Jerry Beck (Don Johnson) is a homicide detective with the L.A.P.D. who has hit a run of bad luck recently, with a handful of unpaid bills and a restraining order brought by his estranged wife to prevent him seeing his two young daughters. Despite that, he dutifully shows up for work each morning - or evening, as murderers have no sense of killing their victims during regular hours, and with Christmas approaching fast and nowhere to spend it he might as well throw himself into his job. Sure enough, there is a report of a double shooting local to him that he has to investigate: a convenience store owner who has been shot dead in a robbery, and a patrol cop who clocked the perpetrator, but was gunned down in the line of duty...
Dead Bang was one of those eighties action flicks that flew under many moviegoers' radar, directed by John Frankenheimer some way after his nineteen-sixties heyday and starring Don Johnson fresh off his hit television show Miami Vice but finding most people wanted to watch him on the small screen rather than go out to catch him on the big screen. Jerry Beck was a real person, a semi-legendary detective with an impressive record who drew on his experiences to pen the script for this, apparently at the instigation of the director, but what was perhaps most notable about it was the time of year it was set. This was never going to supplant Die Hard or those Shane Black screenplays, but it was an action effort set at Yuletide.
For that reason it picked up a small but loyal audience of fans who prefer to watch an alternative to White Christmas over the festive season, as this fit the bill, though the plot actually moves past Christmas Day and into the week leading up to New Year's (the decorations were still up, however). Not that its subject matter was particularly warm and cosy, as it concerned a conspiracy Beck stumbles upon of a white supremacist organisation that may have its tendrils in some pretty influential areas, and the further he investigates, the more he comes to realise he is a very small fish in a very big pond. That may sound as if this was going to be depressing and depicting a hopeless situation, but that was not the case: Dead Bang was surprisingly funny.
It was not an out and out comedy, but there was enough quirk in here to have it stand out from the crowd, or it would have done if enough viewers had caught on to its rough and world-weary charms. The story would be motoring along in a style more typical to its genre when it would throw up a scene or bit of business that had you thinking this was not your ordinary, run of the mill police thriller, indeed there was a chase sequence where Beck threw up on the suspect he had been pursuing, surely a screen first. Then there was the FBI man who is involved and Beck must reluctantly work alongside: he is telling this agent about how he has uncovered a dangerous sect of neo-Nazis and all Kressler can do is to complain about the detective's bad language; the fact that Kressler was played by regular heavy William Forsythe made it even more curious.
Michael Jeter also had a strong sequence as a psychiatrist who has to assess our hero, only for Beck to break down in giggles because he thinks the shrink looks like Woody Allen, which was a variation on the stupid bosses preventing the cop claiming his suspect cliché that you could honestly say you had not seen very often. Not doing quite so well was Penelope Ann Miller as the regulation love interest the film was so uninterested in that she disappeared from it within about three early scenes, and in one of those she was required to take her top off, offering some idea of what that character was doing there. This was more of a boys' club of a suspense and shooting effort, but those boys were very well cast, with Johnson serving up a fine slice of crumpled amusement and supported by a variety of faces some better known than others. If the motive for the initial murders proved flimsy, then that lack of any real point to the deaths was in effect a point in itself, just as the racists' opinions were worthless, so were the consequences of their behaviour and beliefs, though they had given Johnson the runaround and entertained us in the process. Worth taking a chance on, at Christmastime or otherwise. Music by Gary Chang.