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Summer of ‘88: Shakedown

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Shakedown</em>

Shakedown deals in chest hair. Ostensibly a by-the-numbers actioner pairing a Texas-drawling plainclothes cop, Marx (Sam Elliott), and an anal-retentive hipster lawyer, Dalton (Peter Weller), the film is too spry and idiosyncratic to work as a pure thriller, and yet too enamored of its insane, flame-belching set pieces to be a straight-up buddy comedy. Writer/director/investment banker James Glickenhaus’s film takes place in a morally festering vision of the Big Apple, whereby Weller’s hero can simultaneously cheat on his pregnant fiancée with an old flame while defending a crack dealer, Phillips (Richard Brooks), wrongfully accused of first-degree cop-killing. But there’s more: His old flame (Patricia Charbonneau) is also the new district attorney, representing the case against Phillips, reminding Dalton why he went to law school in the first place.

Dalton doesn’t weep into his quadruple boilermakers over these jarring moral bottlenecks; Glickenhaus’s characters are adults who make decisions both good and bad, for reasons that are, if not belabored, delivered just fleetly enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. As Dalton faces down his final case as a legal counselor, his milquetoast fiancée lectures him on his loud clothing and obnoxious taste in music, erstwhile goading him into joining her daddy’s financial firm. Less the usual One Last Job, Dalton’s entanglement in the slime pool of crooked cops and drug dealers is only possible thanks to Marx’s super-cop shenanigans. When he sniffs out the policeman, who lives from tallboy to tallboy in a flea-bitten Times Square multiplex, which happens to be playing James Glickenhaus films on loop, the music swells as Marx admonishes him:

MARX: You just don’t fuckin’ get it, do ya? Just don’t get it. Don’t fuck with these people.
DALTON: I don’t wanna fuck with ’em. I just wanna dance.

After the duo tracks a suspect into a Times Square crack bordello, they run upstairs to find that the man, with a couple of loose sparkplugs, has electrocuted a man in a leather mask, chained to a rusty bedpost. After spotting him on the street, Marx tells the assailant to freeze; he then opens fire on a pair of police cars and escapes in one while Marx climbs down a telephone pole. The gunman fires his Uzi at the telephone pole and it breaks; Marx swings down into the street, flashes his badge, and grabs a motorcycle, at which point Dalton runs out from the street level, firing into the sky, and the two men take off in a Chaplin-esque pursuit, sending commuter vehicles flying in all directions. They chase the bad guy down, flip his car over, send it careening off of an elevated platform, and then Marx shoots a drum of gas nearby, exploding it—and the suspect—just as he aims his Uzi. In the next scene, Dalton is polishing his .45 in the NYPD locker room.

“He gave us a lotta good tips,” comments Officer Kelly (Thomas G. Waites), the mulletted semi-heavy who emerges as liaison between cops and criminals, about the dead man. Kelly and Marx each know what the other is up to; Marx’s pursuit is less in the interest of cleaning up the squad than in proving that it needs cleaning up. There’s a deeply conservative, neo-western bent to Glickenhaus’s narrative, whereby crooked cops are incapable of maintaining their façade challenged by Marx and Dalton—a thread that runs parallel to Dalton’s own personal rediscovery of self. While Marx is out singlehandedly detaching rollercoaster cars from their tracks and sending drug lackeys flying off into hot dog stands in Coney Island, Dalton is waking up in his mistress’s Central Park-facing high rise. The murder that kicks off the trial at the beginning of the film is never seen, so Phillips’s innocence is the lynchpin of the film’s plot; that said, Glickenhaus’s you-gotta-be-kidding-me stuntwork couldn’t make itself clearer. Veracity is on the side of the good guys.

Shakedown has too much swagger and bombast to be considered “tough” (a word that’s sometimes applied to Sidney Lumet titles), and yet it’s not nearly soft enough for self-parody. The big shibboleth with these types of films—as glimpsed through the rear-view mirrors of VH1 and the Internet—is that they were unaware of their own cheesiness, as if the action-blockbuster genre had some higher responsibility to accuracy and verisimilitude which its makers neglected. Hardly. Shakedown takes place in Movie Land; it exists because its action sequences were, at the time of the film’s production, technically feasible. The marquees near Marx’s 42nd-street hideout advertise uniformly erotic thrillers, horror films, or action titles, harbingers of an apocalypse doubly confirmed by bellowing street preachers out front.