Have you ever seen Dead Bang (1989)?
No, of course you haven’t. Because it’s not on Netflix, there’s no Blu-ray, and the only real way to stream it is through a janky transfer on Prime for $1.99. Sure, there are a handful of ancient Warner Bros. snap-case DVDs floating around on Amazon for roughly $25 a pop. Or, a triple feature pack with other WB shoot-‘em-up titles such as Action Jackson (1988) and The Last Boy Scout (1991) at roughly the same “out of print” price point. But nobody’s going to pony up that kind of coin for three under-seen action programmers on standard def.
Anyway, Dead Bang is one of the most subversive, destructive cop films in cinema history and also a pivotal picture in Don Johnson’s career. During the 1980s, Johnson was so committed to being Sonny Crockett — the stylish, genre-redefining Miami Vice dick he played for five seasons under the tutelage of producer Michael Mann and series mastermind Anthony Yerkovich — that the permanently coiffed performer barely had time to make any movies on the side. Imagine, if you will, an alternate reality where Johnson got to play Elliot Ness in Brian De Palma’s Chicago crime masterwork, The Untouchables (1987) and/or John McClane in John McTiernan’s all-timer terrorist thriller, Die Hard (1988). Those are the types of roles Johnson had to turn down, thanks to Vice’s grueling shooting schedule.
Smash cut to 1988: The Writer’s Guild of America goes on strike. Instead of lamenting the delay of his iconic series’ ultimate go ‘round, Johnson teams with brilliant craftsman John Frankenheimer (1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, 1986’s 52 Pick-Up) to play down-and-out alcoholic Jerry Beck, a cop so consistently drunk that he can’t even engage in a foot chase without vomiting on both himself and his suspect by the time it’s over. Based on the stories of real-life LA Sheriff’s homicide investigator Jerome Beck, Frankenheimer mixed the grueling, mundane reality of being a jaded, divorced civil servant with his trademark sense of macho anti-reality, as Beck becomes embroiled in a hyper-violent conspiracy revolving around a dead cop at Christmas and some high-caliber loving Neo-Nazis.
It’s Johnson’s Lethal Weapon (1987), only crazier and less successful. Yet beyond offering up some career-best Frankenheimer set pieces (seriously, wait until you see the one where Nazis put a turret gun in the hatchback of a station wagon), Johnson is actively working against his Crockett mold, while still embracing all the rapscallion masculinity that made him a household name. It’s a self-aware subversion of both archetype and performative persona that would come to define the actor’s best work from this point forward, packaged inside a movie that climaxes with a squad of black cops storming a white supremacist’s compound, Uzis blazing.
Now, Don Johnson wasn’t always pigeonholed as a police officer. He deftly navigated the landscape of 1970s network TV — landing parts on everything from Kung Fu to Police Story — while simultaneously starring in big-screen passion projects. Emphasis on the passion: Johnson’s very first role, in The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970), sees the actor attempting to establish an identity during the height of the sexual revolution. The Harrad Experiment (1973) finds Johnson playing sex-crazed Stanley, one of several coeds taking part in a Harvard social study meant to force its subjects to not only confront their own desires, but the very notion of societal standards.
Johnson’s strongest early role was also arguably his strangest, in L.Q. Jones’ post-apocalyptic nightmare, A Boy and His Dog (1975). Set in 2024 AD, and following the nuclear holocaust of World War IV (we skipped III), Johnson plays Vic, a wandering 18-year-old rapist with a telepathic connection to his super-smart shaggy pooch (voiced by Tim McIntire) who sniffs out fresh lays for his master to force himself upon. Adapting Harlan Ellison’s story of the same name, Jones borrows a page from his good buddy Sam Peckinpah and upends Johnson’s All-American Midwestern image, taking him back to being nothing more than a horny “Pig Whisperer” on a Heartland farm: the son of a hairdresser and a hog-tender who just happened to escape the end of the world, only to be guided (as most men are) by his dick.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Johnson’s performance is how naturally he responds to the movie’s increasingly bizarre developments. Whether it be the secret underground society, populated by procreation-starved, pancake-makeup wearing fascists in overalls or the brutish robots who serve them, Johnson owns a world-weariness that tells you much more about his character than any monologue ever could. Unfortunately, no other filmmakers during the 1970s and early 1980s could tap into that same sense of earned life experience, as drive-in pictures like the loose drag-racing sequel Return to Macon County (1975) or the swamp-rat comedy Soggy Bottom, U.S.A. (1981) typecast Johnson as a Southern stereotype: the blonde Burt Reynolds, only without the same sense of career-driving vanity*.
Where the 1980s saw Johnson helping to remold the onscreen image of officers into something fantastically “cool” during the 1990s, he became a recurring player in various genre riffs, starting with Dennis Hopper’s wholly overcooked neo noir, The Hot Spot (1990). Sidney Lumet cast him as a deranged serial black widower opposite sexy attorney Rebecca De Mornay in the Larry Cohen-penned, Guilty as Sin (1993), before Roland Joffé recruited the hunk to be bad boy brother Ben in the idiosyncratic femme fatale lark, Goodnight Lover (1998). It was a weird decade, as Johnson’s big-screen career sputtered somewhat, never quite taking off into the marquee idol status the previous epoch of televised eminence ostensibly promised.
Fortunately, the 1990s also delivered Johnson’s more conservative fan base their new favorite hero in Nash Bridges, as future Lost EP Carlton Cuse helped mint a prime-time icon in the wise-ass San Francisco police inspector. Running on CBS for 122 highly rated episodes, Nash is easily Johnson’s most widely renowned character behind Sonny Crockett, as all the detective-novel clichés are back — bad marriages, a strained home life, a knack for cracking cases right at the last minute — but are again made palatable thanks to the actor’s genuine, pearly smile. Partnered with Cheech Marin’s mugging Inspector Joe Dominguez, the duo cruised the Bay Area in Bridges’ canary yellow Hemi Barracuda, and it seemed as if Johnson was perfectly content embracing his place in the pop-culture lexicon as America’s consummate cop.
