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Hipster Holy Grail: City Killer (1984)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

A quick note before the review.  I didn't have a clean source to pull screencaps for my write-up this week, so almost all of the images in here have a "Movies 4 Men" logo in the upper right corner.  If that will detract from your enjoyment of a 30-year delayed review of this film, then I apologize in advance.

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like Reading Reviews

City Killer is a movie about a villain whose camp and overacting is outmatched only by the incompetence of the police force that's out to get him.  This is not the kind of movie that you will necessarily quote for years to come, but it's sure to put a persistent dumb smile on your face.

My Rating: 4 / 5 (NBM)

The Bit Where I Summarize the Plot

Andrea (Heather Locklear) is an ambiguous office worker in an ambiguous city.  Things seem to be going well for her:  she likes her job, she’s up for a promotion, she lives in a fantastic apartment.  But one night, she is stopped cold in her tracks when her ex-boyfriend, Leo (Terence Knox) unexpectedly shows up.

Leo ominously informs her that he’s “better” now.  “The therapy worked,” he says.  “We can get back together again.”

But Andrea wants none of it – she left that relationship because she knew it was going to be bad news.  Rebuffed, Leo scowls and says, “I’ll show you.”  He leaves, and Andrea goes to bed.

The next morning, she's walking to work when she sees Leo standing suspiciously in a door frame across the street.  He holds up a remote control device and pushes a button.  Suddenly, a bomb goes off and destroys a building right before Andrea's eyes.

But you’ll notice a few important things in quick succession:

First, the building isn’t exploding – it’s stock footage of a controlled demolition.

Second, Andrea is standing like 10 feet away from the building and she’s fine.

Third, pretty much nobody else seems to give a shit, since they’ve got to get to work.

Fourth, the city has no emergency vehicles available to handle the aftermath, so the entire disaster is going to be managed by a single fire truck.  I’m pretty sure it’s the same one fire truck through the whole movie – with that kind of prominence, it deserves its own line in the credits.

Andrea goes to work – because why wouldn’t you?  It’s not like business is stopping for a day just because somebody blew up a building, right? – and calls the police.  They descend on the scene and interview her about Leo.  Then, right on cue, he calls and explains: “I’m doing this for you!”

Leo’s whole plan boils down to three steps: 1) Blow everything up, 2) Check if Andrea’s panties are wet, 3) Sex.  His motivations are leaked to the press and he soon becomes dubbed “The Love Bomber.”

The Love Bomber is pretty much the main reason this movie is worth watching.  Most of this is just a generic made-for-TV thriller with a stock cop hero leading a poorly-executed investigation.  At times it becomes a slog - usually whenever the movie becomes convinced that you've tuned in to find out whether or not Andrea will fall in love with her new cop friend.

But whenever the movie lets Leo get back to his scheming and shenanigans, it becomes a comic masterpiece.  Every bit of dialogue he utters is just dripping with overblown sleaziness, misplaced affection, and/or stupidity.  The way Terence Knox delivers his lines, Leo comes across as a dumbass who's just smart enough to realize that all the other dumbasses are dumber than him.

It's really not possible to do his performance justice in print because you can't hear me impersonating him, but he brings some much-needed charisma and energy to the role.  It's safe to say that without Knox as Leo, this movie would have just been a complete waste of time.

You know what, I don't even feel like talking about the rest of the plot.  I just want to go on about Leo a bit more.

The Bit Where I Love the Love Bomber

Leo is just so damn likable in this movie.  He's so well-meaning and he wants so badly to make Andrea happy.  Every time he calls her, he's got the excited cadence of a seven year-old who found the biggest frog in the creek out back and can't wait to show you the bed he made for it out of your nice linens.

He eventually comes up with a scheme to hold the entire city hostage until he gets two million dollars and a plane to Costa Rica.  Then he hopes to take Andrea away to Paradise where they can live out the rest of their lives in bliss.  That's it.  That's his scheme.  He's not out for vengeance or blood or shitty political machinations.  And the money isn't even really all that important - mainly he just wants it so he can give Andrea a good vacation.

