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Maniacs & Vigilantes: The Films of William Lustig – ‘Relentless’ (1989)

This month at Cinema Runner, we are taking a look at the works of filmmaker William Lustig. Some of you might recognize his name as the director of cult horror classics like Maniac and the Maniac Cop trilogy. Some of you might be more familiar with his genre-centric boutique home video label, Blue Underground. Some of you might be hearing about him for the first time in this piece. No matter your entry point, I think we’re going to have some fun. We’ll cover the above-mentioned classics, of course, but today we’re going to take a look at one of his lesser known films. Today, we’re here to talk about 1989’s Relentless.

Arthur “Buck” Taylor (Judd Nelson) is a disturbed man. He’s intelligent and soft-spoken, but also carries a severe case of daddy issues. Daddy issues that have driven him to become a serial killer. On the opposite side of the law, we have Detective Sam Dietz (Leo Rossi). Sam is recently relocated from New York City and isn’t clued in to the way things operate in Los Angeles just yet, much to the chagrin of his seasoned partner, Detective Bill Malloy (Robert Loggia). Sam must navigate his partner’s jaded attitude and his new departments’s bureaucratic pitfalls as he attempts to take down Buck Taylor before the body count climbs any higher. Even if it means bending the rules and going rogue.

What we have here is a pretty standard “cops tracking down a killer with a gimmick” high-octane thriller. These films were a dime a dozen in the 1990s and still pop up today, although primarily on TV now. Back in the late ’80s, before the arrival of The Silence of the Lambs, they were less frequent. The plot has a Thomas Harris quality to it, both in the characterization of the police and in the somewhat sympathetic portrayal of its deranged killer. Given Harris’ popularity at the time as a novelist and Michael Mann’s Manhunter hitting only a few years earlier, this isn’t surprising.

Just like Red Dragon, we are given just as deep a look into Buck Taylor’s tragic past as we are into Sam Dietz’s present day home life. These seems serve to humanize both characters on paper and their respective actors do not let the material down. Judd Nelson’s Buck is a long way off from his popular Breakfast Club character, but he is no less game for what the role entails, bursting forth with quietly unsettling turn. Watching the film, you know that Buck needs to be stopped and so does he. He yearns for someone to free him of his deadly desires, but is prevented from doing the deed himself by traumatic memories of his abusive father (Beau Starr). It’s against-type stunt casting, but it absolutely works.

As for Dietz, he’s far less brooding than you might expect for this sort of thing. Rossi brings his trademark attitude to the role, but he never comes off as a blowhard or an asshole. Sam Dietz loves his job and he insists on doing it to the best of his abilities, with no half-measures taken. He’s also a devoted husband and a loving father, giving us a home life that was clearly the polar opposite of what Buck had as a child. Rossi is so good in the role that it’s no wonder Relentless spawned three sequels centered around his character. In fact, I’m honestly surprised he didn’t score a lot more leading roles based on his turn here.

Robert Loggia is predictably fantastic as the battle hardened and utterly jaded Detective Malloy. You can tell he still cares about the job enough to do it right, but his interests are clearly skewed more towards retirement than on-going investigations. He even has a running gag where he wants to spend more time talking rent and property values at crime scenes than the crimes themselves. There are a few other notable character actors appearing in the film to round out the cast, of course. It wouldn’t be a Lustig film if there weren’t! Meg Foster appears as Sam’s supportive wife, Edward Bunker as a cantankerous veteran cop, Ken Lerner as a lecherous victim, and a beardless George “Buck” Flower as a potential victim.

There’s nothing particularly new on display within this film, in terms or plot of visuals. None of that matters, however. Phil Alden Robinson’s script is a fine-tuned machine, the performances are great, and William Lustig’s direction is utterly on point. Whereas Hit List was a bit more typical with its action, Relentless brings Lustig’s style to the forefront to a much greater degree. The growth from Hit List to this is immediately evident. Lustig delivers another fast-paced genre rollercoaster not unlike Vigilante and Maniac Cop, giving us the most commercial film of his career. It’s an impressive stepping stone to the action/horror-hybrid extravaganza of Maniac Cop 2, which would arrive a year later and also count Leo Rossi among its cast.

This is one of Lustig’s best films and it’s a shame it doesn’t get brought up more often. It’s a great cop thriller and well worth your time. If you haven’t had the pleasure, seek it out.

Be sure to check back next week to see what Lustig film we revisit next! Also, if you live anywhere near Columbus, Ohio, you should make a trip to Gateway Film Center this Saturday, May 20th. Their doing a double-feature of William Lustig’s Maniac Cop and Maniac Cop 2 on the big screen. If that weren’t enough (and it should be), Lustig himself will be in attendance. If you’re interested, grab some tickets while you still can!

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