The Underrated: Vice Squad

I was originally going to do a whole run of sleaze films for The Vault. However, that’s been cancelled as the 2 I’ve seen so far, Angel and this spectacular film, aren’t schlocky enough. If anything the reverse is true, as both of them turned out to be fine little films that have, in my opinion, been unfairly forgotten. I’m going to do my best to remedy that.

Vice Squad opens in the most unpromising fashion with a lengthy “true story” disclaimer. The film-makers want to be 100% clear that while this isn’t a true story per se, everything we’re about to see is based on factual accounts from various Hollywood Vice Squad cops, hookers, pimps and junkies. This, in a strange sort of way, does the film a real disservice as what we have here is a damned taut thriller as well as a gritty expression of Urban misery.

Then it gets even worse with a god-awful theme song called Neon Slime sung by none other than Wings Hauser himself. It has to be said that at this stage Vice Squad looks exactly like schlock.

It isn’t schlock.

Vice Squad takes place over one evening. Season Hubley plays Princess, a somewhat unlikely looking hooker, and Vice Squad charts one evening in her life, but particularly the attempts by the cops to arrest the sociopathic Ramrod, who in one of the early scenes of the film beats a hooker called Ginger to death with a coat hanger.

This has a downright brilliant script. There’s an air of verisimilitude to the dialogue, particularly the hookers exchanges that suggests that the writers Sandy Howard and Kenneth Peters spent some time with real prostitutes in a non entertainment-industry capacity. All the characters in this film have memorable dialogue, particularly Princess, but there are some real zingers that leap to mind such as Princess’ response to the chauffeur of a creepy old guy that wanted to play dead while she had sex with him (in a wedding dress):

Chauffeur: Tomorrow’s my day off are you working?

Princess: I’m in church tomorrow praying for that sick old fuck

Or the scene where the prostitutes meet up and compare notes on their evening, and Princess laments that “All I’ve  had tonight are perverts, nobody wants straight sex any more”. To be fair, it isn’t just the hookers that get great dialogue. The police also have their share of it, trading smart-arsed quips and world-weary observations without missing a beat. There’s an easy rhythm to the dialogue that reeks of authenticity, and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that the script for Vice Squad truly sparkles. Although the film picks up in the middle of the action, we care about these characters, and this is done without annoying character touches, just through dialogue and exchanges here Princess points out the reality of money to Walsh.

Aside from the dialogue, however, there are many sequences in this film that also seem to be taken straight from real accounts. There’s a particularly difficult bit to watch with Princess being rutted by a convention attendee, who complains that she isn’t moving, before stealing a refund from her purse. It’s bleak watching, fluctuating between the look of utter boredom on her face as he pounds away and the sweaty expanse of his body. If you ever had any inclination towards prostitution, then this scene will put you right off.

Nevertheless, as good as the script is, the performances absolutely trump it. Season Hubley is magnificent as Princess, but really the film is dominated by Wings Hauser (a sentence I never thought I’d write) and his demented performance as the unhinged Ramrod. He’s genuinely frightening playing the crazed lunatic alternating between sleazy charm and increasingly extreme acts of violence. As the film mounts towards the bloody climax Ramrod loses what little control he has at the start, beating Coco (one of the prostitutes) to a bloody pulp, before trapping Princess, throttling her with a bullwhip and then breaking out his favourite tool of punishment. Wings really appears to enjoy beating on the women- there’s a horribly lascivious look on his face when he’s hurting people as if he’s relishing the sadism. It’s a scary performance, and one of the best of its type that I’ve seen in a police film.

Vice Squad is a film steeped in atmosphere. The vast majority of it takes place on the Hollywood streets, and there’s a depressing and sleazy aura surrounding the film. The director, Gary Sherman, cleverly only used two sets for the film, shooting the vast majority of it on location on the streets, and the various passers by look as if they are actually punters trawling for flesh in the red light district. There’s also a noirish feel to the film, all the colour on the streets comes from neon strip lights, and when a scene is fully lit, such as in the morgue, then the contrast couldn’t be more extreme. The girls and the other street scum live in the shadows, and when the lights are up it strips away all the little delusions that they use to comfort themselves. Their lives are horrid (at one point Princess and Walsh compare notes on who’s had the worst evening, before declaring it a dead heat) and no amount of fantasy or gallows humour can really disguise this.

