One of the more powerful and sadly ubiquitous stories of the past year has been the strained relationship between local law enforcement and the public, particularly in certain poor, heavily minority communities.
Whether due to misguided militarization of police forces, general suspicion of police held by constituents, or specific incidents of brutality, officer conduct (or, more properly, misconduct) has been at the forefront of public discourse for much of the past ten months.
As someone who tries his best to make sense of American culture, politics, and society, I thought now might be as good a time as ever to delve into the touchy subject of how police officers interact with citizens as they stop civilized society from becoming a lawless hellscape.
More often than we’d like to admit, of course, law enforcement itself becomes lawless. Just a few weeks ago, the Chicago City Council voted to award $5.5 million to victims of ongoing police torture that stretches back decades. That award was over and above the more than $100 million that the city has paid out in various other lawsuits against the police over the years.
With a backdrop of burning buildings, empty stadiums, and occasionally violent protests in mind, I thought it worthwhile to devote a post to the issue of police misconduct and community relations.
Therefore, here’s an in-depth recap of the police procedure in the 1986 Billy Crystal / Gregory Hines buddy-cop comedy Running Scared!
– Hughes (Hines) and Costanzo (Crystal)—two Chicago cops with unmistakable New York accents—are undercover as wino-ish loiterers near a shady, low-income apartment building. When the ball from a nearby pick-up basketball game rolls their way, the pair break character to join the action. Moments later, one of the players punches Costanzo in the face.
– Costanzo and Hughes spot a low-level drug-dealer named Snake (Joe Pantoliano) pulling up in a Mercedes driven by fledgling crime boss Julio Gonzales (Jimmy Smits). Snake has a mysterious briefcase. Before they even see Gonzales, Costanza says of Snake, “Let’s bust him,” to which Hugues replies, “For what?” Costanzo then responds, “In this neighborhood, a Mercedes is probable cause!”
– Gonzales panics when he sees the two cops and leaves the area immediately. Snake runs to his apartment, where he’s chased by Costanzo and Hughes. Snake manages to make it inside, but the cops demand to enter. As Snake holds the door to his apartment shut, Hughes brandishes his gun and says that he’s about to shoot a series of holes in said door, adding that, “If you are standing in front of the door—what can I tell ya?—some of those holes will be in YOU!” Snake decides to let them in.
– Hughes and Costanzo want to search the apartment, but Snake questions whether they have a warrant (a novel concept). Hughes admits they don’t, but claims they can get one if necessary. He adds that Snake will be detained in a “very uncomfortable position” if the two are forced to procure a valid warrant. Snake decides to let them search his apartment.
– The search turns up nothing illegal, although the cops are puzzled about the briefcase, which contains $50,000 in cash. When the cops say they’re going to arrest Snake, he helpfully reminds the officers that he has, in point of fact, committed no crime. Costanzo then goes outside and announces to the roughneck pick-up basketball players that Snake has $50,000 in cash, and, because his apartment is so easy to burgle, the players will need to “help protect” Snake and his money. A terrified Snake eventually punches Hughes so that the duo will arrest him.
– En route to taking Snake to the station house, the cops stop at the funeral of Costanzo’s aunt. Snake, handcuffed to Hughes, is compelled to attend. On the way back to their car, they are coincidentally mugged at gunpoint. When the muggers discover that their intended victims are police officers (who also have superior firepower), they become very nervous. Costanzo informs them that they’re under arrest, and recites a facetious version of the Miranda warning wherein he informs the perps that they have the right, among other things, to “a continental breakfast.”
– After Hughes implies that the cops can “waste” the muggers for pointing guns at them, the criminals flee in their car. Their route is cut off by a delivery truck, however, and the muggers turn their car around and drive toward Hughes and Constanzo (who are pursuing on foot with a disgruntled, still-cuffed Snake in tow). The cops fire six shots each at the car—which also happens to be in the direction of the delivery truck driver. The car is stopped, but the muggers survive and are arrested.
– After a body is found on the street below a high-rise building, two different cops (including their boss) jokingly ask Costanzo and Hughes if they were interrogating anyone on the roof that day.
– Hughes is served with a subpoena at the station for abusing the rights of a murder suspect. After being served, Hughes angrily says, “What about the rights of the woman he killed?!?” Costanzo says (to the process server): “Hey! You get mugged—don’t come running to us!” Hughes concludes, “Another satisfied customer.”
– Hughes and Constanzo ask Snake to wear a wire to record Gonzales confessing to murder and drug trafficking. They threaten that they’ll make it look like he ratted on Gonzales if Snake doesn’t cooperate. Despite the attempted coercion, Snake still refuses, so the cops remove $45,000 of the $50,000 in his briefcase from the evidence room. Panicked over the missing money, Snake relents and agrees to wear a wire. As they’re putting the wire on Snake, Costanzo and Hughes explain that Snake could sue the department over his mistreatment, but, by the time the two of them got fired and Snake was permitted to recover his money, Gonzales would have already killed him.
– Realizing that Gonzales and his gang have at least 12 machine guns on-hand, Costanzo and Hughes nonetheless don’t call for back-up and simply go inside Gonzales’ lair. Their lives are saved only because two undercover cops embedded in Gonzales’ organization blow their covers to protect our heroes. Oh, and Snake dies anyway.
