It’s been fifteen years since Ron Shelton’s Hollywood Homicide (2003) was released to pretty bad reviews. A buddy-cop action-comedy starring Harrison Ford (after the classic Air Force One (1997) but before he got dragged back into franchises with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)) and Josh Hartnett (fresh off a box office hot streak with Pearl Harbor (2001), Black Hawk Down (2001), and 40 Days and 40 Nights (2002)), the film was faulted for its loose pace, unwieldy and confusing plot, lack of chemistry between the leads, and clichéd action sequences. On the whole, the critics weren’t wrong. But those faults only matter if you think you’re walking into a certain kind of film, when in fact, Hollywood Homicide is a whole other kettle of fish. Roger Ebert is one of the few critics who got it. Let’s take a look at what everyone else missed.
Ford plays Joe Gavilan, a veteran LAPD detective who moonlights as a real estate agent. His newish partner of four months is K.C. Calden (Hartnett), a piss-poor shot and aspiring actor who teaches yoga, at first for the sex, but then for the mindfulness—in addition to the sex. One reason why critics thought they lack chemistry is because the film deliberately makes them strangers: We’re supposed to believe that four months isn’t enough for Calden to know Gavilan’s cheeseburger order, or for Gavilan to know about Calden’s yoga class. Yet they have chemistry enough when strong-arming an off-duty cop doing private security. (How bad is LAPD pay anyway?)
The plot . . . look, there’s a lot going on in this one. First we have the disharmonious duo investigating a multiple homicide at a nightclub with no ready witnesses. Gavilan is trying to dump a McMansion to keep his finances afloat, while Calden has set up a showcase of himself playing the lead in A Streetcar Named Desire and is inviting industry people willy-nilly. Then there’s Bennie Macko (Bruce Greenwood) of Internal Affairs (the name gives it away), who wants to take Gavilan down but has little evidence of wrongdoing. Gavilan, of course, is sleeping with Macko’s ex-girlfriend, radio psychic Ruby (Lena Olin); Macko, Calden later discovers, is also the bad cop who orchestrated the death of his father, a police detective. And we haven’t even introduced the homicide suspect.
That would be Antoine Sartain (Isaiah Washington), the record label exec who kills his own acts when they threaten to tear up their exploitative contracts. We know he’s guilty because, first of all, his name is way too French, and second, the film tells us so by having him stand next to his henchman while the latter kills the hired nightclub shooters and burns the evidence. Our partnered protagonists don’t find out until much later, though, and their investigation largely depends on lucky breaks: A cop undercover as a crossdressing streetwalker relays the word on the street about an elusive witness; Calden finds the hired guns lying next to their victims at the morgue; the detectives track down the witness by correctly guessing his mother’s name; the mother yields up Sartain’s scheme when her son is almost offed by more of Sartain’s henchmen; the detectives locate the absconding Sartain by using Ruby’s psychic powers; and the ensuing car chase is downgraded to a slightly more manageable foot chase after they first lose Sartain and then unexpectedly T-bone him. Oh, and in between car and foot, Gavilan commandeers a girl’s bike by upping the famous Harrison Ford growl into a full-blown roar and aiming it at the poor tyke. The two-pronged foot chase (Calden chases Sartain’s right-hand man) is too cliché to waste words recounting—though it is worth mentioning a humorous sequence involving a helicopter air-traffic jam, all of whom are covering the rooftop showdown (sigh) between Gavilan and Sartain, an exemplary performance of tired fighting. The only thing linking this series of fortunate events is that they form “the plot of an action-comedy film,” and so we can say that the film is satirizing its own genre, much like another maligned personal favorite of mine, Dancing Ninja (2010).
But there’s a second layer of satire, too. In between these developments, we find Gavilan negotiating that real estate deal of his, and his phone’s ringer has the best comedic timing of the whole film. It steals the scene where our mismatched mediocrities are questioned by Macko’s henchpeople in side-by-side interrogation rooms, a farcical scene reflective of the whole IA investigation. While Calden “ohm”s and does yoga poses on the table, Gavilan keeps shushing his inept interrogator to answer his phone and sell that darned house. The same phone helps fill in some boring down time during the lengthy ending car chase, and it’s while Calden threads the streets of LA that Gavilan finally manages to close the deal. Shot by Barry Peterson and edited by Paul Seydor, the action scenes are pretty good (a rarity these days), but Seydor really outdoes himself when the phone gets involved. We end up caring more about this subplot than the main one. If I may generalize the point, the film transcends its generic limitations by turning the entire plot into one big MacGuffin, a skeleton on which to hang wisecracks, running gags, and character development via farcical subplots. It also boasts the best non-erotic use of an eroticized donut I’ve ever seen.
And yet, at its heart, it still believes in the genre of the action-comedy film. The highlight of the film is a foot chase in, across, and around the Venice canals, in pursuit of the fleeing witness, K-Ro (Korupt). Betting correctly that pretty-boy Calden wouldn’t want to get wet, K-Ro jumps into a paddle boat and furiously yet slowly heads for the other bank; Calden takes the long route across the footbridge and arrives first; upon which K-Ro ditches the boat and wades back across; Calden again detours around; lather, rinse, repeat, all while K-Ro spouts taunts nonstop. Where is Gavilan in all of this? He has run to the car (even farther away) and goes back and forth on the road bridge, opposite and mirroring Calden. When Calden finally can’t catch up, no worries, for Gavilan is waiting on the far side to trip K-Ro up and end this playground chase. Once again, Seydor’s editing makes this three-way back-and-forth coherent and easily followed, an amusing sideshow to the plot in a film full of sideshows.
Another sideshow, which has no discernible relevance to anything else in the plot, is the police parking lot shootout. A handcuffed suspect grabs an inattentive cop’s sidearm and starts firing with abandon. Cut to Gavilan hiding behind a car, frantically counting bullets; Calden, on the other side of the car, has it all figured out, and tackles the perp as he runs past. Of course, Gavilan then reminds Calden, who can’t shoot worth a damn, about the round in the chamber, horrifying him. Besides being somewhat humorous—Ford is always entertaining when flustered—the only interpretation I can give this scene is that the film is justifying this awkward partnership by giving one the brains and the other the, er, brawn. Right.
Anyway, not every scene needs an interpretation, and Hollywood Homicide is solidly entertaining on a scene-by-scene basis, despite all its faults. Gavilan perfectly sums up the charm of the film (and of life in general) when he kvetches, “Jesus Christ, if it’s not one thing it’s another.” Ain’t that the truth.