' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Number One with a Bullet (1987)

Friday, August 14, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Number One with a Bullet (1987)

“Number One with a Bullet” is the epitome of a generic movie title, straight off the thriller assembly line of “Cold Steel” and “Nowhere to Hide” (also released in 1987). Indeed, its plot is as general as its moniker, pitting a pair of mismatched black & white (literally) detectives against an array of second-rate villains leading toward corruption within the police department. But this isn’t “Serpico”; this is just a yada yada thriller. It hinges on a red-herring so foregone it would be insulting if the film itself didn’t seem entirely aware of its predictability, and that disinterest toward its foremost twist is what actually gives this film a little life. Amidst its non-eventful story twists and turns is a smattering of delightful idiosyncrasies that suggest something more entertaining than suspenseful.

This was the final film of director Jack Smight, whose second movie was “Harper”, a Paul Newman-starring detective story that was more funny than thrilling, and there are definitely moments in “Number One with a Bullet” when you see a film far more interested in character and atmosphere than anything having to do with...uh…who’s the villain again? Heck, there’s even something of an homage to the famed re-using-the-used-coffee-grinds scene in “Harper” that finds “Number One With A Bullet’s” protagonist, Detective Basurk (Robert Carradine), eating a strip of raw steak and then taking a swig of steak sauce straight from the bottle and mixing them together in his mouth.

The film’s opening sequence finds Det. Hazeltine (Billy Dee Williams) not on a stakeout or in the midst of a foot chase but playing trumpet, and then holding court at a table with a vivacious beauty, explaining how Tchaikovsky was more jazz than Stravinsky. It’s like, woah. Charlie Parker crossed with a crime-stopper? Are all the characters going to be this way? Eh, not quite. At that moment Basurk enters and busts up the party with the usual macho postures. In fact, later he instigates a long-winded gay joke that is a sign of the film’s terrifying times and absolutely horrifying to witness in 2015. (This might be a good moment to mention that James Belushi – yes, that one – bears a screenwriting credit.)

Basurk is saddled with the usual laundry list of problems, an ego writing checks his body can’t cash, a concerned mom that won’t stop leaving messages on the answering machine, a divorced wife he can’t get over, played by Valerie Bertinelli in a positively thankless role that requires her to stand in the living room and dismiss his jackassish advances until she finally acquiesces for no good reason and then almost gets blown up by a car bomb. Basurk is supposed to be a loose cannon, which is why everyone calls him “Berserk”, but Carradine’s performance is far more kooky than berserk. The only time he rises to the heights of being unhinged is an early sequence where he goes undercover by dressing in drag for no discernible reason and gets hydrogen psychosis when threatening to shoot a priest.

Billy Dee, meanwhile, is vintage Billy Dee, invincible, untouchable, and magnetic in his insouciance. Every single shot he fires from his gun finds its target. He dresses like the mid-80’s cock of the walk (which he was). He eats health food while lecturing his partner on the necessity of taking care of one’s stomach. One quick scene shows him in a tai-chi class. His character is infused with tics, none of which pay off in any real way, except for the jazz. When he winds up in an oddly slow-moving car chase with a couple semi-trucks, he never feels in danger, and that's because the entire sequence, as many of the film’s sequences are, is scored not with pulse-pounding, emotionally manipulative music but with trumpet, bass and brush drumming. It makes for a welcomingly unusual experience, one that renders this moments almost as an amusing trifle. When Billy Dee's character finally takes out his pursuers with a pancake car crusher, he just chuckles, all in a day’s work.

It’s not the reviewer’s job to re-write the movie but then I’m reviewing a forgotten 28 year old movie that finished 223rd at the box office in 1987, so screw it. Because there’s a shot during the opening credits that imposes Valerie Bertinelli’s name over a shot of Billy Dee Williams playing trumpet and in that beautiful moment it’s impossible not to imagine a film where Billy Dee and Bertinelli are partners, one built on banter and incidents less harrowing than groovy. The template for the cop movie is so well-worn – it was well-worn by 1987 – and so much here points toward a cop movie  with fewer bullets and more blissfully inconsequential matters on its mind. Cops after hours, where the only targets are enemies of style.

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