You know it’s hard out there for a pimp, but that wasn’t always the case. In the beginning, there was Ramrod, the scarfaced, rockabilly psycho whose reign of terror on Ho Boulevard anchors Vice Squad, a definitive second-feature sleazterpiece (executive produced by, among others, Frank Capra Jr. and former AMPAS president Robert Rehme). The film’s post-Urban Cowboy tagline reads “On the street, the real trick is staying alive.” And, as played by Wings Hauser as though he gargled octane between takes, Ramrod struts into the film with Tony Manero’s rapacious charm, coolly hunting down the trifling whore (MTV charter VJ Nina Blackwood) who made off with his cut, nuzzling up to the locked door of her motel hideaway and oozing until she unlocks the door. “I cannot believe how stupid you are,” he leers, clearly not having any time for sweets, before tying her down to the vibrating mattress, stuffing her mouth with single-ply toilet tissue, removing his suede Stetson, retrofitting a wire clothing hangar, and scrambling her womb into eggs benedict.
Vice Squad was initially conceived as a diffuse series of episodes culled from the real-life experiences of an L.A. beat cop (the pseudonymous Kenneth Peters): a hard, direct look at a diffuse, scattered underground world. Somewhere along the way director Gary A. Sherman (with his appropriate acronym) honed it down to one linear narrative, effectively ramping up the intensity and using all other separate-but-equal subplots as indecently entertaining window dressing: tricks, trannys, tatted leathermen, junkies, sugar pimps, chickenhawks, and kung fu septuagenarians. Season Hubley plays Princess, a mom-by-day-madam-by-night browbeaten into fingering Ramrod (in every sense) for the murder of her fellow prostitutes on Detective Tom Walsh’s (Gary Swanson) wiretap. Entrapped and enraged, Ramrod busts out of the squad car, and the rest of the film’s one-night timeline becomes a two-pronged manhunt: find either Princess or Ramrod before they find each other.
A hysterically violent and seamy flick, Squad‘s vices are its virtue, especially since D.P. John Alcott (i.e. cinematographer of perhaps the most sumptuously opulent film ever: Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon) maintains a surprising street cred by filming every raunchy setup from a sewer’s-eye view. Okay, so the mix of intense, bloody retribution and scuzzy, goonshow locations runs the risk of both encouraging a Travis Bickle-style street-cleansing “real rain” solution and commodifying street life—as does the film’s rich old pervert who hires Princess to pretend she’s mourning him at his private, Penthouse Forum wake. But Princess handily shoots down any such airs—and reaffirms the film’s lowbrow veracity—when she bluntly informs Walsh, her chivalrous would-be suitor from the right side of the tracks, that he’s “never gonna change the streets.” Especially since he can’t even afford her on his salary. It’s hard out there for a po po.