Thursday, March 28, 2013

Detroit 9000 (1973)



          During his Pulp Fiction afterglow, Quentin Tarantino created a short-lived Miramax subsidiary called Rolling Thunder, which distributed handful of indie movies and re-released faves from Tarantino’s days as a grindhouse habitué. One of the obscure ’70s movies that benefited from Tarantino’s largesse was Detroit 9000, a racially charged action thriller set in the urban wasteland of the Motor City. Yet while the picture has a lively cast and solid action scenes, it’s strictly a run-of-the-mill endeavor, so Tarantino’s imprimatur should not unreasonably raise expectations. Yes, Detroit 9000 is relatively unique in the way it blends elements of blaxploitation and mainstream action movies, and yes, the movie flips a cliché by portraying a black guy as the book-smart half of a buddy-cop duo—but novel elements can’t compensate for the lack of a memorable story. Detroit 9000 begins with crooks stealing millions from a fundraiser for a black gubernatorial candidate. The cops assigned to the case are street-smart white dude Det. Danny Bassett (Alex Rocco) and college-educated African-American Sgt. Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes). Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t fully exploit the culture-clash potential of this dynamic, even though Rhodes and Rocco are both interesting performers.
          Rhodes, best known for his role on the TV adventure series Daktari (1966-1969), was a man of letters offscreen and, accordingly, brought eloquence and poise to his acting. Therefore, it’s a shame that Detroit 9000 give Rhodes one of his only leading roles, since he’s got nothing to do here but strive to retain his dignity while running through gutted urban locations and/or spewing bland dialogue. Rocco, a versatile character actor whose filmography includes everything from The Godfather (1972) to a string of sitcoms, provides a totally different flavor of authenticity, although he, too, is handicapped by an underwritten characterization. Among the supporting cast, Scatman Crothers does some energetic speechifying as a preacher; Vonetta McGee classes up a trite hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold role; and Herbert Jefferson Jr., later a regular on the original Battlestar Galactica series, shows up in full pimp regalia. The problem is that everyone involved in Detroit 9000, including second-rate blaxploitation director Arthur Marks, did better work elsewhere—so why this mediocre flick lingered in Tarantino’s memory is a mystery.

Detroit 9000: FUNKY

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