Denzel Washington plays a top cop and Law school student who apprehends assassin John Lithgow. Denzel gets branded a hero, gets married, and in time becomes a media savvy Assistant DA. Meanwhile, Lithgow stews in jail, plotting an escape plan and eventual revenge on his captor. Once out of jail (after faking his own death) he sets about making Denzel’s life a living hell, tarnishing his good name with all manner of phony set-ups. And then it turns deadly. Kevin Pollak plays Denzel’s cop partner, Victoria Dillard plays Denzel’s concerned wife, Lindsay Wagner is the DA, John Amos is Denzel’s preacher dad, Ice-T is a drug dealer, John Cothran Jr. turns up as an associate of Denzel’s whom Lithgow frames as a paedophile (and making sure to have Denzel implicated too). In a strange bit of cross-promotion, Mary Ellen Trainor plays the same pushy reporter she played in “Die Hard”, and apparently still hasn’t learned her lesson yet about tact.
Flashy Aussie director Russell Mulcahy (“Razorback”, “Highlander”) will never be accused of being subtle, and this 1991 thriller is so ludicrously overbaked at times it verges on parody. The explosive finale, paying homage to “White Heat”, and a “Highlander”-esque prison fight between John Lithgow and Jesse Ventura (!), in particular, are absurd in the extreme. The latter is apparently a deliberate homage as well, but less obvious than the former, with an actual clip from the film shown. It is, however, surprisingly entertaining (including the aforementioned scenes), and certainly a lot more of a pleasant diversion than Martin Scorsese’s similar “Cape Fear” remake from the same year (which it has often been compared to). Just be warned that it comes from uber action movie producer Joel Silver (“Commando”, “Lethal Weapon”, “Predator”, “The Matrix”), so if his films aren’t your thing, stay well away.
Many will disagree with me, but the reason why this film works (and why the original “Cape Fear” worked) and the “Cape Fear” remake didn’t is because in this film, our protagonist is entirely likeable, and not just because he’s played by Denzel Washington (it helps, though). Scorsese made everyone flawed, which is fine, but completely unlikeable, which is absolutely fatal to my enjoyment of a film more often than not (unless you’re not meant to like the characters of course). So no matter what this film’s flaws may be, at least it gets the character dynamics right for this kind of thing. Mulcahy also gets the casting right. Denzel is pitch-perfect and charismatic as hell as the upstanding Assistant DA and former cop whose past deeds as a cop come back to haunt him and jeopardise his career, his family, and his life. John Lithgow is even better as the intelligent, cunning and revenge-minded criminal trying to ruin his life. Lithgow is an extremely versatile actor but just as he would later prove on TV’s “Dexter”, he makes for a terrific villain (We’ll forget about “Raising Cain”). Kevin Pollak plays the doomed partner role that he would later essay in “End of Days”, but at least here he gets to do his Peter Falk impersonation. Ice-T is also pretty good as a neighbourhood drug kingpin who goes way back with Denzel.
The film isn’t exactly good per se, but the performances make it more persuasive than it could’ve been. At any rate, it kept me watching throughout. Hey, Denzel has certainly made a lot worse than this one (“Virtuosity”, “Man on Fire”, “The Book of Eli”, “Training Day”, “Power”, “The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3”). The ‘no-think’ screenplay is by the one and only Steven E. de Souza (of “The Running Man”, “Commando”, and “Die Hard” fame), from a story by Fred Dekker (director of the cult faves “Night of the Creeps” and “The Monster Squad”) and Menno Meyjes (whose bizarre credits include “The Colour Purple” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”).
Oh, one more thing: Be kind to your local crack dealer. You might just need his help when some nutjob frames you with embarrassing (but staged) photos of you conked out and in bed with a hooker who somehow gives you a venereal disease!