Al Hickey (Bill Cosby) and Frank Boggs (Robert Culp) are tired, broke, alcoholic private detectives hired by a lawyer (Lou Frizzell) to find his missing girlfriend. However, this “girlfriend” turns out to be the sole surviving member of a gang that stole $40,000 from a Detroit Bank. Hickey’s investigations turn up a dead lead while Boggs discovers evidence leading to a woman named Mary Jane (Carmen), who is mailing thousand dollar bills to fences as an invitation to buy back the stolen money. Her husband, the leader of a Black Panther-like radical group, is killing off any loose ends that lead their way, but murderous mob boss Mr. Brill (Robert Mandan) is on their trail. Fired by the lawyer and pressured by Chief Detective Papadakis (Vincent Gardenia) to contain the carnage, Hickey and Boggs decide to trace the loot and claim the reward money. But the trail of death hits too close to home.
Back in the Sixties, Bill Cosby and Robert Culp scored a big hit with their television series I Spy, which they revived in the Nineties for a one-off TV movie and was subsequently remade as a lacklustre feature film with Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson. However, this early Seventies reunion could not be further removed from the breezy, tongue-in-cheek spirit of that spy spoof and might come as a shock to those whose prime memories of Cosby stem from his long-running, family-friendly sitcom. Hickey & Boggs is an intriguingly downbeat, violent and sometimes seedy crime thriller steeped in that uniquely Seventies, grimy, fetid, urban milieu that makes viewers want to take a shower.
Notable for being an early screenwriting credit for future crime actioner and western specialist Walter Hill - and producer of the Alien franchise, of course - and the sole movie directed by reliable character actor Culp, the film is equal parts pulp thriller and character study. It dwells on the seamy side of detective work, deglamourizing its protagonists as a pair of world-weary chancers drifting through a series of seedy motels, dingy bars and unpleasant encounters with seriously unpleasant lowlifes. Hickey may have a frail chance at romance, but Culp includes a moment where a dejected hooker rinses her mouth in the bathroom while Boggs grimly zips up his fly. It’s almost a throwaway scene but speaks volumes about the joyless, perfunctory lives these men lead.
Hill crafts an elaborate plot that, while interesting, may have benefited from a more experienced hand. Aspects of the story, including the sudden death of one supporting character, border on the incomprehensible thanks to some awkward editing and while Hickey’s domestic life provides a crucial subplot it isn’t especially interesting. Culp crafts one or two memorable moments (like the shootout at the football stadium where both sides fire dozens of bullets without hitting a thing), but takes his foot off the pedal at inopportune moments. The supporting cast is peppered with soon-to-be-familiar faces from James Woods to Michael Moriarty and Ed Lauter, while Vincent Gardenia plays a dry-run for his character in Death Wish (1974). Some of the villainous types seem a little outlandish for what is an essentially “gritty” and “realistic” crime thriller, but if nothing else this offers the once in a lifetime sight of Bill Cosby blasting an outsized karate-kicking paedophile in a white pantsuit with his .44 Magnum. That’s got to count for something.