Sunday, January 31, 2016

STREET CORNER JUSTICE (1996)



Rated R
Running time: 102 min.

Throughout the history of film, we have learned some valuable lessons from the big screen. Lessons such as having compassion for others; or love thy neighbor; or even that drugs are bad. Another valuable lesson film has taught us is that a little vigilante justice is good for the soul. It gives one a catharsis that they could never find from a bottle. Beating the ever-loving piss out of some punk can provide relief from pent-up frustrations from battling a justice system that is not getting the job done. This is the lesson learned in Street Corner Justice, which is a film that should be played at all neighborhood watch meetings in the greater Los Angeles area.

Marc Singer stars as the aptly-named Mike Justus, a Pittsburgh cop who has just been forced into retirement for breaking the rules and causing a headache for his boss and the D.A.'s office. Mike is a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and puts the hat on when he's in bad-ass cop mode. The movie begins with Mike chasing down a rapist, played by Clint Howard. Now, normally when we see Clint Howard, we expect some type of light-hearted moment, but here he is partaking in a surprisingly brutal rape scene in a dumpster. Mike chases our goofy-looking rapist to a rooftop, where he is caught on camera beating the ever-loving piss out of Clint. This lands him in hot water for using excessive force, and he cuts a deal to take his retirement benefits. He moves to Los Angeles, where he has plans on selling the home he inherited from his aunt, buying an RV and travelling cross country. This is established in a scene where he's in a bar with his cop buddy with Mike pulling out the photo of the house, which for some reason he carries with him everywhere he goes, including local drinking establishments. He may be a bad ass, but he is also very wistful.

Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Mike finds that his aunt's house has been torn up and grafitti-tagged and is not very marketable. Turns out that the neighborhood has gone to shit because of a gang problem. He decides to stay a while to fix the place up. There is a strip mall nearby that has a donut shop run by a Korean guy, who is played by the legendary b-movie stock Asian character actor Soon Tek Oh. There is also a video store (I raise my glass to you, old buddy) that is run by Jenny, played by Kim Lankford. Jenny immediately sees Mike and is lovestruck. You can tell by the way she looks at him......and looks at him some more....and walks past him and turns around to look at him again....and gives him a long look while holding open the door to her business. She and Mike start a relationship and I already feel sorry for him because she is the type that shows up unannounced with groceries and an already lit candle. Mike, buddy, if I could have given you advice in 1996, I would have told you to run because she has the makings of a crazy stalker. They have a scene together at Mike's house where they enjoy some wine, some country music (sung by Lankford herself) and about three dozen lit candles. It probably took them longer to light the candles than it did to drink the entire bottle of wine. As I digress, the strip mall is constantly harassed by gang members, including one guy who takes a piss on some Korean-made cupcakes. The neighborhood business people form a neighborhood watch group, complete with orange windbreakers and picket signs. The group includes priest Father Brophy, played by none other than Bryan Cranston, who was still known mainly for dentist Tim Whatley on Seinfeld at this point, with Walter White merely a gleam in his eye. Mike has a couple run-ins with gang members along the way, showing his badassery and making him a target of graffiti and drive-bys.

One night, the watch group runs afoul of the gang at a playground and all hell breaks loose. Mayhem on the monkey bars! Tyranny at the tire swing! Slaughter down the slide! Jenny gets knocked upside the head with a baseball bat in another unexpectedly brutal scene. She's going to be okay, folks, but it's enough to get Mike involved after he was initially reluctant to take part. Mike decides he needs help, so he calls in a few favors and forms a gang of his own with a couple of ex-cons who he helped get reduced sentences in the past. Willie is played by Beverly Leech of Mathnet fame and Angel is played by Tony "Tiny" Lister, Jr. Lister was a gem in this role, as a born-again Christian whose love for Jesus created some very funny moments that this movie sorely needed at times. Mike and his crew decide that they need to rob these gangs to get back at them, a plan that is not fully explained. This causes problems between Mike and the local police, led by Sgt. Ryan Freeborn, played by another b-movie stalwart, Steve Railsback. As the plot moves along, Railsback's character takes predictable turns. If you have watched enough action films, you know what's up sooner rather than later. Eventually, we get our hero headed to the nearest factory/warehouse for the inevitable showdown with the bad guys.

The plot theme of vigilante justice is always serviceable for this type of film. It called to mind other classics such as The Exterminator and Exterminator 2, minus the flame thrower, of course. The tone of the film wavered between serious and silly. I had the sense of the movie taking itself a little too seriously at times, but as the movie built steam, that tapered off. There was some humor, as mentioned, when Lister joined the fray, so kudos to him for having fun with his role. The character of Willie confused me a little as she started off as a tough-as-nails ballbreaker before turning into a self-pitying drunk. I thought Singer played a good tough cop with no fear, but then when it came time to be Boyfriend Mike in scenes with Lankford, it was near cringe-worthy. I guess you could consider that a bonus, since we're working with a b-movie scale here. The director was Chuck Bail, who helmed a couple of key blaxploitation films in the 70's, like Black Samson and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold. Then he directed a few episodes of Baywatch Nights, which helped prepare him for this film. Standard "film it and move on" direction here, nothing flashy at all. You can tell that the budget went toward stocking the cast with well-known genre actors and nothing else. 

Street Corner Justice is a solid action film that doesn't do much to stand out among a packed crowd. It hits all the notes you would expect, with small doses of intentional humor that work. There are also moments of unintentional humor that you would expect to find here. Predictable, yes; but you can still enjoy predictable.

Score: 3/5





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