One of the first examples of what later became known as the “buddy cop” subgenre, Busting exemplifies the subgenre’s virtues and weaknesses. When buddy-cop flicks ruled the box office in the ’80s, for instance, movies like Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs. (1982) alternated wildly between broad humor and brutal violence. That same tendency is on display throughout Busting, which features a pair of scruffy vice cops determined to take down an arrogant crime lord who lubricates his operation with payoffs to powerful city officials. In some scenes, Busting feels like an out-and-out comedy, with leading players Robert Blake and Elliot Gould trading amusingly cynical quips. Yet in other scenes, Busting is a full-on action thriller, featuring intense shootouts and scary car chases. The piece doesn’t hang together perfectly, and the story meanders a bit in the middle, but Busting is nonetheless fascinating as a rough draft for a type of movie that soon became ubiquitous.
Like Richard Rush’s outrageous Freebie and the Bean, which was released almost a year after Busting, writer-director Peter Hyams’ Busting presents cops who disrespect authority as much as the crooks they pursue. Detectives Farrel (Blake) and Keneely (Gould) are veteran LAPD officers tired of pinching perverts and prostitutes only to see the worst offenders set free because underworld boss Carl Rizzo (Allen Garfield) has so much pull downtown. So even though the cops know Rizzo is protected on every level, they go after him anyway, harassing his nightclubs, stalking him while he drives around town, and waiting for the day they catch him making a connection with his drug supplier.
Throughout the first hour of the movie, this is all quite entertaining, because Gould’s world-weary routine is delightful. “We could be good bad guys,” he opines at one point. “Pays better. Better hours. More cooperation from the police.” Blake, later famous as TV’s Baretta (and as an alleged felon in private life), ratchets down his signature intensity, and he’s surprisingly effective as a straight man. Garfield is suitably slimy, especially in a long scene when the cops get in Rizzo’s face during a boxing match.
The movie goes dark around the one-hour mark, losing a bit of its liveliness as it speeds toward an unsatisfying conclusion—yet even when it’s tonally awkward, Busting is impressive to watch. Hyams, a former photographer who closely supervises the look of his films, gives Busting a grimy feel with lots of wide shots filled with atmospheric detail; the only recurring visual hiccup is a device of extremely wide dolly shots for which the camera is positioned so far ahead of the actors that the camera rounds corners before the talent, leaving empty frames onscreen for long beats. Given how flatly many ’70s crime films were shot, however, noting that Busting has overly ambitious imagery is a compliment instead of a criticism. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)