MGM // 1987 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // March 14th, 2003
Fast, furious...and deadly.
Benjy Taylor, a 22-year-old rookie cop, is sent undercover by Lieutenant Bracey to find the killer of a fellow officer. All the evidence points to Ted Varrick, a rich bad boy who owns a suspicious Porsche repair shop. Relying on his adeptness at auto repair, Taylor assumes the identity "Bill Aisles" and becomes a mechanic at Varrick's garage. The two become fast friends. Soon, under the tutelage of Malcolm (the shop steward) and Varrick himself, Taylor learns about the illegal car theft ring the two perpetuate, preying on the malls and posh roadways of Los Angeles. They steal Porsches and sell them to a local chop shop for quick, untraceable cash. And with his skill under the hood, it's not long before Taylor is invited into the criminal fold. Over time, Taylor begins to enjoy life as a car-jacking hoodlum. He also enjoys keeping company with Varrick's baby sister, Ann. As they grow closer, the threat to Taylor and his cover becomes very real. Seems that the cops are not the only people after Varrick and his gang. Rival boss Frank Martin wants his competition eliminated. And that means Taylor too. It's up to the confused policeman to determine what side of the law he is on to save himself, his friend and his new found love. Or is he destined to become forever trapped in an ethical and legal No Man's Land?
For one hour and thirty minutes, No Man's Land is a hard working, fairly inventive and effective action thriller with a top-notch cast and a decent, deceptive storyline. It keeps all of its twists and turns close to the vest, never revealing the characters' true nature or intentions until it is absolutely necessary or germane to the plot. There are surprises o' plenty and a great deal of suspense and intrigue generated. It even boasts a few well staged cat and mouse high-speed car chases and blazing gun battles, just enough to wet the whistle of wantonness for mindless mayhem fans. So, you may ask, why is this not one of the better rated and remembered off title automobile anarchy flicks ever made? Well, the answer is simple. In a scene of utter and complete stupidity, totally unrealistic and outside the honesty and accuracy previously depicted, the movie just self-destructs. It virtually erases everything that came before it and pretty much ruins any chances of the ending working to anyone's satisfaction. Without giving too much away, it involves the undercover cop, a sleepover with the villain's sister on Christmas Eve, and a relative bearing gifts. The fiasco unfolds like screenwriter Dick Wolfe (TV's Law and Order) had simply run out of ideas, and instead of providing a showdown between good and evil, where virtue and loyalty are tested against corruption and greed, he opted for the "dopey relative with a big mouth" cop out. (Pun intended and inferred.) And then, as if this wasn't bad enough, the final confrontation, resolution, and revelation feels grossly under developed. Things happen and people die without rhyme or reason -- and without a good car chase, which is what we came to see in the first place. By the time of the final freeze frame, you feel resentful of the film. It once had all of its action antics successfully suspended in the air simply to let them drop to the ground with a devil may care crash.
But up until that point, No Man's Land had been a fairly good film. Part of it comes from the casting. D.B. Sweeney is very convincing as the young naïve cop who goes undercover, and finds that he sort of likes the criminal life of a car thief. He mixes the right amount of wide-eyed innocence with law enforcement discipline and guilty enjoyment to believe his confused Benjy Taylor character. Randy Quaid always has a hard time shaking that awkward goofball presence of his, but he does a professional job of playing a by the book, but not completely heartless police official. Unfortunately, at the evil end of the spectrum, we have problems (although only one of them is major). Of little consequence is Lara Harris as Ann Varrick, giving nothing to do but try, in vain, to be an attractive object of desire to Sweeny's character. Her minor, piffling persona and relatively plain features render her ineffective as a fiery femme fatale. Far more disappointing, and therefore deadly to the integrity of the film, is Charlie Sheen, who appears to be assaying the role of import car hood ornament here. He has one facial expression (a disconnected glower) and one character trait (smoking like a nicotine-addicted hummingbird). Most of his performance is seen through a cloud of tobacco so thick it's as if Sheen is telegraphing his later battles with drugs, alcohol, and prostitutes by showing how completely dependent on coffin sticks his Varrick character really is. Since he's never really villainous (just cold and calculated), you don't feel the need to root against him. And since he develops a kind of "boys will be boys" bandito bond with Sweeny, it's hard to completely dismiss him. Perhaps the film would have been better if the whole undercover cop angle had been ditched and the roles of Benjy and Ted were played as modern day outlaws, out to bushwhack the Porsche owners of L.A. with their uncanny car thievery. Instead, without a clear delineation between right and wrong, No Man's Land dissolves into an amoral mediocrity.
In the world of DVD releases, there is nothing worse than an action movie yanked out of its original aspect ratio and open matted to fit the full screen mentality. Unless the movie is No Man's Land, where the boob tube broadening is accentuated by faded colors, noticeable compression, and some bad pixelation. MGM, usually known for impressive and honest transfers of even their most obscure titles, really makes a mess of this print. No Man's Land not only looks like it was made sixteen years ago, but it will make you feel like your playing it on a system at least twice as old. The sound, presented in Dolby Digital Stereo Surround, is average, offering some channel separation, but not much else. The click-clack Casio soundtrack sounds hollow and soulless, like Depeche Mode played through a Fisher Price boom box. We don't even get a set of decent extras here, just a group of trailers and some ads for other MGM titles.
It's really too bad about No Man's Land. For most of its running time, it works as an evocative and exciting exercise in stylish late '80s action. There is a real Miami Vice/Beverly Hills Cop feel to the entire enterprise. But the minute the dimwitted relative playing Santa lets the police sting out of the bag, the movie's momentum disappears faster than craft service table cocaine up a certain Estevez's nose. What the title has to do with carjacking and chop shopping is certainly a mystery. But No Man's Land is an accurate description of where the final draft of this screenplay spends the last moments of its third act. This is one hot rod rendezvous that can't help but end up grinding its gears.
Review content copyright © 2003 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R