Mike Hammer (Armand Assante)

Smudge and Jury: The Punk-Noir Pulp of ‘I, The Jury’

With all the roughneck charm of a '40s-era pulp novel and much style to spare, I, The Jury is a good, popcorn-filling yarn.

Silly, pulpy but always exciting, I, The Jury reframes the film noir of the ‘40s through a punk sheen of the flashy ‘80s. The film is based on the 1947 crime novel by Mickey Spillane of the same name, which introduced his character Mike Hammer. The book was just a first in a series that features one of the detective genre’s most popular Private Investigators. The film captures all of the same schlocky debacles that the leading character in these novels usually endures; that is, murders, high-speed chases and run-ins with gangsters (at every end — a hotel, the streets, and even a secluded camp ground).

The good and the bad of I, The Jury is that there are numerable plot twists — at times, more than one can keep up with. It’s easy to lose track of what’s going on, which, in this case, makes the “back” feature on DVD/Blu-Ray systems most useful. Much to be understood in the film is preceded by an important conversation; the dialogue reveals the motives for the ensuing action. Often, the action is circumvented by yet more action. It can get quite confusing.

The high-octane drama, however, is consistent throughout and there usually isn’t a dull moment. This is precisely what makes the film such a good, popcorn-filling yarn. It has all the roughneck charm of a grimy ‘40s pulp novel and much style to spare (check out the snazzy, art-punk slapdash of the title sequence).

The story opens with a one-armed man named Jack who is murdered in his own apartment. As it turns out, Jack happened to be a good friend of Hammer’s; they have a history together, which may possibly include Jack’s flirtatious and duplicitous wife. Naturally, Hammer decides to investigate the murder, but soon gets tied up in other businesses, like chasing down a rapist as well as encountering a very odd psychiatrist who may be tied to the matters involving Jack. Rounding out the edges of this sordid madcap mystery are a number of espionage touches, including an underworld mafia ring — just to make things a little more confusing.

I, The Jury deals its best hand for the cast of characters. Playing lead is Armand Assante, a handsome regular joe who’s often typecast as the calculating rogue in any number of action films. Here, he plays a cool cucumber who has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. He’s mouthy and almost always out of line, yet is thoroughly likeable. He also has a loyal and fast-thinking secretary (Laurene Landon) who joins him on most of his capers. Together, they navigate the crime-invested underworld of New York City.

On the margins, Paul Sorvino as Hammer’s superior offers an understated and talky performance. With as many twists and turns in a plot like this, it’s a good thing to have a few compelling characters to keep the action grounded.

Kino Lorber offers a fairly cleaned up picture which sharply contrasts the punkishly neon flashes of colour with the smudged greys of the gritty New York streets. The print suffers from some imperfections, but that’s to be expected from a 35-year-old movie which used film stock. In fact, the bits of dirt on the print here and there add to the griminess of the pulp action affair; it’s like handling a musty, old vintage ‘40s paperback — a charming sort of realism.

The sound seems to be in mono and comes across a little tinny and flat, but the dialogue is still, for the most part, clear as is the film score. Extras include a film commentary with film historian Nathaniel Thompson and a trailer.

For all of its lurid flash-in-the-pan thrills, there’s something strangely enduring about I, The Jury. It’s disposable entertainment, to be sure. But there’s a comfort-viewing factor here that will bring many who love this kind of stuff back to the film, again and again. Film noir through a punk-rock filter may have already been old shtick by the time this movie was made (see the 1980 Deborah Harry-vehicle Union City), but it’s a shtick that never fails to seduce.

RATING 7 / 10