By James Kenney. July, 2021.
I’m normally not so much of a vulgarian outside of my predilection for Eurohorror, but I appreciate an occasional opportunity to be one, and Richard T. Heffron’s 1982 Mickey Spillane adaptation I, The Jury, written by the legendary Larry Cohen, is quite an opportunity. This is not a film with petite, beatific features, it’s a shattered bloody nose that keeps drizzling out weird secretions into our collective lap, all on 20th Century Fox’s dime (technically, American Cinema Productions was the company behind this, but they were in financial dire straits and sold the film to Fox, who released it).
Heffron doesn’t bring out the baroque madness of Cohen’s writing the way Cohen (who was fired as director early in the shoot, although some of his footage remains) would have done it, and in fact it feels like his directing is almost absent in its base competency.
Heffron just shoots the thrashings and sex and orgy and torture sequences without emphasizing or highlighting much, so that the sordid material about the crazed serial killer who makes pretty girls wear wigs doesn’t really stand out from the CIA brainwashing subplot or the carnal sex scenes between Barbara Carrera and Armand Assante or the scenes where Paul Sorvino dresses down Assante’s Mike Hammer for his numerous extralegal beatings and car chases. But the film’s benign flat-footedness is what might have been needed to get this insane material across without the rating board getting all worked up and slapping “X”s all over it.
Again, Heffron doesn’t do a bad job, just an impersonal one, so acquiesce to Heffron’s deadpan approach to the material so you can enjoy I, The Jury for its prodigious New York locations (there’s no part of the city they weren’t willing to go to kill and beat up characters, and when the run out of locations they head upstate to slaughter some more), the committed and attractive cast, and the sleaze.
Mike Hammer (Assante) is so unhinged by his one-armed Vietnam Vet buddy’s brutal murder he vows to find the killer and act as a one-man judge and jury. The sensible and prescient Police Captain Pat Chambers (Paul Sorvino) wishes out loud that Hammer catches the right person, and, sure, Hammer does, but not before bedding, killing and maiming all sort of other people in his quest.
All right, sounds good? It gets better! Hammer and his extremely loyal and unbelievably sexy secretary Velma (Laurene Landon, from Cohen’s Maniac Cop and Robert Altman’s forgotten classic …All the Marbles), the kind who sporadically gets tortured for her boss but despite her perfect good looks proves the one woman he won’t attempt to f*** (which does humanize a guy who is basically an a**hole with every other character), discover that Hammer’s dead friend had been enduring therapy at a clinic for sexual dysfunctions!
This turns out to be the kind of place where sexy twins will disrobe at the drop of a hat for Hammer and where Dr. Charlotte Bennett walks through a rather graphic orgy, quietly taking notes on her clipboard.
But the Convincer? The inscrutable Dr. Bennett is played by none other than the most exquisite, beautiful woman on earth, Barbara Carrera.
Meanwhile, I, the Jury offers up snipers, C.I.A. brainwashing experiments, incredible New York City location footage, the always good Geoffrey Lewis as a survivalist, the also always good Alan King as a mob boss, and, oops, don’t forget that ostensibly unrelated plot strand about a series of bizarre killings involving beautiful women dressed in auburn wigs and painted with garish make-up.
This is the kind of movie where Hammer’s visit to a Japanese restaurant will be cut short when it turns out the cook is the kind of guy who will slash a woman’s throat before she can give key evidence, and Hammer proves the kind of guy who will in turn broil the cook on his own grill.
Man, what a time it was, I do not know how this thing got an R-rating, but I’m not griping. Cohen is a brilliant filmmaker, but maybe it was for the best that he was removed early, as he likes to do things on the cheap and has a tendency to brainstorm up ideas on set that are hilarious but not always fully executed (see Hell Up in Harlem, writeup coming soon to Tremble…Sigh…Wonder…).
This is a typically screwy, fast-paced Cohen script, and what journeyman action director Heffron may lack in inspired lunatic genius he makes up for in basic competency and a lack of shame – blood is spilled, torture is applied, and lots of people, including the incredible Carrera, gets naked for several memorable bits. That being said, a fair deal of this nudity is in scenes that advance the plot. But some of it is wholly gratuitous, sure!
I mean, Mickey Spillane was no great writer, but he was defiantly sleazy, which has its virtues (interestingly, I knew a rather staid and proper intellectual woman who ghost wrote some of Spillane’s later work, but that’s a story for another day). I have no use for his books but some swell films have been made from them, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss of Death an obvious example, but this is good, too, and more of a “traditional” attempt to bring Spillane’s character to life on screen.
