Tuesday, February 20, 2018

In short: Busting (1974)

Keneely (Elliott Gould) and Farrel (Robert Blake) are your prototypical 70s New York low-rung vice cops, spending their time busting hookers and invading gay clubs. Not surprisingly, this is at best useless work that’ll change exactly nothing at all about any actual problems a society may have. It has made the couple cynical and slobby and frankly rather unpleasant. What they are not is corrupt, surprisingly enough, so when they pretty randomly acquire a trick book from a prostitute containing names from many a higher up on various ladders in it, they don’t heed the various attempts of their Lieutenant – himself of course following orders from above – to reign them in.

In fact, they soon aim for a rather big fish involved in drugs, prostitution and all kinds of nasty stuff, one Carl Rizzo (Allen Garfield). Of course, being the kind of guys these cops are, they don’t do much that could be called investigating, and instead spend most of the film following Rizzo around annoying him, committing minor acts of vandalism, not dissuaded by shoot-outs or huge black men (in a scene we’d call “problematic” today, I believe) beating them up.

Peter Hyams’s Busting is a highly fascinating film. For one, it works excellently as a semi-realistic portrayal of the seedy underbelly™ New York’s in 1974, picturing the places its protagonists walk through with more confusion and fascination than with loathing. It certainly sees the place as a mess, but while it doesn’t treat persons of colour, homosexuals and prostitutes well, it clearly doesn’t treat them as if they were at fault for the world they live in. In fact, there’s a surprising scene, following a raid on a gay club that is played half-comedically and features the other f-bomb from the mouth of one of our protagonists, in which two gay transvestites are humiliated by a judge in front of a whistling and laughing public where the film’s sympathies are completely on the couple’s side, giving them a dignity that is very uncommon in 70s filmmaking, and utterly convincing and heart-breaking.

Heart-breaking is one of Busting’s watchwords as a whole. Nominally, this is a comedy – and from time to time it is indeed a funny movie – but it is a crime comedy about failure, a film about two working class guys facing the realization that nothing they do actually matters in the world, and that what looks like a chance to actually change even the tiniest thing about it is just them fighting windmills like a certain Spaniard, for everyone around them has either arranged themselves with the world or has found a cosy place for themselves in it. If anyone ever asks how utter defeat looks, I’d recommend the last shot of Gould’s face.

Because this is a Peter Hyams joint, there are also three brilliant action scenes to marvel at. They are kinetic, tight, brutal, and shot in ways as clever as they are atypcial for the way action scenes are traditionally shot. Hyams arranges the action like Gould and Blake approach their roles, with an off-handed but also intelligently skewed brilliance.

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