Maniac Cop is directed by William Lustig who also directed the sleazy New York classic Maniac. This isn’t a sequel though or a spin off, I suppose it could be part of the shared universe but that kind of thing didn’t exist in the eighties so it either isn’t or set a precedent. Whilst both films do share the same city and genre, Maniac is, considering it’s about a deranged woman scalping creep, a surprisingly intimate affair. Manic Cop on the other hand is a strangely remote movie. And it suffers for it.
This is all slightly annoying because I have fond memories of seeing this back in the miserable summer of 1988 as I was failing exams left, right and centre and getting beaten up by my teachers. The idea of a crazy law enforcer getting revenge on his superiors was very enticing. Now though, as I look the film with adult eyes, I can see some strange direction choices that make it feel like it’s being shown to some one else in another room.
Let me explain: we start off with a blonde woman leaving a late night bar, she’s chased by a couple of local thugs, sees a policeman in the dark, runs to him for help, where upon he picks her up and breaks her neck. Okay that’s a mixture of a classic cop thriller and a nice twist with the cop being worse than the criminals. However, the way it is shot we can’t see the woman’s face at all, we can’t even relate to her on the most simple level because we don’t know what she looks like other than being blonde. It’s not even like it’s because the film is shot badly, far from it: the movie has a strong New York from the past feel to it like Taxi Driver with all its street lights and neon shop signs. The choice has been made not to show her.
The next several minutes follow on like this, cops find the corpse and arrest the two thugs but we barely see the cops doing this, just the backs of their coats or them talking down the far end of corridors. There are also a huge amount of ariel and panoramic shots of New York City with voices talking over it, explaining the story. This might have been a problem with the shoot, maybe they didn’t get the story across properly at the time so recorded lots of additional dialogue in post to fill in the gaps. But this means that for quite a while there is no focus to the story.
Thank god Tom Atkins shows up. Finally we are given a character to relate to. Atkins has been kicking around for years and you can always rely on him to give a solid, likeable performance. He’s perfect as the detective who suspects it’s one of his own out on a murder spree. Whilst he’s about the story has some drive, and it stops being just a series of random scenes inter-cut with the Maniac Cop being a maniac. Unfortunately, and this is a small spoiler, despite being the main character in the film he, er, stops being in it two thirds of the way through and we are suddenly left without him anymore (I knew this before the film even started as Atkins introduced the DVD where he gives away his character’s fate. Thanks Tom).
So we are left with the second billing guy to take over as the hero in the final act and he’s hardly been seen up until this point (his first scene, again, we purposefully only see his face once at the end). On the positive side it is the legendary Bruce Campbell looking young, chiseled and handsome. On the negative side he also looks uncannily like Uri Geller. Seriously:
Also his character is pretty much a one note innocent-man-accused-of-crimes-he-didn’t-commit type. Also his girlfriend seems to be dressed as if she is permanently about to go skiing. Oddly enough, this girlfriend, played by Laurene Landon, has a bit more depth than he has and that is unusual in this kind of flick. She certainly does her fair share of high pitched screaming but also is very happy to pick up a shotgun and lean out of a moving car blasting the crap out of the Maniac Cop. Okay that’s not exactly a character trait but it’s better than nothing.
If there is some more meat to the script than what you’d expect from a film called Maniac Cop then it’s because it was written by Larry Cohen who specialises in genre fair and can always be relied on to add a few different turns than normal, although in this case maybe not enough.
It doesn’t help that Ultimately the Maniac Cop himself is kind of ridiculous. Robert Z’Dar is certainly an unusual person with his huge frame and even bigger jawline. I can understand for once why they kept his face hidden throughout so that the big reveal of what he looks like would be a shock. However there are two problems with this:
1) In the flashback scene where we see him before he became the Maniac Cop once again we never see his face, he’s attacked in a prison shower and the camera is always behind him. Why is this? As he looks completely different after his transformation can we not see him before so we can have some sympathy for his cause? This not-seeing-the-character thing is getting annoying by now. It’s not the only thing we don’t see. He attacks a police station like The Terminator and we don’t see most of that either, just bodies lying around.
2) When we finally do see what he looks like, he looks like this:
Which was the funniest moment in the film. At least it engaged me, which is something.
There’s still something I admire about Maniac Cop though. Maybe it’s that view of New York that is now lost: a period before Giuliani cracked down on the rampant crime, and a time when the twin towers were part of the skyline. Also it has a reality about it that “they don’t make em like they used to”, from the gritty street locations to the fabulous police van stunt at the end. Or maybe it’s just that back in 1988 someone was willing to give the crazy guy who made Maniac a million bucks to make this oddball non follow up.