– After he flees, Constanzo and Hughes find Gonzales hiding nearby and arrest him. They force him, at gunpoint, to Mirandize himself. Hughes punches Gonzales in the stomach when he fails to respond quickly enough when asked for the next line in the Miranda warning.
– Upon returning from vacation, Costanzo accidentally discharges his weapon in the police station locker room. There are no repercussions for this incident—not even paperwork—other than Hughes immediately, comically requesting and receiving a kevlar vest.
– At a low-rent apartment building, while Costanzo questions the elderly female manager about Gonzales’ whereabouts (and threatens to go door-to-door “checking green cards”), the woman’s son (grandson?) returns Hughes’ friendly smiles and waves with obscene gestures. Once the interview is complete, Hughes returns to the apartment to do this when the little boy answers the door:
– Although Gonzales is legally out on bail, Costanzo and Hughes continue to hound him. After they find his parked Mercedes, Hughes spray-paints the curb yellow to create a makeshift tow-away zone.
– Once the car is towed, the officers spot a child running away from the scene to report the incident to Gonzales. They follow the child, guns drawn, but not before they argue about whether backup should be called.
– Gonzales winds up escaping in Costanzo and Hughes’ unmarked police car, but the two fire indiscriminately at their own vehicle as it speeds away.
– Now off-duty, Hughes extricates his lover Maryann from her boyfriend’s apartment by arriving at their door and claiming to have a warrant for her arrest. “Unpaid parking tickets,” he tells the boyfriend. He then takes her out to a birthday celebration. For himself.
– Hughes and Costanzo pull a cuffed suspect aside at a crime scene and get a tip about a big drug shipment coming into O’Hare Airport. They fail to relay this information to two fellow officers at the scene. Instead, not only do they keep the tip to themselves, but they intentionally let the suspect flee on foot so that the two rival officers will be delayed by having to chase him down.
– Our heroes spot Gonzales at the airport, then engage on a wildly dangerous, high-speed car chase that winds up on the tracks of the “El” for quite some time. Both cars are nearly destroyed by head-on collisions with commuter trains. Oh, and Hughes and Costanzo are carrying two civilians in the backseat the entire time.
– When the previously obtained information from the suspect turns out to be a set-up planned by the now-escaped Gonzales, Hughes and Costanzo track down the informant at his place of business—a tattoo parlor—and interrogate him. Costanzo pretends to tattoo the informant’s face while Hughes holds him down (there is no ink in the needle, as it turns out), which elicits the requested information. At one point, the informant says, “This is police brutality!,” to which Costanzo replies, “No, this is police harassment. If this doesn’t work, then we’ll try brutality.”
– After yet again nearly being killed by Gonzales (who wants the drugs that H&C discovered returned to him), the duo go to the impound lot holding Gonzales’ Mercedes and simply steal it in broad daylight. Again, there are no repercussions for this act. The officers then drive around Gonzales’ former home-base neighborhood in his car in order to attract attention. The car phone rings, and it’s Gonzales, who is upset that his car has been stolen. After sufficient mockery from Hughes, Gonzales hangs up.
– Hughes then has Costanzo call the police station from the car phone, getting in touch with one of the rival cops. Costanzo pretends to be a former informant who is calling with information about the whereabouts of Gonzales. In character, Costanzo says that the person who knows where Gonzales is is Adam Robertson—that is, the boyfriend of Hughes’ lover. A confused and angry Robertson is promptly (and wrongfully) arrested.
– Costanzo’s girlfriend is kidnaped by Gonzales and held for the ransom of Gonzales’ drugs. Costanzo enlists the help of Hughes, who magnanimously interrupts his passionate sex session with the jailed Robertson’s girlfriend to assist his partner. Naturally, the two use an elaborate plan to steal the drugs from the evidence room, including impersonating their own captain. They then take the pilfered drugs to the designated location.
– As Costanzo and Hughes await the “go” call from Gonzales at their favorite bar, the two rival cops show up, angry that they were made to look bad because of the bogus Robertson arrest. With no time to waste, Costanzo and Hughes punch the other two cops, then make their way to the exchange spot. Their younger rivals eventually arrive, setting the stage for a bloody shootout. Backup is never called, and Gonzales and his men are simply gunned down in the firefight. Everyone celebrates.
Summary: As a movie, it’s actually one of the best buddy-cop films I’ve ever seen. Very underrated, and Hines and Crystal are both a lot of fun. As a tutorial on proper police procedure, it doesn’t hold up quite as well.
In closing, enjoy this delightful music video:
Stumbled onto this, as I was looking for that Hines flip-off gif…
I hope you know there’s a huge divide between Hollywood’s imagining of Police procedure, and actual Police work…
About 5% is true, 70% would get them suspension days, 15% would lead to termination, and the last 5% would land them in prison..
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You are quite correct that Hines and Crystal are really good together. I wish that they could have done more.
But when I watched this film a few weeks back I kept thinking, how did they get away with making this? Why is this funny, now?
Oddly enough, the first season of M*A*S*H gives me a similar feeling. Why is this funny today,and was this really how society thought and felt in 1972?
It would not surprise me, given the “ban anything offensive” mindset of today, that as people begin to realize the “problems” with older films and TV shows, that a move to “ban” them will follow and expand,