Detroit 9000

Was it a honky caper?
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1973
Director: 
Arthur Marks
Starring: 
Hari Rhodes, Alex Rocco, Vonetta McGee, Ella Edwards
The Setup: 
Who was responsible for the robbing of a black fund raiser?
Discussion: 

I often watch movies in two parts, usually stopping about halfway, but with this one, I watched up to the last five minutes, then turned it off. I believe the reason was because I was unable to stay awake any longer. That was over a year ago, and I always looked forward to watching it again, because on the first viewing, it seemed like an undiscovered gem, perhaps on par with the stunningly brilliant Trouble Man. This time, I regret to say, it comes off a considerably better than average, but not much more than that. It does remain, however, the movie that should have made a star out of the charismatic and talented Alex Rocco.

The title refers to a police code that means an officer is down. We open at a high-class African-American party, where 70s black fashions and hairstyles are providing several amusing sights, and a band is playing "Touch Me, Jesus," one of two songs on the soundtrack written by Motown songwriting legends Holland-Dozier-Holland. We have the introduction of Congressman Clayton, played by Rudy Challenger, of Cool Breeze, who uses the party to announce his intention to run for Senate. They turn the function into an impromptu fund-raiser, encouraging men to dump money into a basket, and women to dump their jewelry, which they all do, believing their money will go toward helping blacks have more political power. Unfortunately, armed gunmen in masks come in and take the basket. There is a good little complication where it looks like the getaway van will be unable to leave because of a badly parked garbage truck.

The crime makes a huge splash in town, and the police chief is under pressure to find the criminals NOW. A reporter asks him if it was "a honky caper to keep black power from taking over the state senate." Then there's a gunfight in which we learn that the movie has one (1) gunshot sound effect in its arsenal. Then we meet Alex Rocco as detective Dan Bassett, guest on radio call-in show "Buzz the Fuzz." Someone calls in and accuses the police of institutionalized racism, and Bassett unleashes a profanity-laced tirade on air. The next day he's in trouble with his superiors, but the point is that he is respectful of the black community. He is assigned to the case, paired with black partner Jesse, former athlete, who takes a cautious attitude toward his new partner.

We soon learn that Dan has a wife, an extremely racist wife, who is confined to a mental institution. We also meet Jesse's lady friend, who says "Anyone who has any doubts that black is beautiful just needs to get one look at my hunk of man power." We soon find that Jesse has suspicions about Bassett, and that underlings of Congressman Clayton have suspicions about him. They go to a whorehouse, where we meet Robey, prostitute who phones Ferdy, her boyfriend who it turns out was involved in the heist. In here we see Jesse slowly coming to trust Bassett, and we've had cause to note that this movie is definitely shot in the Detroit of the 70s, featuring many evocative locations, which was quite a trip for me, as I grew up in Detroit during this very period. So the FEELING of the place was terribly vivid for me as I watched this film, and also the distinct impression: Christ, what a shithole.

SPOILERS > > >
First there's a stakeout, which would have been the first real break in the case, but it gets screwed up. Then Robey is called in for questioning, and acts pretty darn suspicious. Then there's a Detroit River boat chase which is one of those things that I said is very evocative of Detroit at the time. Then Robey is shot, and as she's dying, tells her story, which we see in flashback. It seems she was called to an assignation with a man who turned out to be Congressman Clayton. And it turned out--he's a dick who just got atop her and used her like an inanimate object, and lasted all of 20 seconds. Then Ferdy, her boyfriend, didn't really care. I'm actually not entirely sure what this reveals, but we return to the present, and she dies. Bassett, who overheard her recitation, takes off.

After yet another chase and shootout, Ferdie is caught. He reveals that the entire thing is not a vast conspiracy against the black community, it was just a commonplace heist, for the money. He leads Jesse to where the money is--and it's gone! Cut to Bassett, who is boarding a cruise ship, suitcase with the money (jewels, actually) in hand. He's meeting with a guy from the Middle East, who can unload jewels more readily than cash, in the poppy fields of Afghanistan. But there's no honor among thieves, and Bassett is shot. Jesse puts his suspicions together, and soon finds Bassett there, dying. Bassett says he almost had the criminals, then dies. In the final scene, there is a ceremony hailing Bassett as a hero, while Jesse suspects he may actually have been the criminal all along. He gets in a car with his girlfriend, saying it will drive him crazy the rest of his life, not knowing whether Bassett was cop or criminal.
< < < SPOILERS END

As I said, the first time I watched it, it seemed quite good and refreshingly complex. It seemed far less so this time. Yes, it has some good shades of gray, and nice little touches like the getaway car stymied by something as simple as poor parking, as well as the ambiguous ending, but for the most part it is somewhat muddled and confused, marred by the poor acting and character incoherence that often marks the genre, and ultimately ends up pretty good but not that great. But you do get a lot of 70s Detroit flavor, if you're into that kind of thing.

What it is, as noted, is the film that should have made Alex Rocco into a star. His Danny Bassett is a complex character, and Rocco makes him come off as tough, thoughtful, and filled with regrets of a hard life that just keeps closing in. He is by far the best thing about the movie, and will likely put him on the radar of anyone who watches this. He also made small appearances in The Godfather and Three the Hard Way, and numerous other things right up to this day, but never really got as large and demanding role as he brings off here. Hats off to you, Alex Rocco!

Anyway, a decent little hidden blaxploitation nugget, which will help you impress your friends with your knowledge of the genre, but if you really want a film that transcends its genre to become a great crime and action film above all else, you should watch Trouble Man. This is decent, and seems better than it is just for being so forgotten, but when it one gets down to it, is just good, not great.

Should you watch it: 

If you're into blaxploitation deep catalog, or want to see Detroit in the 70s.