Spillane’s fast-paced, sexual, violent fictions sold millions of copies (over 7,500,000 at the time of I, The Jury’s release, according to the press materials), but it doesn’t hurt in my book that Larry Cohen stepped in and did his take on the character, keeping the good stuff (the sleaze, the Velma/Hammer relationship) but bringing in his own quirky, larger worldview. Cohen went off and made Q, his monster-attacks-Manhattan classic starring Michael Moriarity and David Carradine, after getting fired off this, so, hey, everybody wins.
THIS CAST SPITS BULLETS!
Assante is a good choice for Hammer, he absolutely seems like a product of the streets of New York and able to fire a gun without a guilt trip, but he does have big sad soulful eyes; you can believe he genuinely likes Velma and is hurt when betrayed. Assante was a real pro, having done years of theater work, starting with costarring with Imogene Coca at the age of 20 in an off-Broadway play directed by Joshua Logan, and having already appeared in movies like Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley and Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin at this early point in his career. Assante said at the time of release, “The problem with Mike Hammer is that you can’t do him today like you could 30 years ago….He’s no longer an alcoholic and he’s not some dumb macho creep who goes around beating everyone up. He’s a guy who fought in Vietnam and then came back to America and found the whole country in a shambles. It’s something I can identify with because my generation is the generation of all the ‘60s who destroyed the establishment and tore down all the traditions.”
Well, Hammer would still come off as a dumb macho creep even in this updated manifestation to 21st century audiences, as he is able to cold-bloodedly murder a woman while he kisses her, although she is an exceptionally irresponsible, bad lady and deserves it. But it’s true, he doesn’t drink!
Carrera is one of the most vigorous and funny of underutilized actresses of the late 20th century, stealing Sean Connery’s James Bond knock-off Never Say Never Again with her portrayal of villainess Fatima Bush; the film declines markedly when she’s removed about halfway through.
Here, her exotic dark beauty contrasts beautifully with Landon’s loyal blonde archetype, and she is certainly a quotable quote: describing Dr. Bennett, she said “She’s a bitch and I hate her, just as I hate bitches in everyday life. This woman has ice-water running through her veins.” Well, we all hate bitches in everyday life, but I’m impressed that it’s her lead quote in the formal press materials put out by 20th century Fox at the time. She did love the role, though: “Most of the parts I’ve played have been nice, sweet, simpering, boring girls! But in this, I got to model myself on Bette Davis in Jezebel, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, every ruthless femme fatale rolled all into one.”
Carrera, an alluring Nicaraguan national, and an erudite woman who now paints in her retirement, wasn’t done there: “I think the audience will love this movie. Mickey Spillane wrote about basic, elemental characters. In real life, you can’t stand them, but you love to read about them or watch them in a movie. Women will love watching me in this movie, because I do what every woman secretly would like to do but doesn’t. I stop at nothing, and when this man Mike Hammer crosses my path, I cut him to pieces. And men will love watching Armand as Mike Hammer. If someone gets in his way, he socks them or shoots them. It’s every man’s fantasy.”
If we have to use computer technology to destroy cinema, at least start by recasting Barbara Carrera as every over-the-top villain we can find, including the male parts. She’d make an awesome Lex Luther, and her short reign of villain-of-the-month in Jury and Never Say Never Again should be put in a time capsule so when the Apes rise in power in thousands of year, they’ll have some idea just how sexy and awesome we were capable of being.
So, yes, I dig I, the Jury. It’s not picture-perfect, the pacing is a little off, and Heffron perhaps doesn’t mine all the irony Cohen’s high-concept action script might have contained. But he does bring this crazy ship to shore, with genuine no-CGI stunts on the Manhattan bridge, misogyny, misanthropy, gore, torture, sex and blood that we won’t be seeing in a big budget Fox release anytime soon (especially as Fox is now owned by Disney). Assante is mumbly but convincing as Hammer, Landon is delicious and sweet as Velma, King and Sorvino may just be picking up paychecks but deliver, and Carrera is Carrera, always welcome and doubly welcomed when she’s playing a bad guy- she really is willing to go wherever the script takes her and plays it 100% straight; the whole cast does, but they don’t have to gingerly step around intertwined bodies at an orgy at a sex clinic, soberly taking notes, like she does.
And I didn’t even mention the pseudo-James Bond credits with a Bill Conti score (fresh off For Your Eyes Only) that indicated producers were eager for a series that never materialized. Did I talk about Lee Anne Harris or Lynette Harris, the Playboy playmate twins from Roger Corman’s Sorceress, who show up here at Carrera’s sex clinic, ready to disrobe and throw themselves at Hammer? There’s so much terrific stuff in this movie that it’s effortless to forgive some of its issues.
I, The Jury is guilty…of a sleazy good time!