Genre jumping is a tough nut to crack, rife with just as much risk as it is potential reward. No where has this been attempted more then in the genres horror and science fiction. We’ve seen Zombies who double as martial arts specialists, Vampires and werewolves used as allegories for political and social issues and debate, and more recently, the creatures of our collective nightmares have been swapped in to help us deal with our fears of the modern world, and all the privileges and new terrors that come along with it. Dead Heat seems eager to throw its hat into this ring as well, alebit with a slightly less profound message, combining the red-hot 80’s trend of the buddy cop movie, with the timeless theme of immortality through experimental medical science. The kind of medicine that always seems to have less than desirable side effects. I am happy to report that this marriage still holds up phenomenally well, even 20 years later.
Dead Heat begins like any other buddy cop flick, by introducing us to our oil and water duo with a terrific action scene that sets in stone the distinct personalities and styles of our main stars. Treat Williams is Detective Roger Mortis (a play on Rigor Mortis, a post death phenomenon that causes the body to go stiff, sometimes making the body move in a “alive” type way. Scary shit.) and Joe Piscopo (Yeah yeah, laugh it up) is Detective Doug Bigelow. If you want your comparison via Lethal Weapon, Mortis is Danny Glover (except not black) and Bigelow is Mel Gibson (without the crazy God complex and 97 offspring), although that isn’t really fair to the dyanmic Williams and Piscopo bring to their relationship. While hot on the heels of a gang of almost indestructibe (at least by conventional means, like bullets) jewel thieves, Bigelow and Mortis both show great adeptness at being witty and savage in their determination to catch the crooks, while also displaying a modicum of detecting, reasoning, and critical thinking ability. So often in these cop films, I wonder how we are supposed to believe that these guys are actual cops, when the only requirements to be one seem to be causing a unprecedented amount of property damage, rack up insane body counts, and quibble about heavy subjects such as death and responsibility. After this previously mentioned opening sequence, which cuminates in a hail of gunfire and Det. Mortis killing a thief but sandwiching him, head on, inbetween his car and a parked one, we get to see some of the plot develop, which focuses around human experimentation by a shady group of aflluent folk at a typical lab hidden behind the front of a legitimate company. The rest is simply to well paced and too much damn fun to ruin, but if you want to know a little more, you can always take into account the tag line for the film. Just a hint.
Since I already touched on the acting, I will wrap my thoughts up about it now before moving on. Williams and Piscopo both seem to be in top, rare form here. Piscopo, usually a name reserved for punchlines and ridicule, is perfect for the role of Det. Bigelow, bringing both a corny, wise-cracking feel to his character while also proving to be a decent, if not a little ‘roided up, loose cannon type officer of the law. Williams plays off this well, acknowledging Piscopos penchant for “Wah wah” type humor, while elevating his better jokes and observations with appropriately humorous and insightful responses. They may be a bit of an odd couple, but they also mesh nicely to create an effective crime fighting partnership, providing a pleasantly refreshing balance of brains and brawn, roles they actually trade back and forth instead of just limiting themselves to one or the other throughout the picture. The supporting cast is equally as fun and well portrayed, filled out by character actors such as Darren McGavin, Lindsay Frost, and an effortlessly cool but minimal performance by the man who helped put true horror on the map, Vincent Price. I came in expecting good acting, and got even better than that. It’s mostly lighthearted, but the script and acting allows for some brief, but surprisingly deep, moments of introspection into topics like the fragility of life and duty. The balance here helps to ground and propel the film forward.
The directing of Mark Goldblatt, whose only of directing job of note is the underrated 1989 version of The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren, reeks of someone who is both a fan and student of movies and their respective trends. Influences like John Carpenter, John Mctiernan, and Richard Donner can be felt rippling through so many of the scenes, while little nods to the then emerging Hong Kong action scene are obvious in some of the shootouts, especially the one where Treat Williams uses a motorcycle like a catapult, flying over a barricade and then sliding on a lobby floor while putting down two security guards with his revolver. There is a lot of energy in the flick, and little wasted time. Something of interest is always going on, whether it is learning more about our heroes, or a harrowing action scene, Goldblatt knows that the moments in between big set pieces should be cherished and used efficiently, but not indulged beyond reason. Patience is a virtue not known to be had by action and horror fans a like, and when your selling point is cops with guns and brains vs. undead thieves and mutated monsters, you have to keep things moving along briskly. Any complaints would be nothing more than nitpicking, and Goldblatt shows that the power of merely observing action can be just as useful as having a camera that seems to be getting actively involved with what is happening on screen. In other words, no muss, no fuss.
The technical package is on par with everything else, meaning to say that it is great. Gunfire and sound effects feel as strong as they should. Wounds and bullet hits are accentuated with some dynamite squib work and sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious make up and latex. The creature designs aren’t groundbreaking, but they are very well done and draw just enough attention to themselves to be noteworthy, without becoming to laughable or stealing the show. One scene where the pyrotechnics and puppetry may be at its very best, is in a Chinese butcher shop where the disemboweled pigs, ducks and chickens come alive and begin attacking our detectives. On paper it sounds kind of ridiculous, but due to some clever editing, and healthy appreciation for old school effects with suspension of disbelief, it is a comical and creative piece that feels right at home in the fun environment that Dead Heat brings to the table. There is even a nice rapid body deterioration/melting scene, with the alka-seltzer type foaming that I have come to know and love. The effects, visuals, and sounds are all terrific and keep you locked in, just the way they should.
I am prepared to say that not only is Dead Heat a new favorite of mine, one I am ready to show many of my not-so-crazy-about-genre-pictures friends, but it is also one of the best examples of how to fuse distinct genres into one immensely enjoyable and streamlined film. There is a little bit of a creature feature in here, mixed with some light psychoanalytical discussions and speeches about a few universally captivating topics. Above all however, this is an insanely entertaining and fast paced action movie, brimming with all the hallmarks that are still being used in action cinema today, but were nearly perfected more than 20 years ago. If you always wondered what Lethal Weapon would have been like if Sam Raimi, John Carpenter, or even Clive Barker had had a chance to revise the script a bit and add in some of their own personal flavors and themes, then check out Dead Heat immediately. And even if you never wondered that, check it out anyway.
Dead Heat is available for free, in its entirety, on youtube. Remember to bump it up to high quality if your computer can handle it, as the default quality is a little murky. Here is the link to PART 1.
Here is the spoiler-ific trailer, complete with terrible music.