Pittsburgh 1991, and there is a serial killer at large in the city who murders young women and dumps their bodies in the river, yet the cops are powerless to prevent any more deaths by his hand for he is wily enough to evade capture time and again. However, one of their number, Detective Tom Hardy (Bruce Willis), has his own theory, he believes the criminal is a policeman who is using his knowledge of the force’s methods to succeed in pulling off his misdeeds and someone high up in the ranks may be covering this up. Hardy is already in trouble with his peers for blowing the whistle on the brutality of his partner Jimmy Detillo (Robert Pastorelli), so is getting nowhere with his contributions to the inquiries, but then something happens to make it personal…
One of those anonymous, sounds like it means something but doesn’t really titles suggests nineteen-nineties action cinema, and that was precisely what this was, though it didn’t start out that way for Striking Distance began life as a serious crime drama penned for either Ed Harris or Robert de Niro, but then Bruce Willis stepped aboard and it became an action flick instead. A particularly troubled one at that, with the accusations flying thick and fast, many of them aimed at Willis who reputedly tried to take over the production and rewrite scenes, then include whole new ones, tailored to the way he thought would show him to his best advantage. Test audiences disagreed and the film was pushed into reshoot hell.
By this time Willis really didn’t want to be there and director Rowdy Herrington, the man who gave the world cult favourite Road House, bore the brunt of the criticism – it was safe to say he never helmed such a big production again, so his career may have suffered when this finally made it to cinemas and proved a big flop. On the other hand, somebody certainly liked it and as an easy to watch, undemanding and frankly somewhat absurd action outing it did pick up fans down the years, not that they were much in evidence when it was initially embarrassing its makers in 1993, but that’s often the way with these efforts, if there had been enough obvious expense wasted on it at the time, it would attract the interest of your average action junkies.
There were quite a few more audiences less than convinced, and it did come across as if the studio had panicked with what they had when those tests were going so badly so fell back on as many clichés as they could, playing it safe when something more over the top would have at least have made it distinctive. Even so, among the tired, hackneyed tropes of your hardboiled, maverick, heavy drinking maverick cop pitting his wits against a serial killer with a grudge who taunts him with messages left at the scene of the crime, not forgetting one, solitary significant role for a woman (Hardy’s new partner, Jo Christman, not a religious superhero but generic annoyance turned girlfriend material played by Sarah Jessica Parker) who naturally had to get kidnapped come the grand finale, there was such an adherence to convention that this became almost self-parodic.
It was as if the filmmakers had thought, well, we tried to create something distinctive and that didn’t work out, so how about we just throw up all those other action movie conventions and call it a day? Which may well have been what they did, the sole element that made this stand out from the crowd being the location, as Hardy gives up the case against the serial killer when the trail goes cold and he loses his father, also a lawman (John Mahoney), in a climactic chase after the villain (complete with motor vehicles jumping like grasshoppers) that happened to be set at the beginning of the story. He then goes to work for the river patrol, giving rise to such scenes as patrolling as hard as he could by beating up and shooting criminals in an elaborate aside to prove his credentials, or a pursuit between his craft and a car (when was The Simpsons’ Knight Boat skit again?). But as the murders have started up again two years later, it was only a matter of time before the showdown, with a twist that was truly idiotic and a conclusion that saw the killer as difficult to dispatch as Jason Vorhees. So not terrific, but it wasted ninety minutes or so without any thought necessary. Music by Brad Fiedel. Wait – Tom Hardy?!