Aside from being a gritty slice of urban realism, Vice Squad is also a very effective thriller. The race between the Cops and Ramrod to get to Princess is compelling and exciting stuff. The police are always one step behind the madman and although you do feel that they’ll turn up in the nick of time to rescue her this isn’t guaranteed as the film has made it very clear that bad things happen. I won’t spoil it, but it is an edge-of-the-seat ride and, as the film makes repeatedly apparent, this is real life and in real life the cavalry don’t ride over the hill in the nick of time. In real life, the hooker ends up a beaten and bloody mess breathing her life alone and unmissed in a gutter.

Overall, this is a superb film that is more than overdue rehabilitation. I’m sure the subsequent embarrassing exploits of Mr. Hauser have damaged the reputation of this early effort, but that doesn’t mean that this should be ignored. It’s a bitter film that is well aware of the utter misery of the lives it is showing and the writers avoided any fairytale reconciliation, instead going for truth and they mercilessly depict the futility of the war that Vice are waging- as Princess herself puts it “You can’t change the streets”.

Until next time,


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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

40 responses to “The Underrated: Vice Squad”

  1. Droid says :

    Sounds like a good one. Might put this on the ‘to watch’ list.

    Also, explain to me who Wings Hauser is and what he’s done.

  2. Stuntcock Mike says :

    The best story I’ve ever heard.

    Director Gary Sherman:
    “And the people that I heard from—you know, John Milius called me and said, “This is the best movie I’ve ever seen. I just watched the movie last night with Steve Spielberg and he loved it!” And Marty Scorsese, and Walter Hill and I became great friends after that movie, and Jim Bridges—he was really funny. You notice that I have a big gap in my life after VICE SQUAD. The movie made a lot of money. And I was in a very unhappy point in my life—my personal life was nowhere. And what happened with VICE SQUAD was that it was so controversial, a lot of people didn’t want to have anything to do with me. There was this attitude in Hollywood that I was a very angry person, and that I hated women. Neither of which were at all true. My feeling about VICE SQUAD was that I wanted the violence to be so ugly that it would put people off of violence. I wanted the violence against women to be so repulsive—I didn’t want it to be titillating or exciting. I wanted it to be gruesome and ugly. And I think I achieved that, but I think in a way it was misunderstood by a lot of people. There was actually a public argument [over the film] between Dawn Steel (former president of Paramount and Columbia Pictures) and Martin Scorsese at a Paramount dinner. They were talking about the Oscars that year and who should be nominated, and Marty said, “Well, the best film this year is a film that the Academy doesn’t have the guts to nominate for anything.” And Dawn Steel says, “What’s that?” And Marty says, “VICE SQUAD.” And Dawn starts screaming, “Are you kidding? That’s the most misogynistic—“ and they start screaming at each other. And (producer) John Fiedler has to jump in there and calm them down, because everyone’s looking at them. Fiedler called me the next day and said, “Boy, you wouldn’t believe what happened last night!”

  3. Stuntcock Mike says :

    Don’t want to pimp my own shit here, but here is Conti and myself doing a live chat of the film:

  4. Jarv says :

    You know what, it never occurred to me that this film was considered misogynistic. It most certainly is not.

    Ramrod is, but he’s a bastard and a real villain.

  5. Continentalop says :

    Jarv, great review. Welcome to the Vice Squad fan club.

    I would say besides Vice Squad and Angel, the only other must-see sleaze film is The Exterminator.

  6. Continentalop says :

    One little tidbit for you: Ramrod just doesn’t beat women with the coat hanger. The pimpstick is used so you can really hurt a hooker/woman where it counts in a pimp’s eyes.

    You fold the hanger so the sharp wire points face up and hold it together while you insert it inside a woman’s vaginia. Once in you release it so it springs apart and then pull it out, the sharp tips scrapping the inside of the vaginia. It damages the hookers “money maker”, preventing her from being able to have sex and make money on her own (thereby making her dependent on the pimp to take care of her). It hurts for months whenever she tries to have sex or even pee. The pimp is basically raping her with a coatwire.

