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Hipster Holy Grail: Extreme 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

Extreme Justice dabbles a bit in social commentary, a bit in gritty cop drama, and a bit in overblown action.  I don't think it's impossible to do all of the above at once, but this movie loses its balance and delivers each one unevenly.  You can almost see an over-the-top guns 'n guts action flick hiding under the surface, trying desperately to burst through; unfortunately, this one is just a tad too subdued to let that stuff breathe.

My Rating: 2.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

We open on a dark, steamy night in downtown Los Angeles.  A goon is casing a convenience store, clearly getting ready to rob it.  Outside, a unit of half a dozen plainclothes police officers led by Dan Vaughn (Scott Glenn) gets ready to take him down.  The goon pulls a gun and steals cash from the register, then beats the clerk mercilessly.  He runs out the front door and comes face to face with a barrage of guns.  The cops tell him to freeze, but he opens fire instead - and seconds later, the goon is dead, along with one of the officers he hit.

Not a bad way to open a movie, I guess.  But then the movie does almost the exact same thing with Jeff Powers (Lou Diamond Phillips), another cop on a different bust-gone-wrong somewhere else in the city.  Powers gets into one of those good ol' fashioned reckless car chases and wrecks all kinds of shit, then catches his suspect and arrests him.  At least nobody dies this time.

Later, we see the plainclothes officers mourn the loss of their colleague and they wonder aloud about who they'll find to replace him.  Vaughn knowingly winks at the camera that he might know a guy, and we cut to Powers being grilled by Internal Affairs.

This is not his first time being investigated by IA.  Powers is a known liability and has been on IA's shit list for years.  The officer grilling him is almost ready to take his badge, but then she's forced to let him go - apparently, somebody pulled some strings for him and now the powers that be are letting him slide by again.

Enter Vaughn.  He and Powers were partners way back when Powers was a rookie, and it seems Vaughn did something nasty back then and Powers covered up for him.  Ever since, Vaughn has considered him a trustworthy asset, even though they've fallen out of contact.  Vaughn has called in some favors to get Powers re-assigned to his unit, the Special Investigation Section.

Now Vaughn goes into exposition mode.  The SIS is an elite, secretive unit for the LAPD that tackles the toughest and worst criminals on the street.  They work only one case at a time and start out with intense surveillance on their suspects.  They learn their targets' routines and build a case against them, then wait for a crime to happen.  The idea here is that the SIS won't act on an arrest until they have airtight evidence against the perpetrator, so they can't intervene in a crime until it's actually happening.  (I have some questions about this, but we can get into that later.)

Powers thinks the gig sounds pretty good, although he's a little bit weirded out that the SIS operates so secretively.  They keep talking about their mission as if they're covert operatives in the Cold War or something.  But, whatever.  Powers is in and they have a barbecue to celebrate.

Briefly we get introduced to Kelly Daniels (Chelsea Field), Powers' girlfriend.  Kelly is a crime reporter, which puts her and Powers at odds professionally.  Despite that, they seem to have a pretty good relationship.  They've promised not to step on each other's careers and they keep a clear separation between work and life.  And honestly, their relationship is kind of a high point of the movie.  Usually in movies like this the wife/girlfriend character is portrayed as a nag or a harpy or something, and the grizzled cop husband/boyfriend has all the weight of the world on his shoulders and just needs somebody with boundless empathy to take care of him.  But that's not how Extreme Justice does it.  Kelly and Powers respect each other as equals and both are willing to listen and apologize whenever they have a disagreement.  Even when they have fights - which is often over the course of the movie - they're both pretty mature about it.  So, props to you, Extreme Justice.  This was pretty refreshing.

Now the movie shifts into episodic territory, which is a bit of a step down.  For about the next forty minutes or so, you basically just see one SIS bust after another, and in between you get a bit more slice-of-life drama from the key players.  And as you might expect from a movie, Powers grows more and more uneasy with his new position.

His first bust is at a bank.  The SIS is tracking a crew of robbers who hold the place up, and after Powers announces himself as an officer, the robbers open fire.  In the ensuing gunfight, half a dozen bystanders are killed along with all of the robbers.  The carnage leads one of the SIS officers, Lloyd (Richard Grove), to have an anxiety attack.  He freaks out after he sees that one of the dead is a teenage girl, and shortly after that he quits the team and retires altogether.

Kelly tries to interview cops at the scene of the aftermath, but Vaughn shuts them down quickly.  Unable to get any information from the officers in charge of the scene, she tries to question Vaughn.  When he shuts her down, too, she decides to start tailing him to learn what's up.

Every now and again we cut back to Kelly's investigation and we catch up with her progress.  She's pretty sharp, so by the halfway point of the movie she basically knows all about the SIS and their track record for killing suspects.  She wants to write a huge piece for the front page, but her editor (Stephen Root) won't let her go ahead with a story until she has an inside source to corroborate her findings.  Kelly briefly tries to get Powers to give her an interview on the SIS, but he refuses.

So, more mini-sodes of the SIS Adventures continue, and the fallout gets substantially worse.  In one bust, the SIS is trying to crack down on a gang of serial rapists.  They follow the gang to an alley and wait for them to actually start raping a woman before intervening.  This scene is pretty gross for a lot of reasons, but the most mystifying part is why they wait so long.  Like, I hate to be graphic about it, but one of the guys is very clearly, um, penetrating, and you hear her screaming, but Vaughn keeps telling the team to stand down.  Why?  Does it not count as rape if the guy doesn't finish?

Well, Powers is pretty disgusted by waiting, so he breaks Vaughn's orders and intervenes.  Two of the three gang members are shot to death and the third - the one who actually commenced - holds the woman at gunpoint.  Powers convinces him to lower his gun, and then Vaughn decides to shoot the rapist in the head.  The rapist has a muscle reflex and pulls his trigger, and the woman is killed, too.  In short, it's a pretty shitty night.

IA has a hearing for Vaughn and Powers reluctantly refuses to testify against him, so the SIS is able to continue operating.  But now Powers is pretty sick of his new team and he keeps questioning if they've gone too far.  Not much of a debate, is it?  I'd think the minute you sit back and watch a lady get raped and murdered, you can pretty safely say you've crossed a line.  Or is this a cop thing?

Somewhat disgustingly, the final straw happens later when the SIS kills a white guy.  In context, it's meant to show the progression Vaughn makes from bad to worse.  After getting the suspect to lower his weapon, Vaughn finds out the suspect is a teenager and the gun he's using is fake.  The teen has surrendered, but then Vaughn shoots the kid, anyway.  So, sure, I guess from a procedural standpoint that's marginally more evil than killing a rapist who, as a consequence, inadvertently killed an innocent women.  Still.  It's bothersome that when a Latinx women is raped and killed, Powers just loses some sleep, but he doesn't feel compelled to act until some white asshole gets shot.

Anyway.  Powers final gives a detailed interview to Kelly, and a huge expose makes its way to the papers the next day.  Powers quits the SIS, but not before he and Vaughn have a bare-fisted brawl at his house.  Powers punches Vaughn to the ground, then walks off into the sunset with Kelly.  Meanwhile, Vaughn laughs at him from a distance, saying that his efforts are in vain because the people of LA won't give a shit.  Then Vaughn looks directly into the camera and screams, "They love us!  They love what we do!"  Roll credits.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Maybe it's because I just watched a Lifetime movie and I have that style on my mind, or maybe it's because Extreme Justice is not particularly subtle, but I feel like this movie is pretty much the man version of a Lifetime Original.  It has the exact same hammy acting, overblown music, and melodrama, but instead of following the exploits of an average American woman having the worst day ever, it follows a bunch of grizzled cops with itchy trigger fingers.

Part of me wants to blame this on the movie's premise.  On the surface, it's outright ridiculous.  There's an elite squad of cops that waits for bad guys to commit a crime so they can kill them with impunity?  That's... kinda dumb.  Good idea for an action movie, don't get me wrong, but as the basis for a realistic drama, it falls short.  I had a really hard time believing such a thing could exist.

But then I did some googling and it turns out the SIS is apparently a real thing, although far, far less destructive than the movie implies.  (Here's an alternate write-up on the topic if you prefer a more sympathetic viewpoint.) The LA Times article linked above confirms that the version of the SIS we see in Extreme Justice is functionally about the same, but in practice much less grungy and evil.  Despite clocking in more kills of suspects than other police units, the SIS does not appear to actually go on outright vengeance sprees, nor would they allow innocent people to be killed or raped before engaging in an arrest/takedown.

Still.  The concept as a whole confuses me.  Anybody involved in law enforcement that can help me figure this out?  I guess I just don't understand why the "wait for the crime to start" method is preferable if you've already been staking out your suspect for days or weeks in advance.  Like... you have cameras and shit, right?  You've been building a case against them?  So, why do you have to wait until they actually hurt somebody before you can arrest them?  Chalk this up to me living a pretty cushy life where I'm not busting people for a living, I guess.

As it plays out in the movie, the premise leads me to only two conclusions, and neither of them are good.  One is that the movie went too far by unfairly portraying the SIS as an outright murder squad, which is disrespectful and too exaggerated to be taken as a solid political stance.  The other is that the movie tried to take inspiration from a real world thing, but didn't go far enough to make it a compelling action movie.

The latter is probably the thing that disappoints me most about Extreme Justice.  It's like the technical crew and the creative crew each got different memos about what they were working on.  Whenever somebody gets shot, they're squibbed out to the gills and blood packs burst all over the place.  And there is at least one car crash late in the movie with some awesome stunt work that includes a guy flopping left-to-right over the hood of a jeep.  But then the movie cuts away from that kind of stuff to quiet, angry scenes of self-doubt, and any action momentum is cut short.

I guess I just have a pretty simple rule about this.  If your social commentary is clear, compelling, and logical, then feel free to cram as much of it as you want into your movie.  Otherwise, keep that to a minimum and focus on basics.

I can't help but feel that Extreme Justice perfectly set up a "one cop versus the city" action plot and then abandoned it.  It would work so much better if there was a twist like thirty minutes in where Powers witnessed Vaughn killing an innocent kid or something, then planted evidence to incriminate him.  And then Powers immediately goes to report that to IA, but Vaughn catches wind of it, so their captain gives the SIS permission to set up Powers to take the fall for an intentionally botched mission later on.  Then you make it a thing where Powers is either trying to clear his name, but it's nearly impossible because nobody will acknowledge the existence of the SIS, or he's trying to escape the city and lay low somewhere.  Either way, you could have some great action scenes of him fighting his former colleagues.  The movie already has a line early on where he says, "Wow, you guys are good shots, I hope I never have to square off against you," or something similar - how much more of a tease can there be?

I'm not saying that plot would be less disrespectful to any real-world cops.  I'm just saying it would at least be a fun action movie.

All that said, though, the thing that really drives down my rating for Extreme Justice is its repetition.  The episodic structure is bad enough, but even within those moments, it repeats itself.  Characters don't seem sure that you've heard them or that you understand them, so they'll say the same line - or some variation of it - like five or six times before the scene movies on.  Look at the barbecue scene where Powers is first introduced to the SIS members.  After he leaves, you get about two minutes of dialogue between the other guys like, "Well, I just hope we can trust him to get our backs."

I get it already, Extreme Justice.  Move on.

I swear there's got to be at least ten to fifteen minutes of tedious lines and cutaway shots like this.  If you trimmed all that shit down, you'd at least have something punchy.  I'll take a fast-paced movie with muddled commentary over a repetitive movie with a singular mission any day of the week.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Not much.  This one only just barely qualifies as a Holy Grail movie in the first place, since it falls in the 900 to 1,000 range of IMDb ratings as of today.  To keep true to the mission statement of hipster cred, I think I'm going to start giving out obscurity penalties for movies with over 800 ratings.  Extreme Justice starts out with negative 20.

I'll bring that back up to an even 0 with a couple of modest bonuses for the director, Mark Lester (who previously directed Commando, among other hipstery movies) and for the presence of both Lou Diamond Phillips and Yaphet Kotto, who have each had their fair share of hipster work as well.

Then I'll factor in a couple more modest bonuses of five points each.  One for the use of outdated tech as a pivotal plot point, as you get to see Chelsea Field use an antiquated fake search engine to look for background on the SIS, and another bonus for the title, because it has both "extreme" and "justice" in its title.

That adds up to a pretty meager total of 10 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

Extreme Justice gets around.  It has popped on and off of Amazon Prime, was released on DVD, and has made it to Youtube.