The Seven-Ups

Producer Philip D’Antoni gave us three kick-ass cop movies with car chases- Bullitt, The French Connection, and the lesser known The Seven-Ups. About a secret squad of elite police so named because the crooks they catch are guaranteed to be up for 7 or more years in prison, it stars Roy Scheider as the de facto leader of the squad. Reprising his role as Buddy Russo from French Connection, this is his turn to shine. And while this movie is not as groundbreaking as the story of Popeye Doyle, and is directed by D’Antoni himself, it is still one of the best cop movies of the ’70s.
The movie begins with a comic touch- Buddy and his crew are undercover at an antique shop that serves as a drug drop. They distract the owner by clumsily destroying half of the store through slapstick and pratfalls, until uniformed cops come to break things up, and find the dope. It’s a bit silly and uncharacteristic from the rest of the film’s gritty realism, so bear with it, it’s over quick. The real plot involves a pair of crooks who rob and kidnap mobsters for ransom- risky business. This puts the mob on edge, and when they find an undercover cop wearing a wire, they beat him up and think he’s one of the crooks, so they bring him in the trunk to try for a trade, but it all goes pear-shaped.
And when you kill one of the Seven-Ups, you’re gonna get hit back hard. Today, we frown upon things like torturing suspects in their hospital beds by squeezing their oxygen tubes, or breaking into a mob boss’s home and holding a shard of glass to his wife’s throat to make him talk. But in the ’70s, that was edgy and innovative police work! It’s a long way from picking your feet in Poughkeepsie, but this movie is all about the action sequences, and you can easily overlook its faults for how good they are.
The hits on the mob are classic- they get one guy as he goes through a car wash, by locking his suicide doors closed with handcuffs so they can crowbar the trunk open and take the cash, without returning the hostage. But once the Seven-Ups get involved these tough crooks have met their match. Scheider gets in a car chase across uptown Manhattan, including a blistering run up Riverside Drive to the George Washington Bridge. They somehow end up across the Tappan Zee again, but we’ll forgive the geography errors. There’s a great sequence where the bad guys hide behind a bus with shotguns ready, and a great crash under a flatbed. The chase is as lively as those of French Connection and Bullitt, but the movie itself isn’t as groundbreaking.

As much as I love Roy Scheider, the script is more of a standard, if gritty thriller. The stunning ending to French Connection and Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, or Steve McQueen’s ultra-cool hip cop and the insane speeds he took that Mustang 390GT too simply overshadow this solid NYPD crime film. I must say that it is a lot better than French Connection II however. Frankenheimer should have stuck to his strengths. If you enjoy ’70s crime films, this is one of the forgotten classics, and is worth hunting down. It’s the only film D’Antoni directed, and while he is a bit indulgent in the opening sequence, once we get to the meat of the story he shows promise. We sould use him today, as car movies are pretty lame these days.

J.A.F.O. – Blue Thunder still rocks.

Just Another Fucking Observer.

In fact, with the amount of movies I’ve been watching, that would be a great name for this blog. This 80’s action classic pops up on cable every so often, but I hadn’t watched it all the way through in many years. It’s actually a lot better than I remember, sort of a mix of late 70’s anti-government paranoia and well, a helicopter action movie. Name a helicopter movie that isn’t Blue Thunder. Even the guys over at The Internet Helicopter Movie Database concede that it is the ultimate helicopter movie, despite cataloging every appearance of a chopper on film. Fire Birds is another chopper-centric movie, but from what I hear it makes Navy Seals look like Saving Private Ryan.

This watch, is your birthright…

Roy Scheider makes anything good; if he’d been in the short-lived Blue Thunder TV show, we’d have never watched Airwolf. And this movie is no exception. Here he’s Frank Murphy, a police chopper pilot in Los Angeles, patrolling the city to assist the cops on the ground. When we first meet him, he’s timing himself on a digital watch. He’s becoming slightly unhinged, affected by his service in Vietnam, and begrudgingly accepts a new ride-along partner, played with innocent charm by Daniel Stern. He grouses a bit at the intrusion into his chopper, but it’s clear that he likes the company. Not only is he saddled with the Vietnam Vet cliche, but he’s also shouldering the divorced cop one, so any help he can get shouldering the burden is greatly appreciated.

