City Heat (1984)

Directed by Richard Benjamin

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City Heat is a total dad movie.  It stars Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, doing very much Eastwood and Reynolds things, as lawmen mowing their way through prohibition era gangsters in studio backlots.

Just about the whole thing takes place at night, like many films noir, but there is something decidedly un-noir about all this.  Maybe that’s because rather than fitting the characters into the noir genre, it feels as though the genre is extending itself to incorporate the familiar personalities of Eastwood and Reynolds.  They are very much bigger than the film itself, and this feels like an old Hollywood movie, composed and crafted in such a way as to cater to their strengths.

Eastwood plays Lieutenant Speer, just as silent and stoic as the “Man With No Name” from Eastwood’s old westerns.  Reynolds plays a private eye, more of a ne’er do well named Mike Murphy.  He’s a former cop and former partner of Speer’s, but now it seems they have no kind thoughts to spare the other.

Well, that’s not entirely true because they will team up to investigate a murder, and the ways they bicker is like that of siblings.  One character will ask each of them why they are so hard on the other, and neither of them has a good answer.  That’s just the way they are, feuding in a playful manner like characters who need the other to survive.

They are like other memorable cinematic duos separated by the law, with each finding in the other some kind of purpose.  In this dynamic there is a strange kind of intimacy, as if to be loved is to simply be seen and they care not for the gaze of anyone else but each other.

They will form an alliance, always a precarious one, after the murder of Murphy’s partner, Dehl (Richard Rountree), and their investigation will take them through waves of gangsters like in some kind of video game.

I don’t recall the details of their investigation.  At all.  Much of the dialogue, particularly early on, felt to me stiff with exposition, like many a gangster movie.  There are so many characters, often with nicknames like Tiny Tim to Tony Two Shoes, to establish as well as the complicated web of allegiances that each sentence feels like homework.

It takes a little time before we know who to fear, who to loathe and who to root for (setting aside the fact that Eastwood and Reynolds are of course playing the heroes), and even the main characters are to some degree the product of deliberate red herrings.  Like in many films noir their motives are meant to be concealed from us, as if we too are in a constant negotiation with them, playing the game not with them but against them.

Or something like that.

There isn’t a whole lot of nuance here, but there doesn’t need to be.  If you like Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns and Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit then you will probably enjoy the film.  After an engaging introduction to these characters it drags a little in the middle, but the end picks up steam and returns to the strengths of the performances and the characters’ own absurdities.  This is, after all, a bit of a comedy too.

Up Next: Detroit (2017), Cold War (2018), Smashed (2012)

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