Law and Disorder (1974)

“If the police can’t protect us, then it’s our constitutional duty, under the Constitution of the United States, to protect ourselves!”

Synopsis:
A pair of middle-aged men (Ernest Borgnine and Carroll O’Connor) fed up with the rampant crime in their city join an auxiliary police force.

Genres:

Review:
Based on the intriguing premise of ordinary citizens who become so fed up with the unresolved crime in their city that they decided to become deputized volunteer policemen (who knew such a possibility even existed?!), this uneven black comedy ultimately fails to deliver on its thematic potential. As in his American debut film, Born to Win (1971), Czech director Ivan Passer can’t quite seem to decide whether he wants to make an outright farce (as in the opening scenes, with various criminal acts being comedically carried out in broad daylight) or offer a more serious character study about blue collar men longing for some sense of authority and control in their lives.

Indeed, the film is frustratingly skimpy on details about what exactly goes into the duties and responsibilities of a volunteer policeman. The two central protagonists and their cronies are shown simply basking in the glory and fun of police accoutrement — uniforms and weapons and vehicles with sirens — rather than undergoing any kind of serious training. And once they do start patrolling the streets, we’re only shown a few instances of the types of dilemmas and situations they might encounter (including one particularly annoying “running gag” involving a young man who insists on drawling “f*** you” to every authority figure he encounters; not funny or insightful at all).

Instead, the screenplay shifts its meandering focus onto the midlife crises of Borgnine and O’Connor, good friends who are both unhappy (to varying degrees) in their jobs. Borgnine is a hairdresser with a dwindling clientele and an obnoxious employee (Karen Black, giving a weird, ineffective caricature of a performance); O’Connor is a taxi driver who longs to own his own business, and feels deep regret over lost opportunities in the past. Yet for every scene that provides an authentic glimpse into these characters’ lives — i.e., O’Connor taking his wife to the diner he desperately hopes to purchase — there are countless others that feel either random or misguided.

One of the film’s most awkwardly handled moments, for instance, shows O’Connor’s teenage daughter (Leslie Ackerman) — who has just been “attacked” on the street — berated by O’Connor for wearing a sexy shirt; a group of women sitting around the table (presumably all neighbors; we’re never told) proceed to advise her to wear a bra so her breasts don’t start to sag. The next time we see this girl, she’s out on the street with her sleazy boyfriend (Lionel Pina), looking for all the world like a prostitute. What’s the connection here? We’re not told. It’s narrative flaws like this that eventually detract from what seems to be Passer’s primary (worthy) goal: a desire to portray the motivations, disappointments, and daily challenges of working class life in New York.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ernest Borgnine as Cy
  • Willie’s “diner scene” with his wife

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one.

Links:

One Response to “Law and Disorder (1974)”

  1. First viewing. Not must-see, or maybe-see.

    In total agreement with the spot-on review. This is a forgotten film not in need of re-discovery. O’Connor and Borgnine do have an easy chemistry together as buds – which is marginally engaging in itself – but the script fails them at most turns. It’s thanks to their professionalism that the film seems slightly better than it is.

    As the review states, this thing is uneven. It does have a solid premise – which is promptly tossed to the wind. There’s a whiff of black comedy afoot but this trails off in various directions, ultimately and very tentatively settling in on the two leads as lost men with uncertain futures. (O’Connor is at least given one nice monologue which states the specifics of his case; Borgnine doesn’t even get that.)

    The film only becomes increasingly underwhelming. None of which is helped at all by Black’s attempt at comic relief. Her slutty role is badly written anyway – but she brings no invention to any of it.

    Finally, in the last ten minutes, the film decides to become interesting with a tense sequence involving the leads being put to the test as volunteer policemen. Problem is that the film hasn’t built to the scene properly so it is unearned as a payoff.

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