Proper use of surveillance choppers.

Stern plays Officer Richard Lymangood, but we only know him as Jafo. They even give him a J.A.F.O. cap. He and Frank patrol the city, calling in suspicious behavior and following suspects with their spotlight. Frank takes a liking to him, and takes him to a favorite spot where they can peep in an actress’s window as she does yoga in the nude. While they’re admirng her flexibility, a robbery goes bad in another part of town; a councilwoman is murdered for her briefcase, but they get there in time to assist in the capture of one of the suspects. Another, played by skeezy character actor Anthony James (last seen as the brothel keeper in Unforgiven) gets away, but they spot him and his car.

Roy, this is too much badassery for one film.

They get chewed out by the Captain, a perfectly cast Warren Oates, another favorite actor of mine who uplifts any movie he’s in. This movie benefits greatly from the presence of Scheider, Oates, and finally Malcolm McDowell as Colonel F.E. Cochrane, which we’re told stands for “Fuck Everybody.” He’s Murphy’s nemesis from his Vietnam days, responsible for his flashbacks. He’s an ice cold operator who gets to test out the new police chopper, dubbed “Blue Thunder” at a demonstration in the desert.

Get to da choppa!

The new chopper is the stereotypical “black dragonfly” swooshing over the mock city, armed with a minigun pod on the front linked to the pilot’s helmet. Wherever he looks, the cannon follows. I’m pretty sure this is the first minigun in an action movie, before Jesse Ventura got to lug one around in Predator. Cochrane gets to show off the chopper’s abilities in picking out terrorists from the crowd, but as Murphy puts it, a lot of the civilian dummies get blown up too. He’s told that 10% civilian casualties is “acceptable,” unless of course, you’re one of the civilians.

I just realized I’m British and was drafted by the U.S. Army!

Later on he and JAFO get to fly in Blue Thunder’s first test on the streets, and play with all its gadgets. It seems tailored for covert surveillance, with a whisper mode for the rotors, telescopic microphones to pick up conversations, and infrared sensors for viewing people through walls. It also records everything to a tape deck in the belly. Of course Murphy immediately spies on a cop’s house and records his sexual shortcomings; then later, they find Cochrane meeting with some politicians, hatching a nefarious plot called T.H.O.R., or Tactical Helicopter Offensive Response. The movie does love its acronyms. THOR is designed to put down riots, and that pesky councilwoman who got murdered was against the project.

Roy’s thousand yard stare.

But whoops, Cochrane happens to look out the window and sees the silent helicopter. JAFO wants to deliver the tape to a guy he knows at a TV station, but the bad guys have other plans. Things never bode well for the sidekick in these movies. The way he gets it was pretty memorable, I used to think about it as a kid riding my bike. This of course pushes Murphy over that razor edge he’s been riding, and he steals the chopper to help his ex-wife deliver the tape. Her crazy driving habits were established earlier, and she gets a chance to drive her little Maverick (or Vega, or Monza- one of those bug-eyed late-70’s coupes) like a maniac around L.A. with Scheider giving air support.

Like the end of Magnolia except with KFC

The fabled minigun is adept at cutting cop cars in half, so they send F-16’s after him with heat-seeking missiles. But they’re not smart enough for wily Murphy, who knows how to mask his heat signature with clever stuff like a barbecued chicken stand, and the sun’s reflection on a skyscraper. Only after the poor Angelenos are showered with debris and dead chickens do they send in Cochrane with an attack chopper to put him down. The battles between Blue Thunder and the police choppers are damn good to this day. About the only chopper scene more impressive is in Terminator 2 when the T-1000 skims under a highway overpass with only a few feet to spare. They play hide-and-seek between buildings, chase each other through industrial areas, and perform the requisite chase down the storm drains of Los Angeles.

