by Jack Sommersby
There's a good deal of talent involved, but nobody seems to have tried especially hard.I'd be more than happy to report that Maniac Cop is another feather in the cap for B-movie director William Lustig, who gave us the excellent entertainments Maniac (1980) and Vigilante (1983), but despite a fairly decent story idea it doesn't offer much in the way of either scares or suspense. It's another one of his gritty New York exploitation tales, but the screenwriter, Larry Cohen, who's given us his fair share of Big Apple exploitation tales as a director with Gold Told Me To! and Q: The Winged Serpent, doesn't unearth a whole lot of potential from his scenario of a disfigured, inhumanly-strong ex-police officer wreaking merciless havoc in this metropolitan area. It starts out as something by the likes of a mad-slasher flick, as the title character, former NYPD super cop Matt Cordell (Robert Z'Dar), does in three innocent people in three separate incidents while dressed in his old uniform right down to the white gloves; the victims think they're dealing with an actual cop, until, that is, he either strangles, knives, or buries them face-first into a still-wet-cement block of sidewalk. The lead detective, Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins), comes to believe it is a policeman due to the efficiency of the crimes, but the upper brass, consisting of cover-their-ass types worried about a media frenzy if word gets out, try their damndest to suppress this; news of the link does eventually break, resulting in tourism dropping forty-percent, much to the mayor's chagrin, and the public's growing mistrust of the police, as one citizen, with her car stalled in the middle of a deserted street, pulls a gun out of her purse and shoots an innocent cop approaching her to render help thinking he's the culprit. Meanwhile, Cordell, to take the heat off him, frames a spouse-cheating cop, Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell), for the grisly death of his wife in the same motel room where he was previously in bed with fellow cop Mallory (Laurene Landon); the department, eager to show they're doing all they can and not covering for one of their own, are all too obliged to accept Forrest as the psychopath responsible. Mallory tries persuading McCrae that he's innocent, and they start combing through old files to see who the killer most likely is; at the same time, we get underwhelming scenes of the higher-ups sweating that the course of the investigation will reveal they trumped up charges against Cordell and sent him to prison because he was busting some Mafia figures who were in cahoots with the hierarchy of City Hall, including the police commissioner and the mayor himself. But Cordell was killed in prison, according to the records, yet apparently he's out and about doing anything other than nicely collecting donations for the Policeman's Ball.
Among other weaknesses, Maniac Cop has way too much plot, and Lustig and Cohen aren't able-enough storytellers to progress us through it with narrative fluidity. The scenes keep bumping into one another for lack of a viable through-line, and after a while we can't be sure if we're meant to be watching a cop thriller with horrific undertones or a horror movie with crime undercurrents, resulting in serious clashes of tone. Lustig's previous stuff was simplistic, yes, but they knew their limited place, enabling their imaginative director to garnish them with phantasmagorically colorful touches that gave them some a good deal of verve. Cordell never really comes alive as a formidable villain, and the way Lustig clunkily builds the scenes, we never feel there's much at stake to the story -- we couldn't care less about the characters, and because there's a lack of trashiness that would give the material some kick, we don't get anything out of the murders, either. For a little bit, Atkins (who ably played the hero in the underrated Halloween III: Season of the Witch) keeps us interested due to his innate honesty as an actor, but then his character's all but neutralized to make way for Forrest, who Campbell, for all his semi-inspired zaniness as the goofy Ash in Sami Raimi's Evil Dead 2, plays indifferently and boringinly -- he's the quintessential lackadaisical hero with a runtish physique and zero cumulative force; it's as if a New York Times paperboy were running around trying to crack the case. (And Lustig's ultra-disrespect for women hasn't changed: Landon's supposedly-seasoned policewoman spends the second half abrasively screaming like the shrillest backwoods banshee.) Also hurting matters is the considerable low budget, which Lustig has before been able to overcome, but not this time. And I'm not talking special effects, but the police stations, the city sidewalks and streets that are noticeably underpopulated; the happenstances just don't seem to be going down in an actual urban city, so the growing unease and eventual frenzy of a citizenry up in arms over a tainted police force meant to protect them never convincingly comes across. Maniac Cop should've been a real corker, but most of the basic fundamentals of both genres it's attempting are fudged, with even the music score from the fine Jay Chattaway quite limited and mediocre. The pacing does pick up in the last third, and a flashback scene in a prison shower of Cordell getting his face severely slashed has a nice dreamlike quality that's superbly rendered. Overall, though, coming from a good moviemaker whose first directorial effort this is after a five-year hiatus, it's not just disappointing but negligible enough to warrant a punishment severer than a mere misdemeanor.For fans, the DVD offers an excellent transfer and more than enough special features to appease.
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originally posted: 01/31/12 19:07:19