4 out of 5
Directed by: William Lustig
An incredibly solid B-flick pseudo slasher with – given the Larco writing / production and Bill Lusting direction – a surprisingly consistent and engaging presentation, Maniac Cop might disappoint those looking for anything particularly nasty or hidden-beneath-the-grime clever, but it’s exactly because it’s executed with pretty level-headed gusto that it ends up being such quality, non-ironic entertainment.
Recent crimes of rather vicious murders have eyewitnesses reporting a tall, dark-haired man in a cop’s uniform as the culprit. Detective Frank McCrae (Tom Akins) is convinced that it’s actually a cop, but the mayor and others won’t pursue that angle, believing it instead to be someone dressed up like an officer, and preferring to keep things quiet until they can catch the killer. When McCrae goes to the press about it, things blow up undesirably: suddenly, no police can be trusted, and officers are getting shot on suspect of being the killer. Wrong-place-wrong-time cop Jack (Bruce Campbell) looks good for the ‘Maniac Cop’ killings, and while he’s detained, it’s up to McCrae to solve the mystery.
Writer Larry Cohen, no stranger to sly comedy, plays this incredibly cool, and Lustig is on his side: there’s no overt messaging here, but the commentary is clear when people of color are interviewed about whether or not they trust cops, and there are discussions of abuse of power tossed into the mix; the movie still plays well in that sense today, while also passing as a through-and-through thriller. And while the film certainly plays in to its cop stereotypes, it also avoids them at interesting points, not allowing the flick to “indulge” in anything that comes across as unnecessary – like, there’s no ogling sex scenes; no dawdling on violence – and writing each character with purpose. Campbell is certainly a believable patsy, also able to step up when needed, and his cop girlfriend, Theresa (Laurene Landon), kicks all kinds of ass, with Akins rounding out the cast to keep it grounded.
The killer mystery and eventual reveal is interesting, allowing for a “supernatural” element to it without actually speaking to that, giving the character a nice, ominous sense, that Lustig skillfully maintains by not showing his visage in full until the end, even though we know who the killer is plenty before that. Some of the escalations requiring Jack to remain looking guilty throughout are definitely a little silly, and a scene where Akins tracks the Maniac to a pier is a very Larco attempt at stuffing in exposition to try to explain away some story as quick as possible, but on the whole, the flick keeps moving at a great pace – a trim 85 minutes. And a million dollar budget was put to excellent use – great stuns and impressive driving sequences; Maniac Cop legit qualifies as an action thriller, B-movie or not.
Top it all off with an amazing score from Jack Chattaway, and this is surely one of those prized late-night viewings, something I wish I’d discovered much earlier and had the chance to wear out a VHS copy of.