#30 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
Obviously an attempt by Warner Brothers to replicate the success of 48 Hrs. from eight years earlier and the Lethal Weapon movies, The Rookie was the price Clint Eastwood had to pay to get the funding for White Hunter Black Heart. And you know what? I think Eastwood just decided that if he was going to “promote” Hollywood like John Wilson in his previous film decried, he might as well have fun with it. And, if he had kept that light-hearted, devil-may-care tone through the whole thing, I think he might have had a real success on his hands. However, he doesn’t (or couldn’t, since he’s never made a comedy before) maintain it, and when it’s not kind of goofy and silly it becomes bottom of the barrel cop stuff.
Detective David Ackerman (Charlie Sheen) has decided that his calling as a police officer is to be part of the auto theft division of the Los Angeles police force. He’s quickly assigned to be the new partner to Sergeant Nick Pulovski (Eastwood) who just lost his partner while trying to stop a heist led by Ulrich Strom (Raul Julia). That opening sequence turns into one of the zaniest car chases outside of The Blues Brothers with Nick pursuing Strom while Strom drives a car hauler while cars get released from the back into traffic with Nick eventually driving his car onto the hauler itself before the hauler released the whole trailer while flips. It’s obviously absurd and outright fun with Eastwood reacting like he was in a comedy. It’s a marked contrast to the attempt at psychological realism that actually starts the film with a dream sequence for David that highlights the deep reasons for his entry into the force, reasons surrounding his dead brother from his own childhood. Yes, there’s a clash of tones here that doesn’t have the same light and confident touch of similar surroundings with Lethal Weapon. Dear me, I never thought I’d favorably compare Richard Donner to Clint Eastwood, but I just did it. Forgive me, Man with No Name.
There’s no real mystery to the film about who is behind the grand theft autos. Strom is revealed in Nick’s first scene where he kills Nick’s partner. Nick isn’t out to find proof of Strom’s guilt to build a case. This isn’t that kind of cop movie. This is a cop movie where the cop is out for vengeance in spectacular fashion. Instead, we spend the bulk of the middle film as Nick and David get to know each other. David comes from a rich family, headed by his father Eugene (Tom Skerritt). Nick is divorced with no family and a love of old motorcycles that he fixes up. Nick is old. David is young. It’s very Lethal Weapon. They also spend some time picking on Strom like Nick taking David to an expensive restaurant (where the waiter recognizes David) at the same time that Strom is there dining. Insulting Strom to his face, dropping his cigar in Strom’s drink, and then walking away is the course of the day for Nick, pretty much the total extent of the police investigative work he does in the film. That it’s handled to lightly and fun is what makes it watchable.
And then Nick gets kidnapped during a botched arrest attempt against Strom. Held for two million dollars, Nick sits tied up in a warehouse while David tries to figure out what to do about it from the outside. This is where things get really serious and drag the whole affair down. It’s not like The Rookie had been a great comedic buddy cop film up to this point, but it was definitely fun. When Strom’s female lackey Liesl (Sonia Braga) decides to rape Nick while he’s tied up and David has to have some big, confrontational moment with his father for the money, it’s off tonally. The movie up to this point had been too jokey and these moments far too serious to carry the kind of emotional weight they would need to work dramatically.
The movie tries to move back into a more comedic stance after this, especially when David figures out where Nick is being held, helps him escape, and the two drive a car out of an exploding building (another high quality stunt, mind you). However, the first half of the film simply wasn’t build for dramatic effect, so when it decides to go for dramatics, the dramatics fall flat. Heck, the film begins with Nick losing his partner and it’s glossed over in favor of a jokey scene that introduces Nick to David for the first time. The first half is too comedic, and the second half too dramatic for them to work in tandem.
I don’t hate this movie at all, but I really feel like it needed to choose one of the two major tones it was going for rather than jumping between them. The combination doesn’t work in this case, and I don’t think Eastwood really had the wherewithal to manage the tonal shifts. Making it an outright comedy from beginning to end, considering how much I enjoyed the first half, would have worked, and approaching the whole thing as dramatic exercise could have worked as well. I do get the sense that Eastwood was going for a sort of anti-Dirty Harry, though. I mean, it starts with Eastwood’s character’s partner getting killed, which was pretty much a joke by the fourth entry in that franchise.
Really, though, this was the price Eastwood had to pay to make White Hunter Black Heart, and he approached it quickly and professionally, like he usually did. He didn’t cover himself in glory in making this wannabe Lethal Weapon, but I don’t think he embarrassed himself either. It’s okay.