Skip to main content

Hipster Holy Grail: Backstreet Justice (1993)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

I don't want to give Backstreet Justice too much shit.  It's an okay crime thriller/mystery with a halfway decent female lead and an intriguing, if sometimes dense, criminal plot.  If only it didn't take itself quite so seriously, it would be a recommendation.

My Rating: 3 / 5 (Almost Good Movie)

The Plot Summary

We open on a creepy dude chasing after what appears to be a decrepit old woman down the dark alleys of inner city Pittsburgh.  He's accosted by a cop, and the two of them get into a fistfight as the old woman rushes inside her apartment building and frantically tries to lock the door.  But at the last second, somebody pushes their way inside - phew, it was the cop, not the creepy mugger; clearly the woman is safe.

Then, in a twist that literally nobody in history could have foreseen, it turns out the cop is actually up to no good and wants to kill the woman.  He attacks and they get into a fistfight... and then in another twist that nobody ever expected ever, a wig falls off and the old woman is revealed to actually be the young, spry, and sarcastic Keri Finnegan (Linda Kozlowski), a take-no-shit private investigator who was going undercover to try to catch this guy.

I never actually picked up on Murder Cop's name, but apparently he's been busy as of late and has killed three women in this neighborhood.  Later we'll find that Keri was hired by a bunch of locals - who I assume pooled their money together for her bill - to track him down, so apparently she's done good work by cornering him like this.  She almost gets the better of him, but then in a fit of self-defense, punches him out the window.  Unfortunately, Murder Cop gets up and disappears before anybody can actually apprehend him.

Now we go into clunky exposition mode.  There's a few scenes here to introduce us to all the other players, and while the overall flow makes sense - Keri is interviewed by cops, Keri has to report to her clients, etc. - the dialogue is really heavy-handed and smacks you upside the face with backstory.  To wit:

• Keri's father was a semi-corrupt cop (the movie somewhat excuses this by pointing out that most of the police department is at least a little corrupt) who was gunned down thirty years ago during an alleged assassination attempt on a commission investigating corruption.  Keri has never been able to live down his reputation.

• Captain Phil Giarusso (Paul Sorvino) is aware of Keri's private actions and hates that she keeps getting involved in matters that he wants the police to take care of.  He's a hothead who hated her dad and doesn't think much of her, either.

• Mort Nitoski (Mark Joy) is another hothead idiot, but he's just a townie instead of a cop.  He's a philandering unemployed drunk who contributed to the pool that went to Keri's salary, and he resents that she's in charge of the case because he hates women in general.  He's married to Cele Nitoski (Patricia Skeriotis), who's either a prostitute or just cheating on him.  I honestly couldn't tell which.

• Steve Donovan (Hector Elizondo) is the former District Attorney, now retired, who served on the commission named above that Keri's father was ostensibly trying to break apart.  Donovan has since served as something of a surrogate father for Keri.  He loves and treats her exactly like his daughter.  Which makes the next point kinda weird:

• Nick Donovan (John Shea) is Steve's son and another cop, who starts the movie talking to Keri like the surrogate sister she is, and then later sleeps with her, which is apparently a thing they just do sometimes.

• Millie Robovit (Viveca Lindfors) is the landlady in charge of the building where Keri lives, and is basically Keri's biggest cheerleader.

Got all that?  Good.

So, the movie jumps around with a lot of these folks for awhile and starts to lose some steam until one afternoon when Keri notices Murder Cop prowling around on a rooftop.  She sneaks after him and follows him through an open window, thinking she'll get the drop on him.  He surprises her and attacks, then runs away before she can do anything else.  Then Keri realizes MC stashed a time bomb in a drawer, and she throws it out the window seconds before it explodes.

Captain Giarusso is understandably pissed off that a bomb went off in his city and wants Keri arrested because of... reasons.  Donovan comes to her aid and helps to spin a total 180 on the situation; not only will she not get arrested, but now she has access to some police records and can investigate the matter further.

Later, Cele winds up murdered and Mort is arrested for the crime.  Keri goes to visit him in jail to basically yell at him and aggressively explain that she's going to try to clear his name, since she's seen Murder Cop and knows that Mort is innocent.  It's a weird scene, is what I'm saying.  They don't actually make amends or anything, they just get more pissed off at each other.

While she's out and about, Keri is accosted by a couple of corrupt cops who try to lock her in a trunk, but she fights them off with a little bit of help from Jesse (Keith Randolph Smith), her designated Black Friend / quasi-partner, who spends most of the movie hanging out off screen until he needs to either be sarcastic at her, beat somebody up, or both.  Jesse punches one of the cops off a roof and he dies, and then the other police show up again to yell at Keri more.

Now the movie switches gears a bit.  Keri discovers that a common link between all the murders so far is that the victims all lived in properties recently purchased by the same real estate company, Riverpoint Realty.  More to the point, that same company owns Keri's building.  She goes to ask Millie for more information and finds out that Millie actually isn't the landlady at all - she's basically just a bill collector who takes everybody's rent checks and gives them to the actual owner of the building.  (Before she did this, Keri's dad did it - suspicious, no?  Wonder why the movie would tell us that particular detail.)  Keri asks Millie if she has any identifying information on the owner, and Millie says she has a newspaper article with the guy's name and picture in it.  Then she says, "You go run your errand and when you come back, I'll give you the paper."

