Deadly Hero (1975) is the antithesis of Dirty Harry (1971); taking shots at the systemic racism, misogyny, corruption and extreme brutality of the police. Deadly Hero is a small independent feature that politically subverts its genre while still delivering the prerequisite spectacles of violence. Deadly Hero is a sleazy, gritty, uncomfortable indictment of privilege that has lost none of its relevancy.
The film introduces Lacy (Don Murray) as patrol cop recently busted down in the ranks for police brutality. He’s a racist and a pig but, as with “Popeye” Doyle, he’s clearly indicated to be the hero. Meanwhile, conductor Sally (Diahn Williams) is followed home and taken hostage by Rabbit Shazam (James Earl Jones) who intends to hold her for ransom. When Lacy arrives on the scene he demeans Shazam with slurs before killing him in cold blood. Traumatized by these events, it isn’t until much later that Sally changes her original statement thus incurring the wrath of Lacy.
Until the moment that Lacy shoots Shazam in cold blood the film treats him like a Harry Callahan and Sally as the de facto Sondra Locke-type character. But rather than have the victimized woman fall for the fascist cop, Deadly Hero turns the Harry Callahan-type on its head, revealing it to be identical to that of the Scorpio Killer. This inversion recasts these American mythological archetypes as their opposites, more akin to the dynamic between Travis Bickle and Betsy in Taxi Driver (1976). After this dynamic shift in the narrative Deadly Hero becomes a film about a woman challenging and resisting a system designed to punish victims and protect fascism.
The promised spectacles of violence are therefore those of the psychotic cop rather than the heroic cop against some faceless enemy. Director Ivan Nagy creates a complex of juxtapositions between Sally and Lacy wherein one is focused entirely on violence and self preservation while the other, Sally, is focused on justice through the American bureaucratic system and existing within a wider community in both the entertainment and educational spheres. Lacy is antithetical to all that a police force is intended to safeguard and becomes one of the most compelling villains of American cinema in the seventies.
As images of Lacy’s carnage and anger intensify and come in an increasingly rapid succession, so does the music become more and more suspenseful. The brassy sounds of cop shows of the seventies are provided by Tommy Mandel while the synth sounds that came to define the thrillers of the eighties are provided by Brad Fiedel. These two aesthetics are wed into one theme that itself suggests the sociological thesis of the film. It’s an affecting under current that is used to maximum effect in the film.
Deadly Hero has, over the years, become something of a minor cult classic. A supporting turn by Treat Williams as well as cameos by Deborah Harry and Chris Stein have ensured that there’s been a lasting interest of some kind in Deadly Hero. More importantly, however, Deadly Hero is the quintessential anti-cop movie that should be more widely seen today when incidents of police brutality are finally being challenged on an international scale.