Friday, January 5, 2024

#2,942. The Choirboys (1977) - Films of the 1970s


The first hour or so of Robert Aldrich’s The Choirboys has the look and feel of a made-for-TV film, but the personality of a bawdy R-rated comedy. Throwing a spotlight on a group of Los Angeles cops, the movie is pitched at a very bizarre level early on, with party scenes that spiral out of control; run-ins with the public that go very, very wrong; and morning briefings during which everyone tosses insults at one another.

Yet for a movie about L.A. cops and the dangers they face (the reason they act like drunken fools during their off-time is to relieve the tension), there is an artificiality to it all; characters are so goofy and over-the-top that anyone missing the opening credits might think they were watching an extended TV pilot for an inferior Barney Miller spin-off.

Among the officers at this particular precinct is 19-year veteran “Spermwhale” Whalen (Charles Durning), whose bad attitude may end up costing him his pension when he retires in six months. Then there’s the bigoted Roscoe Rules (Tim McIntire), a foul-tempered cop whose antics get him and his young partner Dean Proust (Randy Quaid) into plenty of sticky situations.

Black officer Calvin Motts (Louis Gossett Jr.) and Asian Frank Tanaguchi (Clyde Kusatsu) are often the butt of jokes aimed at their ethnicity, while Baxter Slate (Perry King), Spencer Van Moot (Stephen Macht), Sam Lyles (Don Stroud), and Harold Bloomguard (James Woods) fumble their way through one assignment after another.

At one point, officers Slate, Lyles and Bloomguard are assigned temporarily to Vice Squad under Sgt. Scuzzi (Burt Young), with disastrous results. Rules and Proust are sent in to break up a potential race riot at a tenement, only to be beaten to a pulp by damn near the entire building!

Many scenes in The Choirboys are also set in MacArthur Park, where the buddies gather nightly to blow off a little steam, moments that are played (mostly) for laughs. Yet while the movie features a number of amazing actors, we rarely believe any of them could pass as officers of the law.

Then, at right around the halfway point, The Choirboys starts to tackle more serious subject matters, with as much drama as comedy sprinkled into the mix. Lyles and Bloomguard are Vietnam vets who served together during the war, with Lyles especially traumatized by the experience (the film opens with an unconvincing flashback, showing the battle that scarred Lyles). There’s also a very poignant scene in which Burt Young’s Scuzzi, portrayed up the that point as a slob, has a heart-to-heart talk with a tearful homosexual teen arrested for soliciting sex from undercover cop Zoony (Vic Tayback).

The Choirboys gets even darker in the last act, and while it maintains that made-for-TV vibe throughout (MacArthur Park never looks like anything more than a backlot set), it also adapts some of the grittiness you’d expect to find in a ‘70s cop / crime movie, with Robert Webber turning up late and stealing the show as the hyper Deputy Chief Riggs (the one character who generates genuine laughs in his handful of scenes).

Does the movie earn this sudden switch in tone? Not really, but I welcomed it anyway. All at once, these guys seemed more like real characters than the clownish, drunken buffoons that earlier had been making a string of sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes. I found myself invested in their later situations and conflicts.

Not that any of this redeems Aldrich’s movie. The Choirboys is just too silly for too long to be taken completely seriously at any point. But at least we catch of glimpse of the old Aldrich, the filmmaker who helmed such classics as Kiss Me Deadly, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and The Dirty Dozen.

The Choirboys definitely pales in comparison to these three films, but with all the inane scenes in this movie, and the humor that falls flat a hell of a lot more than it connects, you’ll be happy that at least a glimmer of Robert Aldrich peeked through in the end.
Rating: A possibly far too generous 5 out of 10

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