Wrongfully arrested for cocaine possession, fashion photographer Jackie Swanson (Traci Lords) loses custody of her young son, Kevin (Jesse Thomas). Sentenced to serve four hundred hours of community service, Jackie is assigned to snap flattering photos of cops on the job. Which is how she catches the eye of tough police detective Frank (Jeff Conaway), after saving his life from two trigger-happy Mexican arms dealers. Although the pair become lovers Jackie proves reluctant to take their relationship a step further since her main aim remains regaining her son. One night she happens to take a photo of corrupt cop Lieutenant Eddie Martin (Robert Miano) as he murders an errant pimp (for reasons none too clear). Unfortunately, Eddie spies her too. After a botched attempt to silence Jackie claims the life of her close friend, the resourceful photographer resorts to desperate measures to protect her loved ones.
Throughout the Nineties, the PM Entertainment Group, a low-budget production outfit founded by independent director Joseph Merhi, flooded video-stores with a slew of trashy but glossy direct to video action thrillers. Often headlined by familiar but far from A-list stars such as Erik Estrada, Wings Hauser, Jeff Conaway and C. Thomas Howell, many of whom they also gave the chance to direct. Among PMEG’s most notable draws was former underage porn star Traci Lords. After retiring from the adult film industry, Lords proved she could really act with scene-stealing turns in John Waters’ cult musical Cry Baby (1990) and Marvel blockbuster Blade (1998) but between those, PMEG made a determined effort to mould her into a DTV action heroine. The first of these outings was A Time to Die, a charmingly cheesy thriller with a certain idiosyncratic appeal. TV safe visuals make this resemble an episode of Miami Vice, however writer-director Charles T. Kanganis adds the odd arresting flourish (flashy editing tricks, moody noir lighting) that coupled with some very eccentric humour (e.g. a running gag involving two squabbling lesbian wrestlers; or when Eddie sighs “This ain’t my day” upon discovering he shot the wrong woman) and neat plot twists leave this surprisingly compelling.
Admittedly the pacing is ramshackle and unfocused. The film takes around fifty minutes to establish a definitive direction while Kanganis favours bizarre conversational detours that are oddly prescient of Quentin Tarantino. While Lords avoids any overt nudity during her sex scenes, A Time to Die remains a strange combination of softcore shenanigans, neo-noir thriller and wholesome family values. The struggling single mom sub-plot, which one presumes was an attempt to “rehabilitate” Lords’ image, is soap opera silly. Slow-motion happy family flashbacks disrupt the plot flow as do Jackie’s wacky themed photo-shoots that look like something out of an early Nineties music video from C&C Music Factory. Nevertheless the sub-plot detailing the collapse of the relationship between Jackie’s ex-husband Sam (Bradford Bancroft) and his girlfriend (Nitchie Barrett), who surprisingly remains the heroine’s staunchest advocate, proves unexpectedly affecting. Once Jackie gets caught in a cat and mouse game with coke-snorting corrupt cop Eddie things grow genuinely suspenseful before climaxing with a gripping, well orchestrated finale.
Paired opposite Lords, onetime Grease (1978) star Jeff Conaway is too familiar from his stint on sitcom Taxi to fully convince as a hardboiled cop but serves his role capably. Erstwhile Shaft (1971) Richard Roundtree also cameos in the genre requisite role of short-tempered police chief. As for Traci Lords, she is undeniably lovely but more importantly, genuinely convincing and charismatic as the gutsy, sassy crime photographer who can handle herself in a rough situation. She re-teamed with Kanganis the following year, this time as a crime-busting cop in Intent to Kill (1992).