Sony // 1989 // 92 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Mitchell Hattaway (Retired) // November 12th, 2004
In the shadows of the city, a brilliant killer waits...for the ultimate thrill.
From the depths of Columbia TriStar's vaults comes Relentless, a 1989 thriller about a serial killer and the Los Angeles detectives out to stop him. How does this film rate against the roughly three billion other serial killer thrillers released in the past two decades?
Los Angeles police officer Sam Dietz (Leo Rossi, The Accused) has just made detective; on the first day of his new job he's teamed with veteran detective Bill Malloy (Robert Loggia, Independence Day), and the two are assigned to investigate a recent spate of murders centered around Sunset Boulevard. The victims are being killed with objects from their own homes, and the murderer is taunting the cops with cryptic messages scribbled on pages torn from the L.A. phonebook. Malloy and Dietz discover the connection between the victims and attempt to warn potential targets. The detectives visit the apartment of Buck Taylor (Judd Nelson, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), a young man they believe could be in danger; they don't realize Buck, whose father was a member of the LAPD, is actually the killer. The case quickly becomes personal, as Buck soon targets Dietz's wife Carol (Meg Foster, The Osterman Weekend) and young son.
Relentless can best be summed up in two words: overly familiar. It's not the worst example of its genre, but there's really nothing to distinguish it from the numerous other films of this ilk. All the usual elements are here: the cocksure rookie cop (complete with a loving family just waiting to be put in jeopardy), the veteran cop who's seen it all, a killer with parental issues, and a precinct house full of cops who can't see the clues sitting right in front of their faces. You can take the basic tenets of this genre and weave them into something new (I suppose Se7en would be the most notable recent example), but the makers of Relentless don't even bother to try.
Director William Lustig (Maniac, Maniac Cop) seems more at home filming hacked-up bodies and blood spatters, but here he (unwisely) reigns in the gore, as if he's trying to attract a more mainstream audience. The script, written under a pseudonym by Field of Dreams director Phil Alden Robinson, borrows its ideas on the subject of serial killers from other films, not from research or study. The direction and script do nothing to create tension, but instead telegraph the alleged moments of suspense. If you see a character alone in his or her home, you can pretty much see their demise coming, and you just know something bad is going to happen to Loggia's character the moment he and Rossi start bonding. The killer's identity is revealed soon after the opening credits, which right away takes away half the appeal of this type of film; after that, there's nothing to do but wait for Nelson to get caught. The result is a poorly paced, lifeless film.
There's quite a bit of contempt for their audience on the part of the filmmakers. Lustig frequently cheats by forcing camera angles during the murder scenes; the first victim is attacked in him bathroom, although he should have easily seen the killer. Nelson comes up beside him, not from behind, which, given the layout of the room, means there was actually nowhere for Nelson to hide. I also find it hard to believe not a single victim of the murders, who for the most part appear to be quite well-off, owned a gun or a home security system (Nelson himself has an arsenal in the closet of his apartment); c'mon, we're talking about Los Angeles here. Not caring about the characters doesn't help, either. Rossi's Dietz is an unlikable jerk, and his self-righteous indignation gets old very fast. Loggia's Malloy is really more a symbol than a character. Foster's character does nothing except sit around and wait for the (inevitable) moment the killer comes after her and her son. The flashbacks to Nelson's youth come off as silly, and the attempts to make his character sympathetic don't work at all. (It's revealed during these flashbacks Nelson has had the same dopey haircut his entire life, which I guess is this film's idea of severe psychosis.)
The acting is a mixed bag. Rossi underplays half his scenes and goes ballistic during the rest. (I can remember losing interest in The Accused when he went fatally over-the-top during the scene in which he harasses Jodie Foster in a parking lot.) Loggia stands around and does his gruff bit; I imagine he was offered this role after playing a very similar character in The Jagged Edge. It's hard to judge Meg Foster's performance, considering she's really given nothing to do until the contrived (not to mention clichéd) ending. The film also features an all-too-brief appearance by the late, great Eddie Bunker (Reservoir Dogs). As for Nelson -- we'll get to him in a minute.
Columbia hasn't pulled out all the stops for this release, but they've done a somewhat respectable job. The film has a muted color palette, and the transfer, for the most part, conveys this quite well. Blacks generally appear as grays, and grain becomes obtrusive in a few scenes, especially the flashbacks; the flashbacks also have a very soft look, and while I'm sure that's partially a stylistic choice, I don't think they were meant to look quite this soft. There's also some evidence of damage in the source print, usually in the form of specks and scratches. The Dolby Surround track performs better than I had anticipated, although I did detect some hiss at a number of points. Jay Chattaway's cheesy synthesizer score is well represented, with some very deep bass; there are also some very good directional effects and ambiance, most notably in the scenes inside the police station. The only extras are previews for other Columbia TriStar releases.
Okay, you might want to sit down for this. Okay, ready? The best thing about Relentless is Judd Nelson's performance. Bet you never thought you'd read that, huh? Although he's stuck playing a poorly-written character in a dull film, he actually gives a rather good, nicely modulated performance (much of which is due to the fact he has very little dialogue). Could be he used his Billionaire Boys Club character as a dry run.
Depending on your point of view, I suppose director William Lustig should be commended for, if nothing else, making sure at least one of Nelson's female victims removes her top before being dispatched.
Relentless isn't truly awful, but in this case being truly awful might have actually been an improvement, as that would have made it a little more fun to watch. Instead, it's just another example of been there, done that, who cares? I advise you to skip it. How it warranted a string of sequels I'll never know. I just hope someone doesn't dig out this script in a few years and plug Ashley Judd into Leo Rossi's role. Yikes.
No doubt about it -- guilty. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R