Shakedown (1988)

You really can’t make a movie like SHAKEDOWN any more. I mean, when’s the last blockbuster you saw that opened with an African American male hanging out in Central Park listening to rap music on a boombox and dealing crack? Or the last time you saw a film where said crack dealer works for another African American cocaine lord who owns a crack-brothel and let’s his (also African American) henchmen have sex with young white female coke addicts in exchange for free drugs?

In other words, one could make the argument that SHAKEDOWN carries a lot of racist baggage, but at the same time while watching it, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat refreshed. By way of contrast, think of post-9/11 cinema which has witnessed, conveniently enough, the reemergence of 80s action stars, notably Willis’ LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD and Stallone’s RAMBO. Clearly someone thinks there’s a need for this kind of hero to return to the big screen… almost as if America were under a new kind of threat and needed heroes like Johns McClane and Rambo to do what needs to be done to keep us safe. But according to a film like LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, that “threat” isn’t, say, Muslim extremists, it’s pissy computer nerds. Or Neo Nazis (SUM OF ALL FEARS). Or giant transforming robots (I think you know). Anything but that which at least emotionally (I’m not going into issues as to the “actuality” of these threats) threatens the “mainstream” American moviegoer. So while SHAKEDOWN might ultimately be ruled politically incorrect, as a 21st century viewer, I can’t help but acknowledge its racial bluntness as effective.

Then there is the film’s bizarre structure. SHAKEDOWN at once tries to be a buddy-cop movie, a courtroom drama, a romance, and a nutty action film. SHAKEDOWN doesn’t exceed particularly well in any category, and with all those shoddily plied genres mixed into one film, critical mass of badness is reached handily.

There are “buddies” Richie Marks (Sam Elliott) and Roland Dalton (Peter Weller); the former a washed up cop, the latter a soon-retiring legal aid attorney. Dalton is defending Michael Jones (Richard Brooks), the aforementioned crack dealer. Jones claims to have killed an undercover cop in self-defense. The film is then about uncovering this expansive ring of corrupt police officers. One thing I will give the credit for, the cops are depicted as pretty sadistic, greedy guys and the whole “code of silence” is used to eerie effect.

It is also worth noting that SHAKEDOWN seems to stand in stark liberal/moderate contrast to the ultra-conservative DEATH WISH films. There’s a poster for DEATH WISH 4 shown in the background of one shot, and the fear of vigilantism is cited in the defense of the prosecute crack dealer. The police force may still be corrupt in this film, but at least a cop and a lawyer are the ones trying to solve the problem.

So while Dalton is defending his client in the courtroom, Marks is out kicking butt in a variety of action sequences (including a decently choreographed romp through Coney Island). One more aside, SHAKEDOWN was filmed on location in NYC—a nigh impossible feat these days. Despite the fact that we are clearly supposed to buy into the “buddy” formula, Marks and Dalton spend surprisingly little time together and, honestly, for the most of the movie Marks has the worst end of the deal. Dalton spends most of his time hamming it up in the courtroom or having an affair with the prosecutor (corruption? You decide).

The last act of the movie is by far the campiest and most rewarding. Dalton finds a key piece of evidence to save his client and drives via taxi—evil cops in pursuit—to the courthouse. The cops set up a road block but somehow a crane is working in the area and picks up the taxi, lifting it over the cops, and landing it on the courtroom steps. Crazy as all that is, the judge for the case rules the piece of evidence inadmissible! Sheesh! Not to worry, the jury acquits anyway… just because I guess.

But those antics just set up the final showdown. Dalton and Marks high jack a sports car, drive it to the airport, and chase down the remaining bad guys who are taking off (literally) in their Gulf Stream jet. The sports car manages to actually catch up with the jet allowing Marks to jump out of the car and onto the extended landing gear as the plane takes off. He then shoots/tosses a grenade into the gear assembly, jumps off into the Hudson (or whatever) just before the plane explodes. The whole sequence lasts all of thirty seconds, but is unforgettably loony.

SHAKEDOWN is a campy movie, to be sure, and I think a significant part of its aesthetic comes from the blunt “realism” of its depictions of race, drugs, and corruption mixed with its fantastic (not synonymous with great) depictions of action. ||

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