"Trouble is here! He's street smart and steel hard."
Man, do I love TROUBLE MAN. Before I'd ever seen the film, I had heard the song and I was absolutely in love with it. Marvin Gaye has had a lot of hits, but that is his greatest in my humble opinion. I couldn't help but smile when I heard it used by the Russo Brothers in beginning of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. The song has this cache of "cool" about it that cannot be denied on any level and I wish more people associated it with the original film it came from. I'm a big fan of the films from the Blaxploitation boom of the 1970s, but I started in a rather conventional place with SHAFT. Now Richard Roundtree is pretty darned smooth in that film, but he can't quite live up to Robert Hooks in TROUBLE MAN. Hooks plays "Mr. T" - well before the days of THE A-TEAM shined a light of fame on another man with the same name. Not that they both aren't badasses, but this "original" Mr. T is the one I love the most. You see, he's a really interesting character in that he is an inner-city Los Angeles private detective on one level, but an all around tough guy, killer pool player and community leader rolled into one. He's also quite popular with the ladies. The opening shot of the movie is of a woman in a bikini floating in a pool. When Mr. T emerges from the house, she asks when she will see him again. His reply: "I'll have to think about that baby". Too cool for school. Now I mentioned SHAFT before and that film is part of what allowed for TROUBLE MAN to become what it was. The success of Isaac Hayes Sountrack for SHAFT as well as Curtis Mayfield's for SUPERFLY, along with Marvin Gaye's hugely popular song "What's Going On" allowed opened the door for him to write, produce and perform the music for TROUBLE MAN. What he came up with is not only great for the movie, it also makes for one hell of an album (and one of my favorites). Gaye even record several different versions of the main song - one of which plays excellently over the opening credits of the movie (as Mr. T drives back to L.A. along the Pacific Coast Highway) and it's different than the one you are used to hearing. Now it would be one thing if the movie just had a great soundtrack, but was just average as a film (which is how I feel about SUPERFLY honestly), but TROUBLE MAN is a really solid flick on top of the music. Marvin Gaye did a heck of a job focusing on the Mr. T character with his music and it certainly elevates things, but Robert Hooks knocks it out of the park and the story is strong too so it's a win all around. So on top of a great lead performance and great music, TROUBLE MAN has something else that I adore which is an amazing supporting cast. Paul Winfield and Ralph Waite (from THE WALTONS) are featured prominently, but the film is littered with character actors and familiar faces that make it a better movie. There's even a scene where Mr. T menaces Gordon Jump (WKRP IN CINCINNATI)! TROUBLE MAN is truly one of my very favorite Blaxploitation films from this period and it deserves to be much better known than it is. If you're a fan of the genre and haven't seen it, I must recommend you do so forthwith. Buy it as soon as possible and then allow yourself to marinate in it's coolness. While you're at it, buy the album too!
-Audio Commentary by Film Historians Nathaniel Thompson and Howard S. Berger.
Buy Marvin Gaye's Soundtrack here:
THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN (1973; Stuart Rosenberg)
I am not sure what modern movie fans (even the TCM set) think of Walter Matthau in general, but I can almost guarantee that they've underrated him. That is not to say that his comic turns over the years aren't greatly revered and appreciated by cinephiles, but I really do feel that his dramatic work is spoken of very little and that is quite a shame. For those of us that have seen him in movies like CHARLEY VARRICK, THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, BIGGER THAN LIFE or A FACE IN THE CROWD - we have something of a greater appreciation for the breadth of his abilities as the outstanding actor that he was. Matthau often infused sarcasm or humor into his dramatic roles and I've always admired that about him, but THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN may be one of his most serious films (and not in a bad way). As with somebody like Cary Grant (though Matthau of course didn't share Grant's leading man good looks), Matthau had the remarkable ability to pivot on a dime and play both comedy and drama. In an era (the 1970s) of many gritty crime films - THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN is one that has more significantly dropped off the radar of a lot of people and being that it contains two amazing performances (from not only Matthau, but also Bruce Dern) - it deserves a bit of a higher profile than it has. Opening with a still frighteningly relevant shooting massacre on a city bus, THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN sets a somber tone right out of the gate. It lines up with movies like DIRTY HARRY, but plays things in a much much lower key way which I think helps make the movie quite memorable.
For Bruce Dern this was a particularly important film in that not only was it something of a dramatic breakout for him (as he had been relegated to a lot of genre pictures prior to this), but he also got equal above-the-title billing with Matthau. In terms of actors, another great thing about THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN is that it is packed to the gills with amazing character actors like Louis Gossett Jr., Anthony Zerbe, Paul Koslo, Val Avery, Matt Clark, Mario Gallo and more. Also featured are a couple solid actresses in Cathy Lee Crosby and Joanna Cassidy in smaller roles. Though it's not a buddy movie in any way, it is nonetheless a truly electric thing to see Matthau and Dern play scenes together. Dern was in a remarkable place with his abilities and I think he only helps make Matthau's performance better as a result. Lou Gossett also brings things up a notch and does excellent work here as well. THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN is, in my mind, one of the great unsung police procedurals of the 1970s and well worth discovering for yourself. While it's not quite on the level with something like THE FRENCH CONNECTION, I find that it would be a great double feature with that film.
-Audio commentary by Lee Pfeiffer, Publisher of Cinema Retro Magazine along with Film Historians Eddy Friedfeld and Paul Scrabo.
-Interview with actor Paul Koslo.
Buy THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN on Blu-ray here: