Saturday, September 28, 2013

Defective Detectives: FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER (1986)

A few weeks back, Tom reviewed a film called JACK TILLMAN: THE SURVIVALIST (1987) that featured Steve Railsback as the titular character. Tillman wasn’t a “shoot first, ask questions later” type of guy; he was more of a “shoot first, ask no questions” bloke.  If Tillman were real, I could totally see him back in the mid-80s stockpiling up on VHS tapes at his local video store. After wearing out copies of RED DAWN (1984) and INVASION U.S.A. (1985), Tillman would be forced to venture into the lesser known titles and there he would find FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER (1986). While at first reluctant to touch anything with the word “French” in the title, the cover art of men firing guns at each other would draw him in.  Sitting down in his bunker for some rations by candlelight, he’d pop the tape in and be pleasantly surprised to find this tale of a couple of tough guy New Orleans cops who make Dirty Harry look clean.

FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER opens with a text scrawl talking about how since 1967 terrorists have been dead set on destroying free societies.  Since 1980, their main goal has been to target America.  We then get case files on three Cuban terrorists – Alfredo Senta, Guilliermo Cartena, and Raul Sanchez.  Not only do they have fear inducing foreign names, but they have also been trained by the Russians and are all heading for Louisiana.  I can hear Tillman mutter “Russkie pukes” under his Spam-flavored breath.  We then meet our two heroes: Detectives Andre Des Moines (Michael Parks) and R.J. Wilkerson (Bill Holliday, who also wrote this).  The back of the VHS box actually gives us more info on these two than the actual film, stating they are boyhood friends and partners for 20 years.  It is this type of close camaraderie that results in them killing 3 bad guys (in two unrelated incidents) in their first 5 minutes they are onscreen.  “A couple of standup guys,” Tillman would say.

Naturally, such recklessness on the job gets them in hot water with the higher ups.  But who cares after they are contacted by the F.B.I. in order to help sniff out the three terrorists. Yes, a Government organization with tens of thousands of people is no match for the hard-fisted skills of Des Moines and Wilkerson.  During a briefing, they are told that not only was Sanchez trained in chemical warfare, but he also rapes young boys.  Jeez, could they paint him any more the villain?  It turns out that the plan of the terrorists is to poison the water supply and they aim to do it at the World’s Fair, which is being held in town.  Also on the case is Kevin Fisher (Dov Fahrer), a local newspaper reporter who can’t get his editor to believe him about this story. “Buncha red tape bureaucrat bastards,” Tillman would mutter.

"Don't you worry, Jellyroll. 
We'll find the guy who stole your chin."

Our two cops are on the case and this involves them walking around a lot and talking to a hotdog vendor named Jellyroll (Michael Tedesco).  Detective work is actually immaterial to their investigation as the villains just fall into their laps. They spot Senta walking down the street and shoot him in broad daylight (in front of a group of school kids, no less). Later they get even luckier as they just happen to be in a restaurant that Cartena comes in and shoots up.  What are the chances? They chase him and it makes way for a car chase where Jellyroll is the only innocent bystander.  Again, what are the chances?  Jelly Roll does live up to his name though by proving to be round and full of sticky red stuff. Anyway, two down, one to go. Catching Sanchez actually involves detective work though as they track down a trick that he roughed up a few nights previous.  They find the guy, beat him up and then dump garbage on him.  Nice.  They hit Sanchez’s hotel room and – gosh darn it – he’s already headed to the World’s Fair.  We know this because they find a pamphlet for the cable car system there. Our two heroes rush down there, commandeer a helicopter and rush to save the world.  “I can’t handle this suspense, I hope they succeed,” says sweaty palmed Tillman on the edge of his seat.

“Five stars! Two thumbs up!” Tillman would scream about this film with the same joy as if he just got a new M-16. Yes, FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER would make any paranoid gun lover quiver with delight. Des Moines and Wilkerson are two tough bastards from the Dirty Harry mold alright, always busy punching the answers out of their suspects.  These dudes are so hardcore that they don’t even have time for “make my day” style quips.  It is a relationship so close that it lends credibility to the homosexual overtones that some film scholars have applied to the buddy cop subgenre.  Hell, it is even overt during one scene where they question a guy who runs a gay bar (naturally, played in prissy fashion). The owner keeps calling Des Moines “blue eyes” and when they leave he says if he ever switches teams sexually to give him a call.  I kid you not, Wilkerson replies, “If he decides to switch, I’m first!”  What!?!  I’m not sure Holliday knew what he was writing when he penned that line.

It’s not hard to tell that FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER had some trouble in post-production.  The film centers on events that took place in 1984, yet it didn’t see release until 1986. And the Fisher reporter character (among others) is brought in to talk documentary-style to the camera to explain just what is going on (the actor has a totally different look during those scenes).  One reason might be the death of Holliday. According to Variety, the film finished shooting under director Joe Catalanotto, who previously directed Holliday in TERROR IN THE SWAMP (1985), in late October 1984. Two weeks later, Holliday was dead from a heart attack on November 13, 1984. Damn, you know a movie is bad when you die after making it.  Did he see some of the dailies? Seriously, I shouldn’t joke because Holliday seemed committed to the project.  But you have to wonder if all of his exertion (lots of running) led to his early demise.  Anyway, by the time it hit video shelves, the film had a new co-director listed in one Patrick Poole.

The film also had other problems.  It created a stir when a supporting player was wounded in the face by a shotgun blast using blanks.  Again, according to Variety, this incident along with the unrelated death of actor Jon-Erik Hexum on the show COVER-UP (1984) led to serious overhaul in safety management regarding prop guns (apparently it didn’t work given what happened to Brandon Lee nearly a decade later). Additionally, some police officers who moonlighted on this film (while on duty!) were charged with payroll fraud.  Wow, can you imagine that conversation in jail? Murderer: “What are you in for?” Cop: “Working on FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER.” Murderer: “Guards, keep this dude away from me! I can't be associating with such scum in here.”

As it stands, FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER is only recommended if you want to see some archival footage of the World’s Fair in New Orleans and a cheap car chase through the French Quarter.  Or if you just want to see law breaking cops beat and shoot people for 80 minutes.  “Sign me up,” Tillman says.

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