Hollywood Homicide (2003)

“My intention in this movie was to make a picture that on one level was a genre movie, summer movie, kind of a cop movie, a buddy cop movie, whatever that genre is, and at the same time, to serve different gods, and try to shine light on the genre from some different angles, with humor and wit, and really play between the lines and behind the Hollywood sign.”

Ron Shelton’s love of complication and nuance is legendary. His affection for Hollywood (as place as well as idea) is likely less well known. Of Hollywood Homicide, now available on DVD from Columbia, he says on the commentary track, “The movie kind of wanted to embrace the banal and mundane parts of Hollywood, which is where people really live and work.” the backdrop is established during the opening credits sequence, featuring a series of Hollywood “signs,” for motels, grocers, road signs, psychic readers, theaters, and license plates. The location thus established, film proceeds toward what Shelton terms the “sublime lunacy of the third act.”

That is, he maintains a slightly off-center relationship to masculine-oriented genre pictures. He sees that “cop movies and sports movies are related, alpha males running around with miserable personal lives but getting great rushes out of their jobs.” In this particular case, focused on L.A. homicide detectives, he’s looking to maintain “the balance of comedy and drama.” Much like his previous film, Dark Blue (also released in 2003), this one takes as its backdrop an approximation of recent news from “the ‘hood.” But where Kurt Russell’s detective was entangled in LAPD corruption amid the post-Rodney King uprising, Hollywood Homicide sets its detectives — ever-angling parttime realtor Joe (Harrison Ford) and his idealistic, parttime yoga-teacher partner K.C. (Josh Hartnett) — in the middle of music industry drama. Assigned to investigate the quadruple murder of a rap group (played for about 30 seconds by No Limit’s 504 Boyz), the cops are out of their element.

Shelton, for his part, appreciates and relishes this environment, especially hiphop, as it draws from and also contests the expectations of old school Hollywood. The detectives, however, are caught up in a simultaneous perspicacity and cluelessness. As Shelton puts it on the commentary track, “This movie is not so much about the murder and is it gonna get solved. We know that Harrison Ford is going to solve the crime… So, in a certain way, the killing is the McGuffin, and what’s important is all the moments between the moments.” The cops’ general ignorance of the milieu allows for Joe’s refrain, that he doesn’t “get that music.” His resistance is eventually answered by Gladys Knight, here playing a former Motown singer and mother of elusive witness K-Ro (Kurupt), who lays it out: “You ain’t supposed to.”

He is, however, supposed to solve the case, which vaguely but pointedly resembles the Biggie and Tupac murders. The noxious mastermind is a Suge-ishly intimidating label executive named Antoine Sartain (Isaiah Washington), with dirty-cop connections provided by gnarly ex-cop Wasley (Dwight Yoakam). Sartain has enough money and more than enough attitude to make him feel untouchable, which, of course, makes him the prime suspect in Joe and K.C.’s investigation.

But just as this is starting to look like a very standard “white-cops-save-the-day” movie, you see that the cops are not quite getting it (and indeed, they’re not supposed to). Shelton and ex-cop/co-writer Robert Souza aren’t interested in resolutions so much as the quirky ways that they remain unattainable (such that the film’s finale turns plain silly). And so, both Joe and K.C. have other pursuits, economically motivated. Cops’ pay in L.A. (as elsewhere) isn’t nearly enough to pay bills, especially with three alimonies and child support, and so Joe has another gig (as Shelton points out in his commentary, which tends toward anecdotes and occasional memories of composition and technical choices, many L.A. cops need second and third jobs to pay rent and alimonies).

When he walks into the club where the hiphoppers have been gunned down in pools of blood, he meets the owner, Julius (Master P, in an entertaining version of his usual self-love mode). While it appears that Joe and Julius have nothing in common, in fact, Julius is looking for a new house. Talk about your coincidences: Joe has circuitous knowledge of a $6 million manse owned by movie producer Jerry (Martin Landau, playing a version of Robert Evans, according to Shelton). Joe sets up the deal with Julius in a scene at Jerry’s, where a piano sonata lilts in the background; as Shelton notes with some delight, “I’m sure it’s the first time Master P has been underscored by Chopin.”

K.C.’s classes grant other perks, namely, meeting toned California girls. But he really wants to be an actor, convincing grumpy Joe to run lines with him, for his upcoming showcase performance as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. The kid’s affable lack of commitment to his day job parallels Joe’s slightly more emphatic disinterest, but rather than compromising their instincts or insights, their distractedness appears to help them toward their ends.

