27 May 2013

The Wild Pair

United States - 1987
Director - Beau Bridges
Media Home Entertainment, 1988, VHS
Run Time -1 hour, 29 minutes

As a late entry into the 80’s buddy-cop cycle that was turned up to 11 by one Eddie Murphy, The Wild Pair is yet another white-cop/black-cop combo, but it is also another local-cop/federal-cop pairing. Yet neither of these “ironies” is mined for its humor. Baby-faced Beau Bridges plays FBI agent Joe Jennings with enough suave confidence and pig-headdedness, and Bubba Smith plays short-fused Narc Benny Avalon with sufficient pathos to be convincing, but given that by this late date the context has been standardized, it’s not surprising that their performances are also comfortably standard. Together they foil a criminal endeavor perpetrated by a fairly run-of-the-mill array of semi-inept punks and nominally-sinister kingpins and all ends more-or-less happily. As a result, The Wild Pair is both predictable and unsensationally flat, an otherwise forgettable flare-up of Action’s most chronic case of sub-generic herpes.

And yet, beneath this placid, run of the mill surface is a not so subtle current of transgression just waiting to drag you under. The Wild Pair could have gone the way Hellbound  and Cop and ½ eventually did (following precedent), making Benny into a Jim Crow stereotype to compensate for the film’s flaccid storyline. But Benny is not the comic relief to Joe's more serious (and hence we are led to surmise more important and worthy of our identification) quest/project. His physicality, in it's unusualness (to the film) is certainly hard to ignore, and (as with obesity, shortness, boobs etc.) simply must be exploited by the conventions of low comedy (Police Academy) reliant on physical idiosyncrasy for narrative engagement. What humor there is in The Wild Pair (and there aint much) is dependent on Smith's being huge, not on his “acting black" and fulfilling those standards that make white viewers feel safe liking him.

This works because while Jennings is technically on the other side of the tracks, the film is not about his discomfort and the sort of coming to terms for which white audiences need irony and stereotype to feel vindicated. It makes sense then that Benny is the character with depth, history and personality while Jennings is a two dimensional milquetoast (despite Benny’s pointed questioning: “Do you drink your own bath water?” “Sometimes.”) It is after all his neighborhood, his friends and ‘his’ kids who are being subjected to the terrorism of drugs and political violence perpetrated by a racist white conspiracy that goes right to the top levels of government.

Thanks to Ronald Reagan’s little war, drugs and junkies were as necessary to 80’s cinema realism as punk-rockers, but it was his predecessor Richard Nixon who initiated the War on Drugs, clarifying that it was really about black folks, you just couldn’t say it was. At the same time, the CIA really was deliberately introducing narcotics into black neighborhoods to undermine the Black Power movement. (Not surprisingly this was also the same time that the NRA was for gun control; to prevent armed Blacks.) To be sure, there’s a black guy in there peddling drugs in The Wild Pair. It’s easier to dismiss all of this conspiracy stuff if they do it too, but I choose to see his name “Ivory” as somewhat more than accidental. As my friends over at Comeuppance Reviews said in their write-up of The Wild Pair, “it’s all there,” to which I would add; IF you choose to see it. It may appear too convenient to find all this baggage in a forgotten crime dramedy, but after realizing that The Wild Pair has already subverted the staid norms of its genre, its allusions to history appear much more deliberate. The Wild Pair may not be the most original buddy-cop flick out there, but for rocking the narrative boat, it does have the most to say.

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