Judge Bill Gibron was 13, when he first saw this film. Sadly, both have aged awkwardly.
Officers Freebie and Bean: A Lawbreaker's Best Friends.
Freebie (James Caan, Misery) and his Mexican partner, "the Bean" (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine) are policemen in San Francisco. For the last 17 months they have been working on nailing numbers racketeer Red Meyers (Jack Kruschen, Webster). After they find a piece of evidence in the mobster's garbage can, they think they have the case sewn up. Too bad the dictatorial DA (Alex Rocco, The Godfather) thinks otherwise. When an informant tells them that Meyers may not be long for this world (the Detroit mob has put a contract out on him), it's up to the duo to protect their prize defendant. In the meantime, Bean is concerned that his wife Consuela (Valerie Harper, The Mary Tyler Moore Show) is having an affair. While Freebie only cares about beating up criminals and shaking down local business merchants, his Hispanic sidekick is suffering, with all paths leading to a hitman/target/law enforcement showdown during Super Bowl weekend.
Freebie and the Bean has not aged well. That's not to say that time has completely tarnished the original bad cop buddy film. Far from it. But for those who've heard of Richard Rush's legendary controversial comedy, a movie made up of exciting action scenes, a complicated crime drama plot, and enough racial slurs to make Republican pundits proud, this Warners Collection Archive release will be a revelation—and not necessarily in a good way. Sure, James Caan is in full blown scandalous superstar mode, mocking every ethnicity he can while carrying over the cache he earned from Brian's Song, The Godfather, and Cinderella Liberty, while Alan Arkin is fleshing out the fame he found in Catch-22, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and Little Murders. These are two men at the top of their given game, and when you add in cult director/maverick Rush, who runs ramshackle over 70s movie convention, you should have something subversive, and wildly entertaining. Sure, the rebelliousness is obvious, but in light of a 35 year advance in cultural dialogue, Polish Jokes and casually thrown epithets just don't seem that shocking—or funny.
Indeed, when viewed today, Freebie and the Bean is far more enjoyable as a work of old school stunt coordination than anything else. It's clear from the number of automotive crackups here that John Landis studied this film over and over again before he destroyed half of Chicago in The Blues Brothers. Set in San Francisco, Rush turns the entire town into a sight gag, from a three story plunge into an old couple's dilapidated bedroom, to a disrupted art fair where a giant domino display delivers on its precarious set-up shtick. All the while, professionals both behind and in front of the wheel make us believe in the reality of what is happening, mechanical threat without the sometimes noticeable CG sheen of the current action trade. Naturally, if you look hard enough, you will see Caan and Arkin's stand-ins doing most of the dangerous heavy horsepower lifting, but just like similarly styled films (Bullitt, The French Connection), we can equally appreciate their contributions to the experience.
The rest of Freebie and the Bean will be a little tougher going. Caan and Arkin are given free reign by Rush to mimic Robert Altman and his overlapping dialogue routine. Jokes—or what passes as humor—frequently get lost in the actor's desire to improve and adlib. Similarly, the whole "supercop" routine is so middling Me Decade. Caan earns his nickname by basically flimflamming and scamming the constituency into giving him stuff (clothes, cars, cash) for nothing. Today, we would call that obvious corruption and graft. Then, it was part and parcel of cleaning up the mean streets of our decaying urban landscape. And let's not forget the outright brutality—Freebie and the Bean beat up more potential witnesses than they ever interview, and when a possible criminal comes into their felonious frame of reference, it's all Tarantino-ready gun battles and firepower.
Where things really go wonky, however, is the ending. It's hard to name another tough as nails edge or your seat adrenalin rush that introduces a karate kicking cross-dresser, a corrupt police captain and district attorney, a dead plot point mark, and the possible mortality of a main character heretofore seen as almost invincible. It's as if Rush purposely pulled the rug out from under the audience, saying "You expect resolution 'X'—I'm giving you one f-ed up 'Y' and 'Z' instead." Today, it's seen as a quirky and somewhat clever way to end this kind of film. Back in 1974, it was a complete and utter mindblower. Perhaps that's why the proposed sequel never came about. How do you top a film that goes about topping itself in the last five minutes?
This may also explain why, up until now, Freebie and the Bean has never seen a legitimate DVD release. Rush went on to turn even more heads with his masterful middle finger to Hollywood, The Stunt Man, while Caan and Arkin jumped off the box office bandwagon and landed on the career rollercoaster of legitimate working actors. For those who remember the film, the bigotry and subplot involving Valerie Harper in full "Mammacita" mode might explain the lack of commercial outreach. For now, anyone interested in this title will have to travel on over to Warner Bros. unique Collection Archive service and plunk down the dosh for a technically proficient but contextually weak release. Let's get one thing straight right up front—kudos to the studio for making this type of direct marketing interaction possible. There are literally hundreds of films and a cabal of moviemaking concerns that could take advantage of this brilliant merchandising approach.
And the DVD they provide is top notch. The original 2.41:1 aspect ratio is anamorphically maintained, and the print itself looks damn good. There are some age defects here and there, but the colors are bright and the level of detail impressive. On the sound side, however, there is not much that can be done with a flat, tinny, Mono mix. Not even giving it the same speaker fake stereo 2.0 set-up will help. There are no subtitles offered, however, and no additional language tracks present. Additionally, aside from a worn out trailer for the film, there are no other bonus features offered. Again, that's part of the trade off. You get a movie that may otherwise never have seen the light of a digital release. On the downside, these excellent discs give "barebones" a new meaning.
All packaging complaints aside (and they are very minor ones at that),
Freebie and the Bean is like a seminal TV show you loved growing up. The
nostalgia factor is high, and absence from your personal collection may make the
arrival all the more meaningful. But when viewed through the spectrum of current
reality, when looked at like any other artifact from the past, this Richard Rush
reaming of the action movie archetype seems awful tame today. It's still a whole
lot of fun, and quite eye-opening at times…just not for the reasons
recognized during its heyday.
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