As their sideline occupations suggest, Hollywood Homicide adopts Shelton’s usual tack of diverting from and deconstructing generic formula. It’s a buddy movie where the arguments are petty and off-topic; an action comedy that moves slowly and not very comically; and a detective story less interested in plot details than in secondary characters, detouring to spend time with colorful oddballs, including Valarie Rae Miller as a receptionist, Lou Diamond Phillips as Wanda the undercover cop in drag (a turn that Shelton says he’s unhappy that he had to cut short), Smokey Robinson’s appearance as a cab driver, and the stunningly charismatic Andre Benjamin’s appearance in Sartain’s studio (one producer is hot to add trendy effects: “We need bells, man, everybody’s using bells!”).

Shelton observes during this scene, “Dre had never been in a movie and he was an absolute natural; I think his line readings and vocal inflections look like he’d been doing it all his life. But then again, I think a lot of rap stars are terrific actors, natural actors. I’ve worked with a number of them, Kurupt, Master P, others. Their ease with words, and their sense of performance, it’s like working with some athletes or jazz musicians perhaps. I love working with rap musicians.” In this particular scene, an aspiring actor gives fellow aspiring actor K.C. an 8×10 glossy and a script, items that Shelton describes as “the coin of the realm in Hollywood.”

As K.C seeks information amid the performers, Joe checks out Sartain in his penthouse office, all light and shiny surfaces. This, Shelton says, is “the Columbo scene, with Harrison shuffling through his notes.” When they discover that they have both been accused of “commingling funds,” the parallels (if not exactly the overlaps) between legit and corrupt business deals comes into focus, no matter which side of the class or legal boundaries either man claims. “It’s just a game,” says Sartain, “nothing but a game.”

This game tends to confuse and excite the guys (even though, as Joe insists, “Guys keep scroe!”), and so they get some help from girls. The first is Cleo (Shelton’s game wife Lolita Davidovich), a wealthy, well-connected madam with connections and info to sell to whomever pays best (in her way, not so different from the guys, though they tend to see her as manipulative). And the second is Joe’s lover, a radio psychic named Ruby (Lena Olin, playing the patient, wise, sexy woman usually played by Davidovich in Shelton’s movies), who admits upfront that she “makes shit up.” As Ruby is also the ex of Joe’s archrival, the perennially angry Benny (Bruce Greenwood), subplotty points accumulate. Benny now works in I.A., and is bent on making Joe’s life hell. The greatest contribution by Ruby, meanwhile, is a psychic moment, confirmation of K.C.’s crunchy-granola instincts and useful instruction to resolutely pragmatic Joe.

Shelton’s efforts to thwart expectations and undermine conventions are always admirable. His other two-guys-and-a-girl movies — Bull Durham (1988), White Men Can’t Jump (1992), Tin Cup (1996), or Play It To the Bone (1999) — opposes boys differentiated by generation, class, or race. Here the differences have to do with sensibility and aesthetics. Joe’s hardheaded and eats cheeseburgers, K.C.’s into fluidity and bean sprouts, but both share a sense of what it means to do the right thing, even though everyone around them is determined to do wrong.

The case becomes increasingly convoluted, with a side trip into K.C.’s personal past (his cop dad was killed on duty, so he has vengeance issues), the Benny retaliation business, and Cleo’s serial betrayals. The film features a couple of chase scenes, the first involving K-Ro and the lowest tech, from paddleboats to footpaths (accompanied by Missy Elliot’s “Gossip Folks,” granting the proceeding a brilliant funky beat, with bells, or whistles anyway, to boot). This leads to a sit-down with Gladys Knight (and while Shelton spends a lot of time explaining the plot here, he does mention, reverently, that when Knight flew in to audition for the part, he told her, “I should be auditioning for you”).

The second big chase comes at the end, and it serves as standard climax, sort of. The overt plot includes action by Sartaine, Joe, K.C., and Wasley, as they’re all driving on sidewalks, bleeding in elevators, leaping from rooftops, tripping and huffing and puffing and terribly awkward punching and kicking. It’s exceedingly strange, broadly comic and brutal. The movie never stops contesting the very conventions it rolls out, turning them inside out and upside down. As an anti-cop-movie movie, Hollywood Homicide has its own sort of attitude: if you don’t get it, maybe you aren’t supposed to.