Cop movies can be a mixed bag. While the Hays Code forced us to always show law enforcement as the good guys, we immediately rebelled the instant we could. The 1960s and ’70s were rife with both good and bad police, sometimes in the same person, with the likes of films such as Dirty Harry, Bullitt, Serpico, The French Connection, and Dog Day Afternoon showcasing the many sides of the law enforcement profession. And as time goes on, we eventually see the washouts in Taxi Driver or the should-be washouts of the Police Academy series.
Enter William Lustig. Lustig has a great career of directing and producing horror and exploitative action films, but if there is one thing that seems to fascinate him the most, it’s cops: their failures and failings, their jaded sensibilities, their anger and frustrations. Corruption, abuse, sadism, weakness, Lustig’s films explore the darker sides of a profession we often attempt to glorify in media, especially in the 1980s with the buddy cop and thriller genres. With titles like Maniac Cop, Vigilante, and Hit List, he examines different takes on the public’s relationship with the police.
Relentless is yet another examination on this same profession, only this time it focuses on a three-part dynamic: one “rookie” detective who wants to do the legwork to solve a serial killing case, one jaded detective who has been around long enough to simply sit back and let the system take its own sweet time, and the killer, a young abused man who has failed the psychiatric evaluation to become a cop. Judd Nelson plays our killer, an angry man named Arthur Taylor, who has spent his entire life being molded and abused by his hard ass father to become a super cop. When that doesn’t work out, he goes nuts and starts diving through the phone book to murder anyone with the same name and taunt the same police who refused to take him. Detective Sam Dietz, played by Leo Rossi, is a new detective in the LAPD who used to be a New York beat cop. Sam wants to do the hard and tedious work to identify Arthur from the get go. But his partner, Detective Bill Malloy, the great Robert Loggia, is happy to take his time and not rattle cages. Instead, he’d rather avoid the press and talk the price up of every apartment and condo the victims are found in.
Whoever here thinks this will end well for everyone, raise your hand. If you raised your hand, I want you to then slap yourself with it for being dumb. Of course it goes bad! While Anthony is busting in places and forcing people to kill themselves, knowing how to take steps to avoid forensics while providing just enough clues to insult the LAPD’s intelligence, the press runs wild and ruins everything for everyone by putting pressure on the police and driving the killer to further crimes by enraging him. But Dietz isn’t dumb and uses the press to his advantage as well as good old fashioned legwork; in true Lustig fashion, the good cop saves the day through diligence and dedication, not because he busts through the situation, guns blazing. It’s certainly at odds with the likes of Riggs and Murtaugh shooting the shit out of things in Lethal Weapon, but Lustig makes his characters feel like more realistic people instead of suicidal nutjobs.
Now none of this works without a solid cast, but we have it. Judd Nelson is electrifying as the disturbed Arthur; his appearance reminiscent of the dark-eyed “Boo” Radley of To Kill a Mockingbird. He’s quiet but shockingly violent, fueled by childhood memories of an abusive father beating him for not being perfect and training him relentlessly. Rossi and Loggia are fantastic as two detectives that don’t see eye to eye initially but come to an understanding and begin to build a friendship. And out of left field, we get the always wonderful Meg Foster in the roll of Det. Dietz’s hippie-ish wife. She is the reason he’s in LA, and her lifestyle of vegetarian meals and conveying emotions into plants fits into the quirky Los Angeles vibe.
If you’re thinking the film was received well, oh God no. We’re looking at a Rotten Tomatoes score under 50% and less than $10 million at the box office, though considering the budget, this was probably still considered a success. Successful enough at least to lead to three more direct-to-video sequels. Don’t expect high quality, but hey, it kept Leo Rossi employed for several years, so for that we should be thanking them. The rest of the cast bailed almost immediately, though Meg Foster did stick around for Dead On: Relentless II, and we are always happy to see Meg Foster in a film.
Now the real question: does William Lustig actually like cops? Considering his film ouvre and the amount of corruption, negligence, and ineptitude often shown by his cop characters, it would be easy to simply declare “No” and move on. But that would be an oversimplification in my opinion. First off, Lustig’s film list includes the likes of Uncle Sam, a slasher exploration of empty, mouth-frothing patriotism and the falsehoods of the American mythology. Lustig seems very interested in examining our glorification of our society and the human element that exists within, and he is willing to shine a light on the cracks and dirt that most people happily gloss over. If he has to do this by showing superhuman vigilante psychopaths slaughter relentlessly, then that is what he does.
In Relentless, this willingness to explore in shown in that juxtaposition between the new detective willing to do the work and the old one who hardly bothers to do the job anymore. While Lustig has been critical of NYPD behavior in previous films, he uses them as a means to rail against the media-obsessed sloppiness of the LAPD here. Our hero is the officer willing to sift through parking tickets, who examines crime scenes closely for clues, and attempts to develop theories from the start as a guide, even if they are later proven wrong. He may not always be a good person, but he is a good cop, and Lustig shows him with his frailties just as much as he does his successes. These are not super cops, these are people.
In my opinion, that’s what makes Lustig’s films worth examining, regardless of how you may feel about the genres or levels of violence. Seek his work out, folks.