When you consider that the movie goes out of its way not to show any death or misery AND the heroes are all boring planks of wood, it's pretty much impossible not to get hooked on Leo's specific brand of carefree, whimsical destruction.  He's a force of psychotic glee that keeps you coming back for more. 

He's industrious, too.  There’s a moment at one point where he calls Andrea and he says something like, “Aren’t you impressed?”

Well, maybe she's not, but I am.

These aren't haphazard dirty bombs going off or anything - they're controlled, professional demolitions.  Do you know how much work goes into pulling one of those off?  Leo is singlehandedly smuggling what has to be hundreds – if not thousands – of pounds of explosives, charging caps, and detonators into massive buildings all across the city and carrying out elaborate plans while evading detection by the entire police force over the course of a month-long manhunt.  Why doesn’t this guy have his own business?  Or is he the one that founded CDI?

Listen, Lovebug, forget about Andrea.  She doesn’t appreciate the craft.  Me, on the other hand?  I’m enthralled.  You’ve won me over.  Let’s go get a pizza and you can tell me all about how you would wire up Sears Tower.  And I'd love to go hang out in Costa Rica with you and two million bucks.

The movie doesn’t seem to realize it, but it’s applying one of the oldest character formulas in the book, just in reverse.  Andrea is introduced as a successful and well-rounded person who wants to exclude a goofball from her happiness; meanwhile, Leo is the down-on-his-luck weirdo who has a brilliant scheme that’s just crazy enough to work.

It’s basically an unintentional snobs-vs-slobs comedy.  About terrorism.

The Bit Where I Talk About Terrorism

If I was going to be an asshole about it, I’d call this “the movie that made domestic terrorism funny again.”

You know, I write a lot in my reviews about how each decade was “a different time” in America, even though I wasn’t alive for most of them.  There’s a lot of stuff that I know about only through osmosis or secondhand accounts.  But this time, it’s different; I was coming of age when 9/11 happened and I have direct personal experience that’s relevant to this discussion.  So even though I had only just been born when this movie came out, I can say with a certainty:  1984 was a different time in America.

City Killer is a movie about terrorism made by people who had no idea what terrorism was.  That’s not hyperbole.  There are people even now who will talk about terrorism with such broad strokes and superficial understanding of its underlying psychology that I’m tempted to dismiss their opinions out of hand, but at least they still recognize that it’s really bad.  City Killer doesn’t seem to grasp that.

This is a movie where the villain is a sweaty lunatic who holds buildings hostage the way a psycho in a Death Wish movie holds a helpless woman hostage.  When he blows something up, the cops don’t freak out – they’re just disappointed.  “I really thought we were gonna stop him that time,” they’ll shrug.  And the public?  They act like they see buildings collapse all the time.  No candlelight vigils, no walls of photos, no protests, nothing.

This is a movie where half a dozen buildings are destroyed and the height of emotional expression (excluding Leo) comes from a man who suffers a heart attack while trying to rescue his pet mouse.

There’s something childlike and sweet about a movie like this.  It posits a world where a man would be driven to terrorism not because of exploitative regimes, broken promises, or a lack of opportunities… but because of a broken heart.  It’s false comfort, but it’s still comfort.  City Killer is like your dumb friend in elementary school who went to pat you on the back when your parents announced they were getting divorced – he had no idea what any of it meant, but it was nice of him, anyway.

The Bit Where I Conclude Things

One last observation before I wrap up: the movie ends with an implosion.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not a surprise that the movie wants to go out on a bang.  It's just that this is a movie about terrorism that decided it would be totally acceptable to end with... an act of terrorism.

It'll probably be awhile before American movies can do something like that again.  It would've been a grim twist on Zero Dark Thirty, wouldn't it?

You can watch City Killer for free on Youtube.