Naturally, Millie gets murdered two minutes later.  This just plain frustrates me.  Like, obviously she's going to die - Backstreet Justice telegraphs quite a bit - but why didn't you just wait for the friggin' newspaper, Keri?  You can't wait ten minutes?

Anyway, even though Millie is dead, a scrap of the sacred newspaper article is left behind, and Keri is able to find an archived copy of it on microfiche by painstakingly comparing the scrap to old newspapers.  Through that, she puts together that the mystery man's name is Rocky Nicolletta (William Thunhurst, Jr.), and she goes to work trying to track him down.  She pays a visit to a couple of Riverpoint Realty's properties, including their central office and a high-rise tower that is currently being built, by posing as a city inspector type named "Jeri Flanagan."

Side note: this pisses me off.  By this point, Keri knows she's attracting attention, so you'd think she would be as careful as possible not to slip up and give anybody any extra clues or ammo they can use against her.  Why didn't she give her name as "Alexandra Spicoli" or something else that sounds completely different?  That's like if I was trying to fly under the radar and I said my name was "Moziah Piatelli."  Who the hell am I going to fool?

But anyway.  Some of Nicolletta's goons bust Keri on her undercover sting and send her on her way. We abruptly cut to her and Jesse having lunch and piecing together all their clues, and they seem to figure out the scheme in a matter of thirty seconds flat.  Nicolletta was a goon who, along with Keri's dad, ran an illegal lottery many years back and made a ton of money.  After the state created a legal lottery, Nicolletta invested all his illegal funds into real estate to launder the money.  His plan to do as much was even more illegal than the lottery: he hired some muscle to commit murders, rapes, and other felonies in targeted areas in order to drive down property values / vacate existing tenants, and then he came around to purchase said properties with cash at low, low prices.  Then profit.  It appears that Murder Cop is following Nicolletta's bidding for yet another purchase.

If you think this seems like too convenient a scheme, you're right - and the cops agreed, since they formed a commission to investigate Nicolletta for exactly that reason. And that commission, naturally, was the Donovan Commission, which is the one for which Keri's dad was shot for apparently attempting to murder.

So, Jesse gets shot by Murder Cop at this point and is hospitalized, which is thrown into the movie as such a throwaway moment it's almost embarrassing.  Seriously, Backstreet Justice, you have one black person in your whole movie and the only things he does are punch a cop and get shot?  Bad form.

Since she's down one partner, Keri gets Nick to join her for her further investigations.  Next stop: mom.  She goes to visit her ailing, dementia-ridden mother to ask for more background about her dad, who she's starting to suspect might have been innocent. Mom isn't much help, due to the dementia and all, but she does keep mentioning "photos" over and over again, which gives Keri a clue to go check out all her dad's old crap in the basement.

Now, look.  I don't want to pretend like I'm two steps ahead of Keri here - or even any steps ahead.  In fact, I felt lost for maybe a quarter of the movie, so kudos to Keri for having the skills to piece it all together.  But... did you seriously need to have somebody mention "photos" before you thought to look at your dad's stuff?  The dad who was implicated in the commission investigating the guy who you now suspect to be the main bad guy of the movie?  Wouldn't your dad's box o' evidence be the first thing you'd check?

Anyway, there's an ancient negative in there with a photo of Nicolletta and two other guys that implicates them in his scheme.  One of those guys is Paddy Giarusso, Capt. Giarusso's younger brother, and the other one is as-yet unidentified since the negative was kinda fuzzy.  But Keri has a photo expert working on the negative and he says he can get her a clearer photo pretty soon, which means we won't find out that third guy's identity until the movie is ready for a twist.  And yes, the twist is exactly who you think it is. But we'll get there.

With the photo implicating Paddy in hand, Keri pays a visit to Capt. Giarusso and gives him all the evidence she's collected so far.  Shockingly, Phil believes her pretty easily and is ready to back her up on investigating Nicolletta further.

So, we're pretty much set now for the climax.  Nicolletta's goons, including Murder Cop, lure Keri to a remote hillside to be interrogated by telling her they have Donovan held hostage.  She comes face to face with Nicolleta for the first time, and they square off so he can threaten her / find out what she knows.  Here you start to get pretty sure about what that twist of the mysterious third guy will be, but Backstreet Justice still won't reveal its cards.  Cue action scene.

There's a prolonged back-and-forth chase / fight sequence that eventually works its way to a machinery building where Donovan is being held.  Capt. Giarusso and Nick show up to give Keri some backup, and just as Giarusso is about to arrest Nicolletta, Nick outs himself as corrupt and shoots the captain.  More fighting breaks out, and all the bad guys are killed. Most spectacularly of all is Murder Cop, who get shoved into an electrical board and fries up.

Keri is hospitalized for some cracked ribs in the aftermath and meets up with Jesse, who survived his gunshot and has just enough time for some more casual racism.  Then Keri's photo pal gives her the final draft of that mystery picture, which reveals the third guy's identity once and for all.

