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Land shark!


Striking Distance
(1993)

For a star who became very quickly identified with action heroics on the big screen, it took Bruce Willis a few years to succumb to formula vehicles. Partly, this was no doubt down to his desire to stretch himself (the variety of parts, lead and supporting, in a variety of genres between ’88 and ’95 is testament to this, the consequent number of turkeys not withstanding). Partly I like to think it was because he had an eye for a script with a bit more to it. Of late, I’ve realised that was most likely wishful thinking, based on the guy who made Die Hard, Hudson Hawk and Last Boy Scout (and even Death Becomes Her) in quick succession. Rather than the one who picked Color of Night. Striking Distance is the first time Willis looks to be in real danger of losing his new crown. Fortunately, reinvention in Pulp Fiction and Twelve Monkeys would keep him ticking over until The Sixth Sense, but Rowdy Herrington’s film is a harbinger of how it will all go pear-shaped for action-Bruce in the years to come.

A big part of it, and something Willis still doesn’t seem to realise, is that Bruce the action star requires a sense of humour, self-effacement if you will, to work. It’s a combination of an essentially unassuming physical presence combined with a Moonlighting delivery that made him so appealing in the first Die Hard. Take away the latter and you get a run of dry any-lead-will-do vehicles that do middling-at-best box office. See Last Man Standing, Mercury Rising, Tears of the Sun, Hostage, Lucky Number Slevin, Surrogates. The list goes on. There is the occasional exception, with Bruce either rediscovering his comic chops (The Fifth Element) or being well cast in a character/action piece (16 Blocks), but he decided he wanted to be a serious actor in the mid-90s. And became a boring one.

So why did Striking Distance bomb so badly? One might blame audience preconceptions or reshoots, but really the problem is that the script is a derivative stinker. Director Rowdy Herrington received a lot of attention for Patrick Swayze-starrer and surprise hit Road House, and I recall thinking at the time that he was a solid choice for the next big Bruce movie. But he also co-scripted the film, which wasn’t, in bare bones at least, another action flick. No, it was a serial killer movie. Given how tired and formulaic the genre became so quickly, the only surprise is its legs. Seven came along to completely reinvigorate the genre a few years later, both stylistically and in terms of motive.

In Striking Distance, the writers take their cues from other movies rather than strike out in new directions. It’s not as if a cop-turned-serial killer was a new idea (I’m not giving anything away here, since Willis’ character is convinced of this from the first scene) and Herrington fails to imbue the premise with any freshness.

Then there is the use of a classic song as a calling card of the killer (Little Red Riding Hood); anyone seen Sea of Love? A few years later Fallen would repeat the trick with Time Is On My Side). Red herrings are liberally daubed throughout the screenplay, such that when the killer’s identity is eventually revealed it is the most ridiculous choice possible. And therefore, perversely, the most appropriate. For someone convinced for years that the identity of the killer is a law enforcement officer, Willis appears to have done zero investigative work for all this time. Every obfuscation he encounters, or signpost hanging over a suspicious character, yells, “Look into this further” but he does nothing, so allowing the killer to lead the plot (a good method when a writer doesn’t wish to do any heavy-lifting).

Willis plays former homicide detective Tom Hardy (no, not that Tom Hardy), reduced to working for the Pittsburgh River Rescue following the death of his cop father (John Mahoney) during an attempt to apprehend the Polish Hill strangler; Hardy became a persona non grata with the force when he gave evidence against his former partner (Robert Pastorelli). This was only compounded by his partner’s subsequent suicide, and the final straw was his claim that the suspect apprehended for the killings was just a patsy; that the killer was still free and a police officer. When we join Hardy as a river cop two years later, he has turned to the bottle (of course) and is given the prerequisite young female cop, Jo Christman (Sarah Jessica Parker), as a new partner. And then the Polish Hill strangler starts calling Hardy, playing the song and leaving a trail of fresh victims; all of whom Hardy has formerly had a relationship with.

It’s all too hyperbolic to be taken seriously, and as a result Herrington makes heavy weather of it when he tries to apply gravity to the proceedings. The original title was Three Rivers, and the beefed-up title is symptomatic of the reshoots that took place, following negative test screenings, to increase the action quotient. It’s unclear what was added when (the romance subplot with Parker was amended), but far-and-away the most successful scenes are ones not involving the main plot. Basically, anything where Willis has to apprehend a suspect or momentarily forget how tortured he is and break into a wise-ass mode.

Was the ever a concrete plan to set Die Hard 3 on a boat? We can at least be certain that that Under Siege got in there first. Striking Distance gives us an inkling of what it might have been like, as Hardy singlehandedly storms a hijacked river barge and takes out the bad guys armed with a shotgun and some choice quips (“Land shark!”). Throughout, you can see a better film struggling to get out, but it would need to divest itself of the portentous tone that is part and parcel of the serial killer flick.

Willis comes off none-too-well when he’s doing the po-faced emoting, such that you end up recalling his piss-taking of such modes in Hudson Hawk. But when he’s verbally sparring with a foe or romancing his partner, he’s all-together better-served.

Jo Christman: There’s something I should tell you.
Hardy: Are you really a man?
Jo Christman: No.
Hardy: Good.

A particularly amusing exchange given the number of comments there have been about Parker’s… er, man-ish looks. Elsewhere, every scene with Brion James is dynamite. James plays Detective Eddie Eiler, a thundering douchebag who crassly bags Hardy at every opportunity. Every scene between them ends in a physical altercation, and James knows not to take the part too seriously; if he’s going to play a complete prick, he’s going to have some fun with it. Honestly, I miss a good Brion James supporting turn; he passed on far too early.

The consequence of such digressions is a film tonally all over the shop. With the main meat consisting of characters blustering aggressively at each other, it’s an exercise in keeping the big reveal at bay. Herrington has assembled a strong supporting cast; Michael Mann favourite Dennis Farina plays Uncle Nicky (a cop, surprise!) and filling out the ranks are Tom Sizemore (younger and almost fresh-faced!) and Andre Braugher (in his first year of Homicide: Life on the Street). You never once buy Parker as a cop, but everything else here is so daft that her presence doesn’t stand out that much.

Bruce is on a cusp in 1993, clearly having one long bad hair day. He’d ditch his receding fronds completely over the next couple of years (the odd toupee job aside). In Striking Distance, whether or not its a combination of rug and comb-over, the results aren’t pretty. Indeed, the actor takes every opportunity to don a baseball cap. At one point he seems to be wearing very similar clothes to Butch in the following year’s Pulp Fiction. He apologised for the film a couple of years later. But this is a guy who approved John Moore to direct Die Hard 5, so any perspective he claims requires a pinch of salt.

Not helping matters is a cheese-laden score from Brad Fiedel that does all the wrong things at all the wrong moments.

When the climax comes, the number of false finishes for the villain reaches new heights of idiocy; he just keeps coming back, all-the-while screaming, “Who’s the best cop?” It’s painful, and never self-conscious enough (like most of the film) to become fun.

The wonderfully-named Rowdy Herrington’s career appears to have dried up; he’s hasn’t directed or written anything that has made it to screen in nearly a decade and Striking Distance remains his most high-profile assignment. It’s a serviceable time-passer if you have nothing better to do and a high tolerance for idiocy; worth a look for Brion James’ screen time at very least.

**1/2

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