Theme Song: There is no theme song, but there is a bunch of acceptable original music by John Murtaugh. If you are a crate-digging vinyl archivist, you may be familiar with John Murtaugh’s 1969 Moog-based acid jazz album Blues Current. If you are not a crate-digging vinyl archivist, then you probably enjoy going out in public and being well-liked by people. Seriously though, that Blues Current album is fucking far out. You should look into it.
Interesting Dated References: A garbage dump being a place you could wander into and rifle around for junk at; One black man and one Italian guy representing “all kinds” of people when someone says, “Takes all kinds!”
Best Line: “Hey you, with the headband!” — Shouted to a bunch of men playing basketball.
“Your aftershave turns me off.” — Said by a woman to a man.
Social Context: The French Connection was such a huge success it practically spawned its own sub-genre. Members of the production crew tried to duplicate their success with similarly gritty fare like The Seven-ups and The French Connection 2. Strike Force was written by Sonny Grosso, the real life cop who broke open the case The French Connection was based upon. Similarly, it was produced by Philip D’Antoni who was behind Bullit, French Connection, and The Seven-Ups. But instead of a well-regarded 70s drama, Strike Force remains a failed television pilot, which happened to costar a really young Richard Gere.
Summary: The movie opens in a garbage dump. Not your apartment, but an actual garbage dump. I’m really not sure how they filmed this, because the actors appear to be running around in actual garbage. There is no CG or prop-garbage, just tons of real trash. I’m getting herpes and a staph infection just thinking about it.
So, this kid is rifling around in the garbage and finds a bike. He doesn’t seem concerned with feces or broken glass or rotten chicken as he grabs the bike. Concurrent to that, some thugs are meeting and some of them get shot. The kid sees the shooting, the thugs see the kid, and then a chase ensues through a bunch of garbage.
Then we move right into the plot: The guys who were killed are somehow tied to some drug thing and their bodies were dumped “upstate.” As a result, a special “Elite Strike Force” is set-up. What makes this strike force elite and special? Well, not that much, really. Our Strike Force has three people in it:
Streetwise. Italian-stereotype, urban detective Joey Gentry, played by the oft-underappreciated Cliff Gorman, RIP (The Boys in The Band, All That Jazz).
By-the-books, black FBI agent Jerome Ripley, played by Don Blakely, RIP (The Spook Who Sat by the Door).
And last but not least, a very young Richard Gere, playing a wet-behind-the-ears State Trooper named Walter Spenser. The trio is tasked with figuring out who killed the mob thugs and why. And again, it’s never really clarified why these three were selected, other than Gere, who found the bodies.
Lots of crowded New York scenery. Okay, so for like 45 minutes Gentry goes off on his own and uses his New York street smarts and Italian heritage to interview a bunch of Italian stereotypes (fruit vending Italian man, grocery store-owning Italian lady, etc.). Eventually he meets back up with Ripley and Spenser and they go to spy on some cabin in the woods. At the cabin they find “drugs,” which I think they imply is cocaine.
Then the whole strike force trio goes undercover at the fish market. The basic simplification of the plot is that someone is selling fake drugs and trying to frame some other drug dealers. While at the fish market, Gentry and Ripley warm their hands over a barrel with a bunch of other guys and talk about the news.
I guess I didn’t realize this actually used to happen. If I saw some guys doing it, I would almost instantly have to go join them. It’s so authentically working-class it may give some authenticity to my totally meaningless life.
It’s also worth noting one of the men at the barrel is Lenny Montana, RIP (Godfather, Fingers, The Jerk, as well as a former wrestler). Then there’s a long foot chase sequence through the subway and streets.
But unfortunately our elite strike force loses the guy they are chasing. At this point I should mention that the guy they are chasing is played by Joe Spinell of Maniac fame. Sorry, I couldn’t get a clear picture as he was being chased the entire fucking time.
In a fit of rage and Italian-ism, Gentry goes and orders cannoli late at night. He orders them from Cafe Napoli, right across the street from Umberto’s Clam House. Both of these places appear to still be in operation in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City. As luck would have it, the lady behind the counter is played by Joe Spinell’s mom Filomena Spagnuolo. She had small walk on roles in several 70s-era New York films.
Eventually a bunch of evidence comes up missing, Gentry and Ripley have a falling out, and Spenser misses some key clues about the fake drug/real drug exchange ring.
Then suddenly the case is bust wide open for a giant garbage dump showdown. Dirty puddles of water, massive hills of garbage, men falling down massive hills of garbage, people running through giant, uneven piles of human filth, it’s all here! And it all seriously appears to be in a real garbage dump. Seriously, even Richard Gere falls in a big puddle of garbage water.
At the end, the elite strike force all laugh and get along and it is inferred they have a new case to investigate the next morning. This never happened, though, as this pilot was not picked up for broadcast. Overall there’s a bit too much action in this 74-minute pilot, and not enough camaraderie. Cliff Gorman gets most of the screen-time without any real character development. Gere is only on-screen for about 10 minutes total, which makes the box art (detailed below) even more hilarious.
Poster and Box Art: Wow, we’ve seen our fair share of misleading boxes here, but this one may take the cake. First off, the painting on the box is of Richard Gere as he appeared in the late 80s. Slightly graying hair, a little thicker across the chest. The Gere that’s in this movie is of the pre-An Officer and A Gentleman variety: black hair, scrawny build, young face. For the marketing company to try to brand this 70s cop flick as an 80s Gere-driven action movie is hilarious. The painting also has an example of perspective foreshortening gone terribly wrong.
Availability: Strike Force appears to have fallen into public domain. Add to that a young Richard Gere and you have no less than 10 different DVD versions of this movie all featuring a much older-looking Gere on the cover. If you must buy one, get the version called Crack from Amazon. Even though there isn’t any crack in the movie, it still seems to be the better print. I think you can also watch the movie online, but that’s for you to figure out.