And that guy... was her father all along.

No, of course not.  It was obviously Donovan the whole time.  The minute he shows up and smiles and goes, "Oh, I sure do love my son and sorta-daughter who's having sex with him," you know he's going to end up being a bad guy somehow.

But Keri doesn't actually try to expose his past deeds.  Turns out Donovan is regretful of his past and genuinely does want what's best for Keri.  And since he helped out with bringing Nicolletta down (and also had to watch his corrupt son get killed in the process), Keri decides to let that one slide.  So, this plot element, which has been hanging over the movie for the entire third act, is kind of in the movie for no reason.

The movie ends with Capt. Giarusso hosting a ceremony at the cemetery to give Keri's father the burial honors he deserved, and they announce that they are clearing his name and record of any mention of corruption.  The End.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Backstreet Justice had a lot of potential that it didn't live up to.  On the one hand, I don't want to criticize it too harshly since there's a lot of good stuff here, but on the other hand, I'm frustrated that it's not better.  It's the dreaded curse of the Almost Good Movie - just bad enough to annoy me.

With one more pass at the script, this could have been something snappier and more lowkey, like Brick or A Walk Among the Tombstones or Gone Baby Gone.  It's so unbearably close to the spirit of those films that you can taste it.  Alas, it's not quite that good - it's ultimately a generic cop drama instead of punchy modern noir.

The first problem, I think, is Linda Kozlowski herself.  She's a fine actress, but she's miscast.  Or, more accurately, the character isn't written to her strengths.  Either you'd have to keep Kozlowski and tone Keri down a little bit to make her more of a cool, thoughtful type, or you'd have to cast somebody who's more believable as a hothead.  As is, Keri just feels awkward.  Kozlowski is just too classy an actress - it's like watching a stuffy valedictorian dress up in dirt makeup and pretend to be a blue collar teamster in the high school play.  Like, sure, she knows her lines and she can say them with generally the right emotion, but I don't buy for a second that she's ever had trouble paying the electric bill.

Similarly, the movie overall has a feeling of superficial grit and melodrama.  It's supposed to be about rough-and-tumble working class schmoes who are getting dicked over by a system that favors hard cash over morals.  That's something most of us can relate to.  But even while we're constantly feeling that pressure, most of us still have a sense of humor.  I've never met anybody who can't take a step back from their current FUBAR situation and go, "Well, shit, that sucks.  Hey, let's have a dirty joke to feel better, huh?"

I hate that feeling of forced grit.  It's not just boring, but it feels condescending.  And understand, this is me as a middle class dude saying it - I know I'm in a better place financially than many, but even I'm watching these assholes pretend like they've got problems and I'm thinking, "Fuck you."  It doesn't feel natural at all, it just feels like stuffy upper middle class white people pretending they know what it's like to have problems.

Where that comes from, I have no idea.  I know nothing about the personal life of Chris McIntyre, the writer/director.  Maybe he's from the upper crust, maybe not.  Maybe he wrote the script from personal experiences, maybe not.  I don't want to presume anything about anybody.  I'm just saying that what the end product feels like is very inauthentic and gets under my skin.

But.  On the other hand, the plot and pacing are pretty good, and a competent, self-sufficient female protagonist is always a welcome breath of fresh air.  So, it's not like the movie is utter dreck - there's definitely something wonderful hidden beneath that veneer of smug drama.

The movie I kept thinking about while watching this was Gone Baby Gone, which is likewise about a rough-and-tumble amateur sleuth going around their neighborhood and trying to piece together a convoluted mystery involving multiple layers of deception and police corruption.  It's basically the movie you'd get if you took Backstreet Justice and subtracted the personal drama.  Keri is an interesting enough protagonist and whenever the movie shows her actually working instead of getting angry and/or having sex, it's actually an intriguing watch.

If Chris McIntyre could go back and remake this movie, I'd recommend that he cut out as much of Keri's backstory as possible.  The best parts of the movie are when she's personally removed from the mystery and she's just figuring shit out.  As much as I bitched about the "Jeri Flanagan" alias earlier, that sequence was one of the better parts since you get to see her being good at her job.  Isn't that why people like detective stories?  Because of the detecting?

In the end, I'm deeply conflicted about this one.  It's a terrific mystery movie wrapped up in a bad tone and some uninteresting characterization.  That's neither a recommendation nor a condemnation.  It's in a weird space in the middle.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

It has just on the border of 200 ratings on IMDb, so that grants it a 35 point obscurity bonus.  And I guess I might give it another 5 points for being a completely unexpected Linda Kozlowski vehicle - seriously, would you have ever pegged her as a take-no-shit PI?

But Backstreet Justice isn't really a hipstery movie.  There's nothing particularly ironic about the content, the cast is made up of mostly well-established Hollywood players, and even the end product isn't something you'd hate-watch or drunk-watch.  So, I think this one is going to have to stick with a pretty low 40 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

Backstreet Justice is out of print on DVD, and used copies are kinda pricy.  However, if you're reading this in March 2017 when the post is current, you can find it in rotation on Starz.  I streamed it through my subscription on