Dusting off cornpone genre titles from the 80s, there’s always a tacit hope that yesterday’s shit will be today’s shinola—that the canned wisdom and twinkly piano-soaked conventions of a still-maligned decade can somehow look genius in hindsight. Sadly, whatever was wrong with Jack Sholder’s Renegades upon release is still wrong today. Starring Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips, the film is exactly self-aware enough to invite comparisons to other, better culture-clash cop tales, but it lacks both the postmodern zeal to one-up them or the muscularity of production to challenge them as actioners. This is even more perplexing given the two leads; the Sutherland/Phillips pairing makes sense given that Renegades was sandwiched between both installments of Young Guns, but the actors’ stilted anti-chemistry casts the film’s potential to dust. What’s left is a thin daguerreotype of an idea that was losing steam before cameras were even rolling.
Sutherland, hiding his spectacularly disproportionate youth behind a soggy brown moustache and, presumably, a small lake’s worth of cocaine, stars as a plainclothes cop named Buster McHenry, on fire with indignation at the sorry state of police corruption in…some amalgam of Toronto, Philadelphia, and the Southwest. (The film was a U.S.-Canadian coproduction.) Out to avenge the death of his straight-shooter detective father, McHenry poses more of a threat to his own career than to the crooked cops of the establishment, but he can’t help himself—especially after the law turns a blind eye as his undercover work sees him aiding and abetting actual crimes. Participating in a botched diamond heist, Buster crosses paths with a young Native American named Hank Storm (Phillips), entrusted by his Lakota Sioux elders with a sacred lance. Hank, his father (Floyd Red Crow Westerman), and his brother are presenting the spear at a museum exhibition when Buster and his mob cronies blast through. The mafioso heavy, Marino (Rob Knepper), murders Hank’s brother and takes the spear.
What follows is the usual trickle: Hank and Buster can’t stand each other, but the young Sioux needs the derelict cop to reclaim the lance and avenge his brother’s death. As they break down Marino’s network of small-time hoods and fences, much is revealed about Hank’s innate connection with nature: A viciously barking dog outside a housing project threatens to rip Buster to shreds, but Hank calmly places his hands on the animal’s nose and, pan flutes soaring, manages to tranquilize the situation. These grimace-inducing moments are made worse by the film’s insistence that it’s not bigoted: Hank rolls his eyes at Buster’s invocation of Injun stereotypes, including calling him “Chief,” only for the film to indulge in its own. But the scripting is so one-note all around, a complementary case could be made against the Eye-talian stereotyping of the bad guys, duly outfitted in charcoal knockoff Armanis and gallons of hair gel.
At one point, Buster asks Hank to check under the hood of his car, then abruptly drives away in reverse, hoping to shake the pissed-off young Lakota. When he gets out of the car to see if it worked, he finds Hank sitting inside the hood, impossibly still and calm—a hilarious moment played weirdly straight, whereby the film denies its own inherent ridiculousness and thus double-accentuates it. (The closest David Rich’s screenplay comes to honest-to-goodness humor is having Buster and Hank chide, “I’m the Indian around here!” to one another in their respective fish-out-of-water milieus.) The inevitable flaming-spear-impaling climax is appropriately, breathtakingly idiotic, but the interim filler—including ominous psychic guidances from Hank’s father, a spaghetti-stained shootout in a family restaurant, and a miserably long set piece whereby Buster and Marino’s girlfriend (Jami Gertz) hide from armed gunmen in a department store—feels like just that.