Written By Zak Attack
A dramatic journey through the dreck we all know and love
Why Did I Watch This?
My fiancée’s sister and husband had this in their DVD collection. Apparently, like me, their buying philosophy incorporates a lot of bargain bins and weirdness. Charlie Sheen, Michael Madsen, and Linda Fiorentino? How have I never heard of this movie. It’s gotta be fun, right? (Note: In case you’re confused by the trailer below, an alternate title for Beyond the Law is Fixing the Shadow)
How Did I Watch It?
With heavy beer consumption at 3 AM. In fact, I fell asleep and watched the last 45 minutes the following morning.
What Did I Watch?
As mentioned in the subtitle of this piece, the best way to describe Beyond the Law is that it basically follows the same storyline as cult classic, Point Break. Directed by screenwriter Larry Ferguson, the made-for-HBO flick is about a cop named Dan Saxon (Charlie Sheen), who has to leave the force because he was nice to an angry American Indian chief once. However, he’s noticed by the FBI and recruited to go undercover in a notorious biker gang called The Jackals as they are suspected leaders in a massive drug and weapon smuggling ring.
Cue the montage of Charlie Sheen walking up to people in sleazy Arizona bars only to have them immediately shake their heads or walk away. Presumably, his opener is “Hey, since I am not a cop, I am wondering where I could buy some drugs and/or guns?” Luckily for him, he meets up with ne’er-do-well mechanic, Virgil (Leon Rippy), who helps him learn how to infiltrate the seedy underworld through a crash course in biker culture and acting like a maniac. In a sign of events to come, Saxon picks up on the maniac part almost quite easily, running Virgil’s car off a road and discharging a gun near his face a few times. However, to pull off the full “biker” transformation, the audience is treated to not one, but two interminable “getting ready” montages scored to songs by Chris Rea. I will provide both below since they occur literally within 5 minutes of each other.
Incidentally, on his last day as a legit cop we see him arrest Blood (Michael Madsen) and hit on a journalist named Renee (Linda Fiorentino) during a traffic stop. As it turns out, Blood is the leader of The Jackals and Renee is following the group around while doing a story on biker gangs. However, only Fiorentino recognizes Dan through his newly grown beard. As can be expected, they embark on a rushed and arbitrary romance. Fortunately, ingratiating himself to the paranoid Blood happens nearly as quickly as the underwritten love scenes. All Saxon needs to do to get the calculating criminal to like him is show up uninvited to a biker wedding, blow up a stick of dynamite, and threaten to shoot one of the congregants when confronted about it. Obviously, this is exactly the type of even-keeled motorcycle aficionado Blood would immediately go into business with and bring into his inner circle.
As is typical for “in too deep” stories, Saxon starts to lose his ability to distinguish between his undercover identity and his real one, especially after he starts abusing drugs in an attempt to keep his cover. To add insult to injury, the audience learns via flashback that Saxon is the survivor of a traumatic experience where he was tied up as a child and abused by his uncle. As extraneous as the abuse story seems at first, it’s eventually revealed that not only was Saxon handcuffed in the basement for an undetermined amount of time, but the uncle also dressed up as a police officer during the regular beatings. Finally, during the climax of the film, Saxon’s repressed memories of shooting and killing his own uncle come back to him. How his background slipped by during the psych examination to become a police officer (let alone an undercover officer) is beyond me. And while it is an essential part of the troubled character, the details of the abuse and aftermath are not explored in any way, shape, or form. For example, it’s easy to assume that the abuse was both violent and sexual, but that is never made clear. The only thing we hear is that the abuse probably occurred because Saxon is half-Native American, which is not only nonsensical, but also paves the way for the Indian chief from earlier to return as a clumsy spiritual guide, a la The Trial of Billy Jack. Regardless, it’s clear that Saxon is losing his grip as he begins getting into fistfights, threatens a traffic cop with a gun, and rides his motorcycle through honky-tonk bars. It is not until the death of an innocent cashier that he is snapped out of his funk and insists on bringing in the gang to face justice.