Hardcore chopper porn

Frank Murphy goes into the books as a bad-ass the same caliber as Snake Plissken for sticking it to the man. The movie tries to generate some anti-government paranoia like classics such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor but it’s pretty vaguely done. The movie is really chopper porn and succeeds spectacularly in that regard. It probably spawned tons of “black helicopter” nightmares among the tinfoil set, but there are many better and easier ways to spy on people. Blue Thunder does have a bit of “Knight Boat” syndrome (there’s always a canal, or an isthmus, or a lagoon) where things inconvenient for a helicopter are still tasked to it, like shooting terrorists off a school bus with a Gatling cannon. Snipers, anyone?

Pilot to copilot: Boo.

LAPD didn’t want their name mentioned, so they call the chopper guys “Astro Division” which sounded pretty cool in ’82. The movie doesn’t have that hard an 80’s vibe except for the computer graphics. They keep a late-70’s feel, from the grimy streets full of crime to the bureaucratic oppression in brown suits as the enemy. It holds up very well today, and could be remade as an Enemy of the State type thriller. Though nowadays they wouldn’t have the balls to give Murphy Gulf War syndrome, and the bad guys would be corporate instead of creeping governmental power.

Bonus boobies.

The Winter of Frankie Machine

I recently finished this short novel by Don Winslow and I was duly impressed. Take the humor of the Sopranos, the gritty crime drama of Thief, and move it all to the fresh landscape of San Diego, which hasn’t been played out as a mob city. Frankie Machianno is an old surfer dude who runs the pier’s bait shop, and has a seafood business among the local restaurants. While not exactly a pillar of the community, he’s a well-liked member of it.

But in another life, he was Frankie Machine, a sniper in Vietnam and a legendary hitter for the mob. And as these stories go, someone now wants him dead. But they should have let sleeping dogs lie…

It was a great quick read, a cut above most thrillers and quite funny at times. Winslow has the Italian-American life and lingo down pat, from agita to the obsession over sauce and other little touches of authenticity. It reminded me a bit of older Elmore Leonard, because Frankie Machine is one resourceful old sonofabitch; but he’s no Johnny Sixpack up against the mob, he’s one of their own, and one of the best. A clever hit gets put out on him, and he has to delve into his past to find out why. I don’t want to give away the twists and turns, which are surprises without being too outlandish.

Overall, it’s a gripping thriller with enough character and background to keep it from being one of those “airport paperbacks” that you buzz through and forget about the next day. In fact, it’s being made into a movie next year by Michael Mann, with Bobby DeNiro playing the lead. When I read it, I thought of Ed Harris as the lead, but soon the late Roy Scheider seemed perfect for it. Resurrection being beyond the skills of modern science, Bobby D will do a decent job. Mike Pella, Frankie’s buddy from the old days, is so easily imagined as Joe Pesci that I hope the two get together again, though it’s probably not the best idea.

Originally Marty Scorsese was attached to direct.

I imagine the surfing will be cut out of the movie, unless DeNiro goes back to his old ways of getting into character and learns how to surf a longboard. It’s not an integral part of the tale, but it is part of what makes Frankie Machine a fresh and interesting character. We all know East Coast mob guys with a big tripe and Cadillac. Let’s have an old surfer dude this time. We can forgive Bobby his accent, but I hope he drops it for a California one. He did it for Cape Fear, though I’m afraid that was a long time ago. If Michael Mann can whip a fine performance out of him again, we’ll have a great crime movie to watch next year. In fact, if he looks like he did in that picture, it would be perfect.

R.I.P. Roy Scheider, from J.A.F.O.

We’re gonna need a bigger eulogy.

One of my loudmouth coworkers, who’s louder than I am, if you can believe it (he’s The Mouth from the South, I’m just “that scary knife guy”) was babbling about JAFOs and Blue Thunder, when I overheard that actor Roy Scheider had passed from this green Earth into the great cinematic beyond. Now Mr. Scheider will probably always be remembered as Chief Brody, the Amity policeman who had to deal with the killer shark in Jaws. But I’d like to go over some of his lesser known roles that are quite memorable and show off Roy’s acting chops and his legacy as an underrated and underutilized character and lead actor.

