So wrong and yet so right, Freebie and the Bean was one of the first buddy-cop movies, made before the genre even had a name, and it’s also one of the most politically incorrect studio pictures ever filmed: When I revisited the movie at a screening in Hollywood circa 2005, there were audible gasps from the audience at some of the movie’s outrageous race-baiting gags. Whereas most buddy-cop pictures undercut their nastiness by suggesting the heroes are secretly decent, Freebie and the Bean proves its badass integrity by focusing on policemen so dangerously unhinged they shouldn’t be loose on the streets, much less armed with guns and badges.
Freebie (James Caan) is an unapologetic racist willing to cause mass destruction in the pursuit of criminals, and Bean (Alan Arkin) is a tightly wound Mexican so preoccupied with the possibility of his wife’s infidelity that he’s constantly in the grips of volcanic emotional outbursts. These madmen prowl the streets of San Francisco as plainclothes detectives, and as the story unfolds, they become obsessed with nailing local criminal boss Red Meyers (Jack Kruschen), which propels them to even greater heights of irresponsibility.
Defying authority, destroying public property, and endangering bystanders wherever they go, Freebie and Bean barrel through San Francisco like tanks invading enemy territory, resulting in such crazed scenes as a chase that ends with a car zooming off a highway and landing inside an apartment building. While watching these and other jaw-dropping stunts, keep in mind Freebie and the Bean was made in the pre-CGI era, so real-life stuntmen performed the amazing feats; although the blending of real actors and stuntmen isn’t exactly seamless, the physical reality of the crazy action gives the movie tension.
Director Richard Rush, whose gonzo style helped him forge a singular filmography including the drug-culture classic Psych-Out (1968) and the perverse behind-the-scenes thriller The Stunt Man (1980), has a field day with Freebie and the Bean, orchestrating outlandishly offensive confrontations and staging spectacular tableaux of gleeful demolition. This is total balls-to-the-wall filmmaking, so while Freebie and the Bean is not a great movie in the conventional sense (the story isn’t memorable and very little of what happens feels credible), it’s still powerfully entertaining.
It helps a lot that both lead actors commit wholeheartedly to their performances: Caan is so cocksure and trigger-happy he makes Dirty Harry seem cautious by comparison, while Arkin is so paranoid and volatile he seems ready for an asylum. (Good luck ignoring the fact that Arkin and Valerie Harper, who plays his wife, are absurdly miscast as Mexicans.) Freebie and the Bean was a big enough hit during its initial release that it’s surprising a sequel was never made, although a (very) short-lived spinoff TV series appeared in 1980, with Tom Mason playing Freebie and Hector Elizondo playing Bean. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)
Freebie & the Bean: FUNKY