In addition to hitting a lot of the easy beats and clichés of most undercover cop movies, Beyond the Law tends to be pretty damn repetitive. Every fifteen minutes or so, the filmmaker repeats roughly the same formula.
Step 1: Dan Saxon feels like his cover is being blown so he does something kind of crazy.
Step 2: Because of the completely nutso action, he bonds with the also unhinged Blood.
Step 3: He argues with this FBI handler (Courtney B. Vance), because being an undercover cop is messing with his head.
Step 4: Renee comforts him in some way.
Step 5: Saxon’s feeling that he is about to lose his grip intensifies, resulting in paranoia.
Step 6: Repeat.
Michael Madsen is perfection in his role. He’s not as charming as Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi, but without a doubt is equal parts menacing and likeable. Similar to his star-making turn in the previous year’s Reservoir Dogs, Madsen brings a charismatic intensity to the role that makes Saxon’s appreciation of him feel real instead of contrived. He also exudes an unpredictable rabidity not unlike his performance as Mr. Blonde. The same character traits that immediately draw him to the erratic-acting Saxon are precisely what make him a frightening force of nature. For as little as I liked this movie, I actually felt some extreme tension during the scenes where Madsen decides to just “fuck with” people by making volatile comments or pointing guns at their face for a laugh.
More importantly, he’s believable. Madsen has always had a palpable, working class energy on-screen, but Beyond the Law truly takes advantage of it. It’s not that big a stretch to imagine him as a dangerous leader of a motorcycle gang or the mastermind behind illegal arms deals. The respect he commands from the hundreds of other bikers isn’t established by the film, because it doesn’t need to be. Madsen pulls it off all by himself.
I would suggest that since Blood lives in a trailer sitting in a remote part of the desert, any of you readers who decide to watch this should pretend that the character is a younger version of his washed up, yet also menacing character of Budd in Kill Bill: Vol. 2. It’s fun.
While Madsen might have added some element of verisimilitude to the characters, any goodwill he earns is essentially ruined by Charlie Sheen’s ham-fisted performance. As he’s in virtually every scene, he manages to grab the film by the horns and drag it to the opposite side of the spectrum into two-dimensional camp. He smoulders and growls his way through his character’s internal struggles, acting simply as an engine of anger and instability. At about 1:55 into the trailer at the top of the page he bellows a gravelly “NOOOOOOO!” which is pretty much his performance in a nutshell.
The barely-there chemistry between Linda Fiorentino and Sheen isn’t any help either. Their “passionate” sex scene is both awkward and deliberate, like the sluggish early rehearsals for an emotionless dance routine. And just when you think things can’t get any more uncomfortable, he runs into her son while cooking food in her kitchen the next day. In a particularly embarrassing stretch of dialogue, Sheen breaks into a terrible French chef impression and reads the kid the specials of the day as a smiling Fiorentino looks on. “Yes, Renee, that violent and unstable man you recently met will be a wonderful father one day. Just listen to the low-rent Pepe Le Pew voice that is clearly leaving your son
While the first few minutes work fine when Saxon is still a do-gooder cop, his complex turn to a dangerously disturbed man posing as an ultimately unconvincing biker doesn’t fly at all. Not only does Sheen not succeed in showing his downfall, but he doesn’t give the audience much reason to care either. The character’s arc consists of dramatic shifts every 20 minutes from emotional state to emotional state instead of portraying any true growth.
However, in hindsight, the mere casting of Charlie Sheen does provide some moments of unintentional humor as we watch him refrain from drug use most of the movie only to finally buckle and realize that he kind of really likes cocaine.
Was It Worth Watching?
It was average and forgettable. Beyond the Law is neither good enough to recommend, nor bad enough to warn against. There is an element of “That’s interesting!” when one realizes it’s based on a true story, but that’s about it.
Zak has been an avid movie fan since his mom made him cover his eyes before the “icicle stabbing” when they rented Die Hard 2 in 2nd grade. As a consolation, in 6th grade he got straight A’s so she gave him the entire Die Hard trilogy on VHS. The rest is history.
All images courtesy of Capitol Films