Maniac Cop: Special Edition
In general, most citizens trust the police. Although there are certain racial and age demographics where mistrust is common, overall the popular sentiment is supportive of law enforcement personnel. In my previous job I had to deal with the police often, sometimes up to three or four times a week, and although it is unfortunate that I had to call them as much as I did, I always found the officers to be extremely professional and easy to work with. That is why incidents of police brutality are so harmful to a community, because they ruin the trust that exists between the citizens and their protectors. But what would happen if a policeman completely crossed the line, not just using needless force but also intentionally committing murder? Today’s review is a film that showcases that scary scenario.
We open in New York City, where a string of gruesome homicides are being committed. The first victim is a young woman walking home alone at night. Assaulted by muggers, she successfully flees from her attackers only to meet a gruesome death from a man (Robert Z’Dar) dressed as a police officer. Then, soon afterwards, a young hooligan driving through the city at night is pulled over and killed by the same man in a cop’s uniform. To top it all off, a third man is then killed after being handcuffed and smothered in wet concrete. Lieutenant Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) of the NYPD suspects that the killer is a current or former police officer, although his superiors insist the murderer must be a random psycho dressed as a police officer. Frustrated by the department’s attempts to sweep the problem under the rug, McCrae leaks the story to the press, causing a public uproar.
As all this has been occurring, a handsome young officer named Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell) has unwittingly stepped into a trap laid by psycho killer. When his wife Ellen (Victoria Catlin) begins to suspect that he might be the murderer – a suspicion fueled by anonymous phone calls telling her that he is – she follows him as he leaves their apartment for what he says is an overnight shift. Instead of finding him to be the killer, she discovers him in a cheap motel room with Theresa (Laurene Landon), a fellow police officer he has been having an affair with. She storms out of the hotel in disgust, only to be pulled into a parked car and slaughtered by the real killer. The next morning her dead body is discovered in the room.
Jack is promptly arrested and charged with all four murders, but Lieutenant McCrae suspects that the real killer is still at large, and soon he uncovers evidence that will shake the NYPD to its core. The killer is really Matt Cordell, a detective who was once a superstar on the force, but whose fall from grace came when he was indicted and sent to jail, where he was murdered by his fellow inmates. But how could Cordell still be alive? McCrae, Jack and Theresa must pull together to solve the mystery before any more innocent victims can fall prey to the maniac cop.
Maniac Cop is the creation of director William Lustig and writer/producer Larry Cohen, and the two men do a fine job of bringing the story to life. The film is suspenseful, witty, expertly paced and well acted by its cast of established performers. Although it suffers from some illogical character actions and needlessly confusing plot details, it is nonetheless an extremely enjoyable movie.
In addition to Tom Atkins and Bruce Campbell, the movie features several other notable character actors in supporting roles, particularly Richard Roundtree (of Shaft and its sequels) as the city police commissioner, and the prolific William Smith (whose television and cult movie credits are far too long to list here) as a high ranking police captain. By and large the performers have great chemistry together. Actors like Atkins (who seems to be the cast member who is most recognizable to the public, thanks to his role in the first Lethal Weapon) give the proceedings a certain feeling of respectability, while Roundtree, Smith and Campbell are there to remind us that this is still fundamentally a B-movie.
It is ironic that the movie, despite being set in New York City, was largely filmed in Los Angeles (some limited location shooting in the Big Apple did take place though). As a result, the film has a connection to two major American cities that would both experience major police scandals in the following decade. In Los Angeles, it was the Rodney King case, which would eventually lead to the worst urban rioting in a generation. In New York there was, amongst other incidents, a case where an unarmed black man named Amadou Diallo was shot nearly twenty times by NYPD officers after reaching for his wallet.
It is also worth noting that nowhere in Cohen’s script for Maniac Cop is it ever revealed what exactly it was that Matt Cordell was put on trial and sent to jail for. At best, we are informed that he was a bit trigger happy, and we get an oblique reference to what his accusers said, with the line “They say he violated people’s rights.” All throughout the movie, seemingly every cop who talks about Cordell expresses the same contempt for those who put him away, accusing city officials of having set him up, and having ultimately been the ones responsible for his murder by putting him into a penitentiary full of the violent criminals he had spent years on the force busting. The script thus sets up an intriguing conflict that it never fully explores, which is the conflict between what methods police officers must sometimes use in order to catch criminals, and how those methods may infringe upon the rights of the population as a whole.
Unfortunately Cohen’s script misses another opportunity to explore the public reaction to the psycho cop’s activities. We are given a sense that the public has become afraid of the police (during the St. Patrick’s Day parade we see protesters carrying anti-police signs, and a TV reporter interviews people who express their newfound fear of the NYPD), but the most important scene comes when a woman, after having just heard that there is a killer cop on the loose, has her car break down. A police cruiser pulls up, and when the hapless officer tries to get her to roll down her window she is so terrified that she pulls out a gun and shoots him dead. This is a shocking scene, but it comes too early in the movie (right after McCrae leaks the story). Because nothing else as extreme happens later on in the film, the audience is almost given the incorrect perception that the mass hysteria of the citizens is decreasing, rather than logically increasing.
