On the one hand, this looks like a perfectly ordinary ‘80s Los Angeles cop movie, although some of director Sondra Locke’s set-ups with photographer Dean Cundey (emphasizing grunge and neon) have an unobtrusive, economic sense of motion that pulls us through nervous streets and corridors. The crime story has been seen a thousand times: protect the mob witness, find the witness, set up a drug buy that goes wrong, use a decoy to lure the killer, etc. The professionally inappropriate romance between the beautiful undercover vice cop (Theresa Russell of the breathy voice) and the studly district attorney (Jeff Fahey) is also par for the course.
What’s unusual is how almost unimportant all that is, how it’s rendered secondary to Russell’s character study as Carla, whose job of playing prostitutes in order to arrest guys, to manipulate them while secretly calling the shots, is playing hell with her mental health. So is her exposure to violence and what we now call PTSD, because she’s being ordered to have sessions with a shrink (Lynne Thigpen) in order to evaluate her stability after she shot someone in an incident we didn’t see. Instead we see another setpiece where she blows away a couple of guys on the same night that she winds down with her crucial, self-destructive “impulse”—a very interesting plot twist that’s circumstantially unbelievable but psychologically credible, an assertion of power and temptation that goes wrong.
She tells the doc that if she succeeded in becoming “normal”, L.A. would lose its best vice cop, and that’s a line that summarizes what the movie’s really doing. It may seem like defeatism for women on the force, but with the film’s attention to the seediness of the work and the harassment of the workplace (embodied by sleazy boss George Dzundza), the movie paints a toxic atmosphere that must attract certain people and drive others away, and the plot is heading for the unusual solution that sometimes you need to quit your job. Despite it all, Russell is both a tough action hero and a convincingly confused girl, a very tricky call she and Locke managed to pull off without condescension amid all the slick movie-ness of it.
Perhaps best remembered from endless playdates on cable TV, this movie is now finally on demand from Warner Archive.
// Notes from the Road
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