Review: “Striking Distance” (Film)

Well, for the next review in my “1990s Films” series, I thought that I’d re-watch a detective/thriller/horror movie from 1993 called “Striking Distance”.

This is one of those films that I vaguely remember watching on late-night TV when I was a teenager. And, since it was included on a cheap DVD boxset (that also contained “Bad Boys) I thought that I’d take another look at it. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS, but I’ll try to avoid larger ones.

So, let’s take a look at “Striking Distance”:

Why it loses out on second billing to “S.W.A.T” on this DVD cover is a complete mystery to me.

After a creepy title credits montage involving a serial killer, “Striking Distance” begins in Pittsburgh in 1991 – with homicide detective Tom Hardy (played by Bruce Willis) getting ready to go to a police social event with his father, when he catches a news report about a police brutality case that he gave evidence in.

Well, that was a rather convenient coincidence…

This case led to the conviction of Hardy’s partner Jimmy (played by Robert Pastorelli), which has made him somewhat unpopular within the police department.

On the way to the social event, Hardy and his father get a call from dispatch and soon find themselves in the middle of a dramatic police chase.

Which somehow still continues for quite a while after this point, despite all of the suspension-wrecking jumps here.

The criminal drives expertly and manages to evade all of the other police cars until only Hardy and his father are left. After a crash, Hardy is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he learns that the criminal not only fled the scene, but also shot his father too.

Some time later, Hardy goes to Jimmy’s sentencing, where one of the other officers tells him that they’ve caught a serial killer that Hardy had been trying to collar. However, Hardy has his doubts about the suspect.

Well, it wouldn’t be a very long film if this suspect was actually the criminal…

But, when Jimmy’s sentencing hearing begins, Jimmy is nowhere to be found. It soon transpires that he is standing on the edge of a tall bridge and threatening to jump. Despite the efforts of Hardy and the other police officers, Jimmy jumps.

Two years later, Hardy is a washed-up officer in the Pittsburgh river patrol – after being hounded out of the police for publicly expressing his doubts about the suspect in the serial killing case and for the events surrounding Jimmy’s death.

Bitter and cynical, Hardy is also, as you would expect, something of a loose cannon too. And, after “accidentally on purpose” throwing his partner overboard, he gets assigned a new partner – Jo Christman (played by Sarah Jessica Parker).

And, yes, there’s the obligatory scene a few moments earlier where Hardy mishears Jo’s name as “Joe” and then looks surprised.

At first, the two of them don’t get along well. But, after a thrilling raid on a coal boat, they become friends. However, Hardy is shocked when he gets a call over the radio about a body in the river. When he arrives, it doesn’t take him long to realise that it is the same modus operandi as the case from two years earlier. So, despite Christman’s reminders that he isn’t a homicide detective any more, Hardy decides to investigate once again……

Again, it’d be a fairly short film if he didn’t….

One of the first things that I’ll say about this film is that, even if you already know the ending, it is still a surprisingly suspenseful, dramatic and compelling film. Although this film has a few dramatic action sequences, it is actually more of a detective film than an action movie (unlike, say, “Bad Boys) – with a lot of the film focusing on Hardy trying to catch the serial killer and investigate the case unofficially.

Likewise, the film’s pacing is slightly closer to that of a detective movie than an action movie – with slightly more emphasis placed on the character dynamics between the various detectives than on the film’s relatively few chases and fights.

And, yes, a lot of the film is taken up with dialogue and sailing.

Likewise, the film also contains a suitably clever plot, at least one expertly-used red herring and a couple of shocking plot twists. Although this film isn’t exactly a police procedural or a Sherlock Holmes-like detective film, the emphasis is still firmly on detection, suspense and character-based drama rather than action.

Surprisingly, scenes like this aren’t as common as you might think.

Even so, the film’s action elements are fairly good – and still stand the test of time. Like with another vaguely nautical action film from the 1990s called “Hard Rain“, the film’s focus on small-scale events happening in one location really helps to keep the action dramatic, “realistic” and focused.

Likewise, the fact that the film’s action scenes actually have consequences (eg: Hardy spends the entire film limping from an injury he sustained in a thrilling car chase early in the film) helps to give the film’s action moments a real sense of drama and impact.

The suspenseful, dramatic and theatrical car chase at the beginning of the film is probably also the most well-choreographed of the film’s action scenes, although a later scene where Hardy uses a flare gun is probably the most inventive action scene.

The only action scene I can think to criticise is a somewhat random and unnecessary scene where Hardy (mostly) single-handedly raids a coal boat filled with criminals, seemingly just to impress Christman. Still, it’s a thriller movie starring Bruce Willis, so at least one badass “Die Hard”-esque scene is to be expected.

Yippie-ki-yay mothership!

Plus, at a streamlined 97 minutes in length, this film’s narrative manages to remain fairly focused throughout. Seriously, I’m surprised at how much storytelling and characterisation the film-makers managed to include here.

Yes, it certainly isn’t the most complex film I’ve ever seen, but there’s a lot of characterisation for many of the characters (eg: the older detectives who Hardy often ends up clashing with, Hardy himself, Christman etc..) and the relationships and dynamics between the characters are a central part of what makes the film so compelling.

However, quite a few of the conversations in this film can be described as terse, angry or bitter. Then again, this often adds suspense and tension to the film.

The emotional tone of this film is also somewhat interesting too. Opening credits aside, the film initially seems reassuringly “retro” – with Bruce Willis being Bruce Willis, some thrilling action, lots of beautiful scenery, some amusing dialogue etc..

Yet, as the film progresses, the emotional tone gradually darkens somewhat – with chilling plot twists, story developments, characters and scenes that push the film away from the thriller genre and into the horror genre. Or, more accurately, it’s one of those “a horror story in all but name” thrillers that used to be more popular during the 1990s.

For example, this scene probably wouldn’t look out of place in a horror movie.

Not only is this horror emphasised by the killer’s identity and modus operandi, but also by the fact that we learn relatively little about their motivations too. Not to mention that the motivations of some other characters seem all too chillingly realistic too. So, this isn’t really a “fun” action movie in the way that a film like “Broken Arrow” is, but it’s still a very compelling thriller.

In terms of set design and lighting, this film does fairly well. Most of the set design is fairly “realistic”, although there are some cool locations at various points in the film. Not to mention that Hardy also lives in a wonderfully cosy houseboat too, which just seems so quintessentially 90s.

Needless to say, it also provides a good backdrop for the obligatory romantic sub-plot too.

The lighting is, as you would expect from a film of this vintage, absolutely brilliant! Like so many other films from the 1990s, “Striking Distance” is filled with lots of wonderfully atmospheric gloomy and/or high-contrast lighting. Seriously, I miss when films used to include lighting like this on a regular basis.

Seriously, this place looks AMAZING!

Plus, Hardy’s houseboat looks really cool at night too.

Musically, this film is reasonably good – with the stand-out musical moment being an ominous slow-paced rock song that plays whenever the serial killer phones the police to taunt them.

All in all, “Striking Distance” is a compelling detective/horror/thriller movie (with some action movie elements). Yes, this film will be most dramatic when you see it the first time – but the character dynamics, characterisation, horror elements and suspense mean that the film can still be surprisingly compelling even when you know who the murderer is. Yes, it isn’t a “fun” 1990s action movie – but the suspense, horror and drama elements of the film are still fairly timeless.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four.

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