My father was a pioneer in the cable and VHS tape piracy racket, so I watched bootlegged copies of movies ad nauseam during my formative years. One of my favorite genres is the ’80s cop movie.
Your average 1980s movie cop savagely abuses people’s civil rights, but he gets results, so who cares? The ethnic gang members are laughably stereotypical, like the Bloods and Crips in “Colors”: all wear either red or blue bandanas, people reduced to a hue. An ’80s movie cop usually shoots at least three people and goes back to work an hour later.
In the classic interracial buddy cop flick “Running Scared,” detectives Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines rough up a suspect who cries about police brutality. Crystal replies something to the effect of, “No, this is just harassment. If that doesn’t work, then we’ll try brutality.”
All of this would be a nightmare in reality, and I suppose it’s a statement on our culture that this fascist behavior passes for entertainment. I’m not sure what it says about me. Call it a guilty pleasure.
But among these not-at-all enlightened pieces of cinematic trash, “Fatal Beauty” stands out as surprisingly progressive.
Whoopi Goldberg plays Detective Rita Rizzoli, a wise-ass Los Angeles narcotics cop. Within five minutes, Rizzoli blows a drug bust to come to the aid of prostitute taking a beating in an alley, killing a pimp and taking a racially motivated thumping in the process. Most of the movie follows that basic setup — Rizzoli vs. Stupid White Man.
Rizzoli’s romantic interest is “Roadhouse”-era Sam Elliott, considered by many to be a heartthrob. The hunky white dude chasing the black woman (who shoots his car at least once) is a nice break from the usual love dynamic in cop movies.
Sure, there is plenty of civil rights abuse on display in “Fatal Beauty,” but it’s a pleasure to watch because it’s always highly deserving dudes taking the abuse — everyone from rich developers and cruel pimps to wild-eyed Nazis and snotty tennis club socialites.
The film came out in 1987 and was written off as a rip-off of “Beverly Hills Cop.” Aside from happening in the Los Angeles area and having a black protagonist going up against elite white folks, I don’t see the similarity. Some people probably just said, “There was a black person in that and a black person in this. Therefore, this is a rip-off.” Some people have no imagination.
The plot still feels relevant in this lame year of our Lord 2019. Rizzoli is desperately trying to take down a duo of murderous white supremacists who are selling a load of cocaine that has been cut with fentanyl. Fentanyl is the latest boogeyman in the war on drugs, in case you’ve been in a coma since 1995. It’s strangely prescient to see it featured heavily in a 1980s movie.
“Fatal Beauty” has a bit of that Reagan-era, “Just Say No” preachiness, but that’s to be expected in anything from the 1980s. It’s available for 3 bucks on Amazon. Treat yourself.