering Reuben’s relentless output for episodic television, the first picture harbours a more primetime flavour, while the second is notably darker. Both benefit from their individual identities but dovetail seamlessly to produce a complementary twosome.

With Leder having spent much of his career welcoming his stock company of actors back for various projects, it’s no surprise to see recognisable faces reprise their roles for this sequel. Hauser and Fisher are present, as are the town deputies played by Jeff MacKay and Richard Stanley. Such in-film familiarity and criminality brings an air of Robert B. Parker to it all, and Leder’s progressive inclusion — as always — of characters of other races and sexual orientations certainly suggests an interesting similarity with the legendary author.

Keep your eye out as well for the final scene which sees a young, debuting Cole Hauser acting opposite his own dad.

Shot just after the first movie made its VHS debut via Republic Pictures Home Video, presumably as a response to favourable presales, Frame-Up II only ever appeared with that title during its cable TV run, debuting on Cinemax in September 1993. Germany had labelled it ‘Deadly Game’ (after calling the original ‘Cobra Attack’), and when it finally made its way to video stores — a full four-and-a-half years after a showing at Cannes in ’92 — it was retitled ‘Deadly Conspiracy’ by distributor Monarch Home Video.

[1] Goin’ to Korea: Rueben Leder Remembers the Cult Classic Ape by Brett Homenick, Vantage Point Interviews, July 2020.

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