One of the other problems with Maniac Cop is how Cohen’s script treats both the characters of Lieutenant McCrae and Cordell. McCrae seems blessed with an abnormal intuition about the killings. He immediately deduces that the killer has to be a police officer (as opposed to someone dressed like one trying to make the NYPD look bad) and that he will kill again. Then, after Jack is arrested, he acts as if he’s convinced of the man’s guilt – until the next scene, that is, when he inexplicably announces that he thinks Jack was framed. Rather than sounding like the gut instinct of a veteran cop, McCrae’s intuition and ability to predict Cordell’s actions seems like lazy writing, and allows him to conveniently show up for major plots just in the nick of time. McCrae’s intuition seems supernatural, as does Cordell himself depending on what part of the movie we’re watching. During a scene where he attacks Theresa he is shot multiple times to no effect, and she later claims that she shot him at least twice in the head (the torso shots potentially having been blocked by a bulletproof vest), that his hands were ice cold and that he didn’t seem to be breathing. Cordell also possesses seemingly superhuman strength, and the “setting things up for a sequel” moment at the end of the film indicates he was able to live through an injury that would have killed anybody. On the other hand, after the scene between him and Theresa, the script brushes away any other attempts to give Cordell’s presence a supernatural explanation, even giving an unconvincing pseudo-medical explanation for his rise from the dead after being attacked in prison.
It is a credit to the talent of William Lustig that he is able to keep Maniac Cop entertaining and suspenseful, despite the gaps in logic. It is regarded by many fans as a cult classic, and deservedly so.
Maniac Cop was first released on DVD by Elite Entertainment in 1998 as a port of their previous laserdisc release. That old disc (which I never owned) was in non-anamorphic 1.85:1, and many reviewers complained that the image was too grainy, and either too washed out or too dark. But whatever the actual quality of the old Elite transfer, none of those complaints should apply to this beautiful new remastered disc. The 16x9 enhanced image is presented at 1.85:1 (as opposed to the 1.78:1 that Synapse has generally been using in recent years), and looks gorgeous. Despite some bleeding of the reds, colors look great. The image is clear and impressively detailed, and night scenes feature excellent shadow detail. The film elements look absolutely flawless, with no more in the way of specks, scratches or blemishes than you’d see in any big studio DVD of a new film. It’s a great looking presentation by any standards.
Three audio options are available on this release. There’s the film’s original 2.0 Stereo theatrical mix, a newly remixed 5.1 Surround track, and a newly remixed 6.1 DTS track. Despite being an old mix, the 2.0 track is perfectly fine, and might even be preferable for those who don’t have a fancy sound system setup. The newly remixed surround tracks are fantastic, though, with a great, balanced reproduction of the original sound recording and music and an excellent use of the additional channels available.
The special features on this release kick off with the commentary track from the previous Elite releases. Featuring William Lustig, Larry Cohen, Bruce Campbell and composer Jay Chattaway, the track is never dull. The two biggest talkers are Lustig and Campbell, with Cohen coming in farther behind and Chattaway usually only speaking when spoken to. The men are full of amusing anecdotes about their problems with teamsters during location shooting in Los Angeles, about their efforts to get aerial shots of Sing Sing penitentiary (the warden told them that if their helicopter got closer than five hundred feet to the prison he’d have it shot down) and their attempts at shooting the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade. There are almost no quiet spots, and the only aspect of the track that makes it seem dated isthe numerous references to the fact that this was being recorded for a laserdisc.
The next big extra is an all-new interview with Robert Z’Dar, who provides a history of his career in television and movies up until the time Lustig and Cohen asked him to appear in the film (he didn’t even have to audition for the part). The interview provides some interesting details about the production, but the most fascinating - and frankly, frightening - detail Z’Dar reveals is that the Maniac Cop films have a huge fan base amongst law enforcement personnel, some of whom have told him that watching the movies has a cathartic effect, since Cordell is able to get away with doing the type of things they could never do!
The last extra of note is five minutes of extra scenes shot for the film’s Japanese TV broadcast. The movie had been a huge theatrical hit in Japan, but its running time was slightly too short for television, so a Japanese broadcasting company hired Lustig to pad out the running time of the movie. The new scenes are nothing to get excited about, and pretty much just consist of two actors (one playing the mayor of New York City, the other playing his assistant) standing around talking about the case. However, they do slightly alter the plot of the movie, giving it a new ending and making it quite clear that Cordell really was the victim of a conspiracy by city officials. The scenes are presented full-screen 1.33:1 and are of average quality.
This release is rounded off with two American theatrical trailers, one French trailer, two American TV spots and a Spanish radio spot.
Maniac Cop is a great little film. If you haven’t seen it yet, I strongly recommend checking it out. The audio/visual quality of this release is superb, and Synapse Films is commended for their effort in creating the new 5.1. and DTS audio mixes. The only area where this release potentially disappoints is in the extras department since, based upon available information, the only new-to-this-release extra is the Robert Z’Dar interview, with the rest of the extras just ported over from the old Elite laserdisc. Nonetheless, this disc still comes highly recommended.
Movie – B+
Image Quality – A
Sound – A
Supplements – B+
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