Code Red ventures into 1980s action with the ambitious if imperfect DTV-bound MACE.
Detective Malcolm Douglas (Ed Marinaro, TV’s HILL STREET BLUES) – nicknamed “Mace” because he sprayed mace down the throat of a suspect (and was busted down from lieutenant and from homicide to vice for the resulting bad publicity) – has been on the trail of a Puerto Rican heroin pusher for months. When his bust ends up with the man dead and his equally dead client turning out to be a government scientist with a Bulgarian diplomatic pouch, his chief (John Hancock, BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES) reassigns him to partner with Mark Caine (Darrell Larson, MEN AT WORK) investigating the deaths of four prostitutes from overdoses of the same high-grade black tar heroin. Despite Caine’s concerns of him starting a gang war, Mace decides to question Jamal (Isaac Hayes, TRUCK TURNER) who runs a protection racket but usually has his ears to the street. Caine, on the other hand, questions one of the victims’ roommates Denise (Donna Biscoe, DEAD BIRDS) who reveals that she and the other victims had all worked at a strip club called “Fool’s Paradise” and had all attended a secretive high-class party where some odd events occurred.
When Denise winds up dead soon after of an apparent overdose of the same type of heroin, Caine is convinced that she was actually murdered; and the coroner’s (William Sanderson, BLADE RUNNER) report soon bares that out. Caine hits upon the idea to send Mace undercover as a bouncer at the club where he meets Amber (Cassandra Gava, CONAN THE BARBARIAN) who sees through his cover and reveals more about the party when she learns of Denise’s death. The police department’s computer inquiry into a clue uttered by the dying scientist unfortunately brings the FBI in on the case, and they order Mace and Caine to cease their investigation as it interferes with a government investigation of a suspected information leak of intelligence to Bulgarian diplomat Androsov (Harry Goz, MOMMIE DEAREST). When one of her co-workers (who was also at the party) is blown up in Amber’s car, she contacts Mace promising to provide him with evidence as to the culprit; but she’s next on the hit list.
Released on VHS in America as DEAD AIM by Vestron Video (and laserdisc by Image Entertainment) in 1989, MACE has a plot crowded with incident and overstuffed with characters; or at least it feels that way with the number of recognizable faces getting not enough screen time: Corbin Bernsen is prominently credited for a role – and a nice close-up on the cover of the Vestron cover – that doesn’t exactly scream cameo or “special guest star” but L.A. LAW had not taken off yet, while THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER’s William Windom plays a variation on the cop killed not too long after mentioning his retirement plans (Hayes’ role, on the other hand, feels more like a guest spot). However familiar the plot, the script at least balances out the strengths of by-the-book Caine and by-his-own-rules Mace, and they have a very relatable reason for defying orders to continue the investigation to the detriment of their careers. Director/editor William VanDerKloot has a background as a cinematographer – although his subsequent directorial efforts have been video documentaries – and stages some stylish 1980s visuals (I suspect he was also the cinematographer since credited cinematographer John Davis is also listed as the film’s Steadicam operator and this is his only credit, and VanDerKloot reportedly operated a second camera himself during some of the action scenes) in the strip club. Of the obligatory sex scene, director VanDerKloot on the commentary track mentions his desire to film and edit it in the style of Nicolas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW (although it’s not nearly as explicit).
Unfortunately, VanDerKloot gets a bit carried away with the intercut sequences, robbing two shootout sequences of their immediacy; but the film remains reasonably compelling. That said, it is yet another example of why seemingly identikit direct to video action/thriller/horror films should not be immediately dismissed since many a first time director uses the opportunity to go all out and show what they can do (even if the result isn’t a satisfying whole). Several of the other supporting actors seem to have been culled from producer Michael A. Simpson’s earlier directorial efforts IMPURE THOUGHTS and FUNLAND (on both of which VanDerKloot served as both cinematographer and editor), while Carol Chambers – who plays another of the victims – was recruited from Simpson’s SLEEPAWAY CAMP II: UNHAPPY CAMPERS. Lynn Whitfield (JAWS III: THE REVENGE) pops up intermittently as a journalist who trades information to Caine for scoops.
Code Red’s single-layer disc utilizes what is likely the master for the tape and disc releases but features the original onscreen MACE title as it was released overseas (a Swedish tape bears the nonsensical title MACE: THE BATTLE OF LAS VEGAS). Dark scenes and the surveillance van scenes which are bathed in red lack the detail of a digital transfer, but the image is generally quite colorful and close-ups are sufficiently sharp. The fullscreen image appears to be completely open matte since vignetting caused by the camera’s matte box is evident on all corners of the frame with the wide angle lense used to capture long shots in Mace’s cramped real location apartment. Zooming in to 16:9 yields more elegant compositions but forfeits what sharpness there is present. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is sufficiently lively during the musical passages and the occasional gunshot or screeching tires.
The only extra is an audio commentary with director William VanDerKloot and associate producer/assistant director Toby Murphy. VanDerKloot mentions that the original title was THE SOFIA CONSPIRACY and DEAD AIM the distributor’s title, and that the budget was shoestring with much of the money going to getting a good cast. They recall the difficulties of the three week Atlanta then pre-permit shoot (two-thirds of which was at night and the rest during 100+ degree summer days), shooting stunts on the roofs of condemned buildings, and how a seasoned TV cast required very little rehearsal. They are both proud of the film’s stylish look and the locations they were able to wrangle (particularly The Academy of Medicine that served as the Bulgarian embassy). The track was recorded in 2009, suggesting that Code Red spent some time trying to track down better materials. Trailers for DEATH MACHINES, THE POLICE CONNECTION, JUST BEFORE DAWN, THE GIRLS NEXT DOOR, RAW FORCE and THE UNDERTAKER (as well as a start-up trailer for KING OF KUNG-FU) are also included. (Eric Cotenas)
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