If Judge Adam Arseneau was a private eye from the 1950s, his detective name would be "Frank Nailgun."
Our review of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer: The Complete Series, published September 20th, 2011, is also available.
"What makes you think you'll find him, and he won't kill you?"
So here's the thing with Mike Hammer, Private Eye: Mickey Spillane's gritty noir-style private eye stories enjoyed great success in the 1940s and 1950s in novel, radio, and movie form before being turned into a successful television show starring Stacy Keach (Titus, The Ninth Configuration) from 1984 to 1987. It enjoyed something of a cult status after being taken off the air, fondly remembered by those who enjoyed its kitsch and old-fashioned charm. Then, for some reason unknown to future generations, the show was revived a decade later in 1997, bringing Keach back with all-new "modern" episodes, which barely lasted a season and tanked in the ratings faster than the S.S. Minnow.
So, now. Ready? Guess which episodes got brought to DVD first?
Facts of the Case
Hammer is an old-fashioned private eye, the kind that only needs a tough attitude, his fists, and his two best friends—a bottle and a .45—to get a case solved. As an old-fashioned private investigator set in the mid-90s, Hammer feels out of place in the modern world. He has no idea how to use a computer, but has no problems flirting with his secretary when she types his documents. He takes an old-fashioned attitude towards alcohol and women, is perfectly content to beat a confession out of a suspect, and yet possesses an oddly righteous sense of justice.
So, yeah. He solves some murders and flirts with some girls, and has the innate ability to not only survive repeated blows to the face with a lead pipe, but dismiss it casually like a telemarketer calling at dinnertime. I swear this happens.
I have a confession to make. I asked to review this DVD set solely because I liked Stacy Keach in Titus. This must be how General Custer felt.
Mike Hammer, Private Eye is dreadful, simply dreadful. The only upside to this 20-hour DVD set is that it still leaves four hours in the day in which to spectacularly kill yourself. After two or three episodes, it becomes alarmingly clear why the modern revival of Mike Hammer only lasted a single season…it blew. The dialogue is clichéd even for a noir, the action sequences are clearly meant as some weird ironic parody of actual action sequences, and the jokes fall flatter than a pancake truck driving off a cliff. Hammer spouts inane dialogue like "If you're yankin' my chain, I yank back a lot harder," which makes me want to yank my television out of the wall. In the 1980s, this inane bravado may have played well on the screen (no worse than The A-Team), but in 1997? The fact that someone signed off on this could only be interpreted as the first sign of the television apocalypse. The second being reality television a few years later, but I digress.
Don't get me wrong: a good noir detective show would have my blood pumping. The key word, however, is "good"; and this is something Mike Hammer is not. The generic private eye clichés are so inflated and overdramatic in Mike Hammer as to seem almost parody. A full-time saxophonist seems to follows Hammer around everywhere he goes and jumps out with a sultry solo every time Hammer lays his eyes on a woman, any woman. As clichés go, this one is so overplayed here as to seem comical. I almost expect to see Woody Allen or Peter Sellers jump out from a dark alley and yell "Surprise! It's a comedy!"
But that never happens. And I never laugh.
As for writing, the plots are so ludicrous as to border on actual ridiculousness. Suspending disbelief becomes increasingly difficult when trying to take the genre and integrate it into the modern world in the best of cases, but this is the absolute worst. Traditionally, private eyes in the modern age do not get to go on raids with police officers and shoot people left and right, or sexually harass their secretaries, or beat the crap out of eyewitnesses, or grope women without getting very, very arrested. Hammer seems incapable of walking down the street without getting jumped by anonymous pipe-wielding thugs or getting shot at by fedora-wearing baddies. This seems to happen in every episode, sometimes multiple times. Then, after 45 minutes of this garbage, Hammer suddenly makes Sherlock Holmes-esque feats of nonsensical deduction, like observing some carpet fiber during the first 30 seconds of the episode and proving that some obscure character we met in passing is the bad guy. Scooby-Doo was a better detective than this guy.
If there is a saving grace to Mike Hammer, Private Eye, it is Stacy Keach, who cuts quite the figure as the hard-hitting tough and gruff private eye, at once likeable and intimidating at the same time. To make such an implausible and poorly-written character lifelike and believable is a feat of excellent acting, and he does the best he can with the material presented to him. He almost carries the show, but unfortunately, his dialogue is so abhorrent and atrocious that it cripples whatever performance he may be giving at the moment. Couple this with the poor performances of the supporting cast, and the cake is iced. The realization that the cast was actually paid in real money for these "acting skills" is so frightening a notion that it actually deprives you of sleep.
>From a technical standpoint, Mike Hammer manages to almost suck worse than the show itself. The transfer is an unmitigated disaster, so painfully egregious as to inspire the Manson clan to revive, claiming demons are swirling in the putrid brown gray distortion telling them to strike again. Reds are oversaturated to the point of making everyone look like boiled lobsters; edges are sharpened and jagged, and anything darker than beige degrades into a nasty grainy swirl of distortion. I had no idea things could get this bad.
The audio is bland and unappealing, but without any major flaws. Reasonable bass response and balance between ambient noise and dialogue leave the track serviceable, but underwhelming. Mike Hammer is all about atmosphere, from the smooth jazzy saxophone solos to the smoky street corners of New York City, and the show admittedly has the style down. The soundtrack is great—a variation on the jazzy opening theme played throughout the episode—and a walking bass line and brushed snare constantly follows the characters around in a satisfying way that would make Twin Peaks fans proud. I admit, the show has the music down pat.
But when the packaging proudly declares an eight-page booklet as a special feature, you know there's trouble. Mike Hammer is laughingly light on extras for a 20-hour box set, and if you count the booklet (har har) the only extras are a new interview with actor Stacy Keach and a photo gallery. Thumbs down. Finally, the discs are flippers, which are lame, but at least prevent the box set from having an absurd amount of discs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I guess there is a certain charm and appeal in this kind of low-budget, bad-acted corny noir detective show, if you can get past all the rampaging trash and idiocy. I get the sneaking suspicion that the original Mike Hammer show from the eighties may have been a better show, and gauging fan reaction on the Internet, I seem to be correct in this assumption. Of course, having seen this awful revival, I do not feel particularly motivated to go search out the original material. But that's just me.
I admit, trying to pull a 1940s-style gumshoe character in the modern day takes a certain amount of daringness and guts. I tip my hat to the producers for trying it. Unfortunately, the show just sucks too hard in every aspect to forgive. If I get in the mood for the noir detective genre, I'll stick to The Big Sleep, or hell, even the Dick Tracy movie over Mike Hammer. Sorry, Papa Titus.
Bottom line: this DVD sucks. If you are a die-hard fan, and I mean literally a member of the waking dead, then a 20-hour box set of Mike Hammer would be a dream come true…I guess. That, or fresh brains.
Fans of the original should probably stay away from Mike Hammer, Private Eye: The Complete Series, along with small children, pregnant women, the elderly, and/or anyone with a compromised immune system.
"So is Hammer your real name, or something some ex-girlfriend use to call you?"
I guess it would be funny if I could stop the uncontrollable vomiting and retching. Guilty as sin.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tango Entertainment
• Interview with Stacy Keach
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