Per usual, Quentin Tarantino was ahead of the curve, and freed Johnson from his boob-tube cage by casting him in his revisionist slavery Western, Django Unchained (2012). One of the early stops on deadly dentist Dr. Schultz’s (Christoph Waltz) and indentured avenger Django’s (Jamie Foxx) road to revenge, Johnson’s Big Daddy rules over his Tennessee plantation with the disposition of a demented Colonel Sanders. The good ol’ days of Sonny Crockett are gone completely: When the actor first appears, he’s practically unrecognizable, hissing racial slurs and radiating an aura of white atrocity. Nevertheless, the performance fits perfectly with characters like Jerry Beck, as he’s helping QT take the piss out of the myth of the Southern Gentleman. Because offering up all those inviting trays of sweet tea and bourbon is the Devil Himself, who will break another human being if he believes they haven’t put in the work he paid for at auction.
For Johnson, it’s often all about what that gorgeous exterior hides. Take his character in Rian Johnson’s recent Agatha Christie riff, Knives Out (2019), for example. Like many of the diabolical WASPs who dominate that twisty, talky mystery, Richard Drysdale shows up to the sprawling estate of his late father-in-law, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), sporting a cozy sweater and an air of faux politeness. All the while, he attempts to conceal his own motive for possibly murdering the wealthy novelist. But as ace private investigator and fellow stoic southerner Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) undoes each strand of the Thrombey children’s tangled quilt of lies and half-truths, their own deep-seated prejudices are revealed, as well.
Suddenly, the MAGA rhetoric Richard was spouting at Harlan’s funeral becomes flesh and blood, as he’s harassing the deceased writer’s angelic caretaker (Ana de Armas) along with the rest of his brood, hatching schemes to have her “illegal” mother deported if she doesn’t fork over the inheritance the Thrombeys believe to be theirs by blood. It’s a none-too-subtle metaphor for the State of Trump’s America, brought to life by movie stars (Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Chris Evans) we usually identify with as our big screen heroes/heroines. Your mileage will definitely vary, depending on political affiliation (this humble critic admittedly found it to be a bit much), yet there’s no denying that Richard’s just another jaggedly rebellious piece to the complex puzzle that is Don Johnson’s career.
The pitch-black flip side to Johnson’s lawman persona re-emerged in Cold in July (2014) and S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)**. July’s Jim Bob Luke is a Houston private eye who often seems larger than life, cruising in a Cadillac (nicknamed “red bitch”). Meanwhile, Brawl showcases Johnson at his most sadistic, portraying a tyrannical warden who displays no mercy toward Vince Vaughn’s long-suffering family man-cum-drug dealer, Bradley Thomas.
HBO and Damon Lindelof’s acclaimed Watchmen sequel brought Don Johnson’s modern comeback full circle, as the actor slips into the white Stetson of Tulsa Chief of Police, Judd Crawford, and becomes the show’s MacGuffin after episode one. Belting out showtunes and saving lives with an equal amount of effortlessness, it can’t be a coincidence that Lindelof & Co. cast the guy who was still America’s top TV cop the same year the inaugural installment of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal superhero text was unleashed by DC Comics.
One final key picture to decoding Johnson’s long-lasting appeal (that honestly may come as a surprise to the REBELLER readership) is Book Club (2018). Yes, that surprise feel-good hit with aging moms everywhere, in which a bunch of New Hollywood/’80s superstars (Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen) sit around and get super randy after reading Fifty Shades of Grey. But Book Club also features the lifer law dog at his sexiest, while simultaneously playing as a sort of career metatext.
For Viv (Fonda), Johnson’s divorced entrepreneur, Arthur, is the proverbial “one who got away.” Via a collection of manipulated photos (which showcase both Fonda and Johnson during their prime), we learn that Arthur proposed to Viv with a milkshake, and upon being rejected, quickly vanished from her life. Cut to 40 years later, and the suave businessman wanders into the lobby of his former flame’s swank hotel. You already know where this is going, but Johnson’s greatness is embodied by what he casually represents: how a Tiger Beat-ready heartthrob can naturally age into a grizzled silver fox, gracefully owning the years he’s lived since they last saw each other.
It’s a terrific turn in an otherwise mundane Nancy Meyers clone, with Johnson playing on preconceived notions regarding his work. Suddenly, he’s the platonic ideal of the American hero, who survived Vietnam in Cease Fire (1985), kept the streets safe in his countless popular cop dramas, yet also retained the dangerous charisma from his collection of rogue villains. Every line on his tanned face tells a different story, while his blue eyes own an existential tiredness that are nevertheless sharp, aware, and ready to draw down should the war come to him. And until the sun sets in the West, Johnson will continue to own this unique niche in the history of popular cinema, as he’s one of the last hard heartthrobs.
*Though any profile of Johnson would feel wholly incomplete without at least a mention of Heartbeat (1987), the strange, extended-narrative HBO-premiering music video for his eponymous hit album, wherein Johnson plays a dying documentary filmmaker reflecting on his own life. It’s a spectacle to behold if you can snag a copy of the VHS tape.
**Not to mention Johnson’s single scene-stealing appearance in Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete (2019), where he’s graduated to Chief and forced to reprimand Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson’s loose-cannon cops after they apply a little too much iron to a suspect’s cabeza.
Jacob Knight is a film writer based in Austin, Texas whose work has appeared in several publications and who has spent more time watching action and exploitation movies than any human being probably should.