    After hearing that I realized truly what a sick fuck character Ramrod is. And I also realized how truly evil pimps are.

    Pimpin’ ain’t easy, but it sure is better than being a fucking hooker.

    • Jarv says :

      I know- he used the pimpstick like that on Ginger- leading to “massive internal scarring” but he does whack Princess with it, as that’s a wee bit extreme to show.

  7. Bartleby says :

    the exterminator. I remember that one.

    Vice Squad is one of the very unfortunate ‘accidental’ viewings of my young life. It made me steer clear of any potentially gritty looking film for years.

    Later, when I saw it as an adult, I realize what they were going for and appreciate it more.

    Liking it is still too strong a word, but man, it does have balls.

  8. xiphos0311 says :

    good review for an excellent movie and an oddly funny one in places. Like when Princess is negotiating with some loser that wants a golden shower.

    The exterminator is bug fuck insane.

  9. Stuntcock Mike says :

    The Exterminator was pretty good but Glickenhaus’ later two films( The Soldier and Shakedown) are kickass.

  10. DocPazuzu says :

    I’ve always heard about this film but never got around to seeing it. This review sealed the deal. It’s now on the top of my “to get” list.

    The Exterminator is cool, but I do prefer The Soldier and especially Shakedown which is beyond awesome. Sam Elliot’s sleazeball cop with a heart of gold and Weller’s cynical, pussywhipped, crap lawyer are a great buddy team. Too bad there never was a sequel.

  11. jarv says :

    It’s US- I can’t believe that the version I saw has been cut

  12. koutchboom says :

    Sweet this guy did Dead & Buried and Raw Meat. I’ve been wanting to see both of those, may do a triple feature.

    • DocPazuzu says :

      Haven’t seen Raw Meat but Dead & Buried is great. It’s a fucked-up and weirdly disturbing movie, tons of creepy atmosphere and a nightmarish vibe.

      • Jarv says :

        I’ve seen both and both are excellent.

        Wolf wrote a nice review of Raw Meat:

        My only complaint about Dead and Buried is that the “twist” for want of a better expression is fucking obvious.

      • Continentalop says :

        I haven’t seen Dead & Buried since I was a wee little kid. Have to check it out again.

        Raw Meat, aka Death Line, was just a disappointment for me, excluding Donald Pleasance. The verbal confrontation between Pleasance and Christopher Lee was an honest-to-God great movie moment. Fucking magical.

  13. Tom_Bando says :

    I think of two things I’ve seen of Wings Hauser’s when I hear his name mentioned:

    * 1999’s the Insider, has a small but telling part as a belligerent red-faced lawyer screaming at Russell Crowe -he winds up being torn a new one by Bruce McGill. Really good stuff there.

    *1993’s Space Rangers(!), you know the Linda Hunt series back in the day? sorta Trek? He played a space-soldier of sorts in one episode. One of the first times I ID’d that face and went from there.

    • Continentalop says :

      I always think Vice Squad, then Soldier Story and Glory.

      • Stuntcock Mike says :

        I always think Vice Squad. Then I think how his son didn’t have the balls to take it to that level as the bad guy in 2Fast 2Furious. Nice spray-on tan though.

  14. M. Blitz says :

    I’ve never seen this movie, been a bit skeptical about it. Then again, I had the same feelings about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Its reputation preceded it, but it turned out to be, in my opinion and contrary to the controversy, very anti-misogynist and just a brilliant movie in how it was put together.

    This movie sounds a bit more extreme than Henry, though. Maybe one day.

    • Jarv says :

      This is less extreme than Henry. I honestly don’t know where it’s dreadful reputation came from.

    • Continentalop says :

      Less extreme than Henry in terms of violence, yes. But I think it is a much “sleazier” film because as much as I love the movie, at the end of the day I still consider it exploitation. Sure they are telling the truth about what life on the streets is like, but they are still doing it in a somewhat salacious manner for people’s entertainment.

      I still think it is a brilliant movie, but I can understand it turning some people off because of the subject matter.

      • Jarv says :

        Not the subject matter- any film about this is going to automatically be sleazy, I meant the actual violence- there’s nothing in it on the level of Henry.

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