Hollywood Vice Squad (1986, Penelope Spheeris)
Starring: Joey Travolta, Frank Gorshin, Carrie Fisher, Robin Wright, Goddess Bunny.
Tagline: ‘The most unusual police force in the world’
Trailers: Recruits, Ski Squaw, The Cleveland Steamer
Cherrypick: “Slavery – I love it!”
‘The Hollywood Vice Squad,’ we are informed via a sober title card, ‘is one of the most unusual police organisations in the country. The stories you are about to see are all based on real cases’. It’s a stark, terse mission statement worthy of a harrowing documentary or an awards hopeful. It is also one which we do not believe for a moment, but it does at least begin to prepare us for our forthcoming journey into a stygian netherworld we are to navigate with nothing more than the guttering light of our increasingly besieged souls to guide us.
Through the rusty gates of a neon sexual Disneyland we pass on a fruitless trek across a depraved Fantasia of the Damned populated by an accursed travesty of bondage Bambis, gimp-masked Goofys and deviant Dumbos; a three-ringed circus of back-alley bacchanalia, where the only thing that can make you feel any more debased does not reach up from the abyss to lick around your heels like the cold fires of perdition, but comes in the touch of anything warm or safe or clean.
Welcome to a world where the whores hustle while the hustlers whore and Joey Travolta and his squad of hosehead vice cops patrol the Sunset Strip with all the street smarts of a flock of sheep. It’s a beat that largely consists of keeping tabs on the beefy transvestites, Rodeo Joes and unraveling starlets of downtown Los Angeles, and one which is duly carried out with all the diligence and professionalism one normally associates with that famously incorruptible band of brothers, the LAPD. What nobody has decided, however, is whether the remit of Hollywood Vice is in the jurisdiction of hard-hitting exposé or the no-fly zone of pornographic buffoonery.
The main plot thread concerning a mother searching for her runaway daughter through the flesh-dens and coke pits of La-la Land in the hope that she can convince her to return to an unfulfilled life of threadbare drudgery in the dust-blown wastes of Oklahoma is broken up by a series of jarringly pointless asides in which traumatic acts of underage S&M sit uncomfortably next to scenes of googly-eyed prurience and slapstick violence.
Robin Wright essays the errant daughter’s swift transition from puppy-fat farm girl to sallow-cheeked crack-basket with no little skill, and Frank Gorshin (the Riddler from the 60’s TV Batman) makes for a convincingly degenerate effeminate skin trader. There’s even a priceless snapshot of Carrie Fisher in that five-minute window that existed between her appearance as Slave Girl Leia in Jabba’s palace and the squawking, pie-faced harridan that’s been turning on chat shows up like a disowned fart ever since. But these are mere drops in an ocean of sleaze and are soon lost under waves of slurry.
The film's many side-alleys rely entirely on the assumption that any and all interaction between a bunch of liquored-up frat boys/an uptight Japanese businessman/a gaggle of prissy dowagers and a smart-mouthed hooker with a face like forty miles of bad road will automatically trigger comedy dynamite. The only fall-back option to this ironclad thesis is to send Travolta undercover in a blonde wig and a Spandex boob-tube to infiltrate Gorshin’s stable of gamine prostitutes. At what point do the other girls see through his grotesque charade? Would you believe it’s not until he forgets himself after downing a six-pack of Colt 45 and takes a leak standing up? No, neither did we.
Of course, exploitation, titillation and bush league production values are nothing new to this blog, but given the shot in the arm that the porn industry had received from the mid-Eighties video explosion, the precise timing of this deeply unpleasant collection of seedy vignettes makes the film appear less like the frank chronicle of human weakness it would have us believe it to be and more akin to a cooing love letter to the more suspect echelons of the LA bongo scene.