Blue Thunder (1983)

This is from whence the aforementioned “JAFO” term comes from. It’s what Scheider, as chopper pilot Frank Murphy, calls his ride-alongs. Just Another Fucking Observer. When you’re 12, as I was when I saw it, that is especially clever and you start calling your classmates in Mr. Olson’s 6th grade class that, and he is none the wiser. Despite spawning Airwolf, this movie was quite good for the time as a spectacular action flick with some of the best helicopter stunts until Terminator 2 had one skim under a highway overpass with inches to spare. The premise is that Scheider has to test out a new police surveillance chopper with a bunch of new goodies and a mini-gun cannon for riot control. He and his JAFO buddy overhear something they shouldn’t, and their superiors have to take them down, thus leading to a chopper duel vs. fighter jets above L.A. Not only does it deliver top-notch action, it also provides poignant commentary on the nature of government surveillance of the populace. What more could you want? Oh, it also has Warren Oates, another underutilized bad-ass who will be covered in a future blog entry.

The Seven-Ups (1973)

Sort-of an unofficial sequel to The French Connection, this stars Scheider as a cop on the bunco squad in NYC. No longer playing second banana to Gene Hackman, this lesser-known movie has a car chase as good if not better than the one in the bigger film. It’s not currently on DVD, but sometimes shows up on cable, and is worth your while for a good cop movie from the 70’s with some great shots of New York City during that period, with a Chevy Nova tearing ass around town chasing bad guys. Scheider is affable and charming as usual, with his reassuring voice and sly smile.

Marathon Man (1976)

This is usually thought of as a Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier film, but people forget that the entire plot is driven by Roy, as the murdered CIA agent and brother of li’l Dusty. His role is small but important, and his death scene is as touching as being stabbed by a white-haired Nazi with a sleeve dagger can be.

2010: the Year We Make Contact (1984)

Of course this isn’t as good as the original film, Kubrick’s psychedelic masterpiece of monoliths, man-apes, and murderous machines. But as sequels go, it’s pretty damn good. Roy is Dr. Heywood Floyd, one of the best-named astronauts in cinema. He also gets to say the immortal line, “My God, it’s full of stars!” the best line of the movie.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Roy only narrates this movie, about a gay samurai novelist who kills himself after trying to return the Japanese government back to a time when the warrior class was appreciated, so he could be worshiped for his finely sculpted abs. Okay, it’s slightly more complicated than that- I suggest following the link for Roger Ebert’s review. He has dubbed it one of his Great Movies, and Roy’s black velvet voice must certainly have figured into his choice. I’ve actually seen this movie, and it is quite good, as far as gay samurai movies go.

Naked Lunch (1991)

If you thought the previous movie was the weirdest Mr. Scheider played in, you’d be wrong. This film of William S. Burrough’s infamous drug-addled novel, directed by David Cronenberg, tops the list. Who better to direct it? If all you’ve seen of Cronenberg is Eastern Promises or A History of Violence, I suggest you rent eXistenZ and most importantly, Videodrome. Roy manages to fit right in as the mysterious Dr. Benway, the purveyor of mugwump jism, the addictive substance that also serves as the muse for wayward writers. He was as good at playing the villain as he was as the shark-exploding lead.

All That Jazz (1979)
Joking aside, this is probably Roy Scheider’s best acting role. In an autobiographical film by hedonistic choreographer Bob Fosse, he plays the lead and dances his way through a life of cocaine and poontang. I must say that seeing this as a child on HBO I was scarred for life, in the best way possible. Seeing Chief Brody snort coke and dance in a leotard was more than my little eyes could bear. But I forgave him for it, and after seeing Cabaret, I know it was all Bob Fosse’s fault.

So there ends my brief eulogy to Roy Scheider, who burst onto the movie scene in the 70’s during a time of auteurs and daring Hollywood films, and died with two of the latest items on his résumé being direct-to-video Dracula movies. There’s hope to recharge his legacy, as his last two projects, Dark Honeymoon and Iron Cross, sound interesting. Better than SeaQuest, at least. Rest in Peace. You have shined so very brightly, Roy.

I’m putting Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s remake of the excellent film Wages of Fear, at the top of my NetFlix queue in honor of your unfortunate passing.