Freebie & The Bean

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As the Super Bowl draws near it’s time for the annual revisit of Freebie & The Bean (1974). Written by Robert Kaufman of The Monkees fame and directed by Richard Rush, Freebie & The Bean follows the titular cops (James Caan and Alan Arkin) on a mayhem filled caper that culminates at the Super Bowl. Freebie (Caan) and his partner Bean (Arkin) think they have numbers man “Red” Meyers (Jack Kruschen) dead to rights, except that the D.A. (Alex Rocco) won’t issue them a warrant till their witness gets back in town on Monday. Now instead of bringing “Red” in, Freebie and Bean have to protect the racketeer from mafia hitmen who have gotten wind of the impending arrest.

Freebie and Bean are juvenile, misogynist bigots who rip through the city of San Fransisco like a tornado in their pursuit of justice. Freebie & The Bean takes the myths of Dirty Harry (1971), Bullitt (1968), and The French Connection (1971) and recasts them as the delusions of the protagonists. Freebie and Bean think that they are super cops when in reality they are a pair of clumsy schmucks whose only really specialty is causing the destruction of property. Freebie & The Bean is Laurel & Hardy meets The Blue Knight (1973).

Rush directs Freebie & The Bean with the same kinetic post-modern gusto that defines his later masterpiece The Stunt Man (1980). Rush knows too well that the plot is secondary to Freebie & The Bean and that the heart of the film is in the relationship between the title characters and how they react to the over the top spectacles of violence and destruction that compose the genre that they inhabit. The crude banter and slapstick horseplay that defines the bond between Freebie and Bean reveals not just the plasticity of the cop film as a kind of male adolescent indulgence in schadenfreude but the moral immaturity or even bankruptcy of American law enforcement.

Freebie & The Bean, in its chase scenes and shoot outs, challenges the audience to laugh at the absurd, dark humor of the film while simultaneously recoiling in disgust. The sub-plot regarding marital infidelity operates the same way but in a more intimate social and political sphere. If it weren’t for the inherent charisma and likability of Arkin and Caan it’s doubtful that these machinations would be as effective or affecting. Mismatched actors of tremendous charm doing despicable things became something of a specialty for Arkin who would go on to make two similar films with Peter Falk.

Although Freebie & The Bean is a subversive genre exercise from the first frame, all subtlety is discarded by the end when Rush and Kaufman confirm the audience’s suspicions that Freebie and Bean aren’t quite the heroes they think they are. After a series of rapid, well executed plot twists it finally dawns on the two coppers that they are really nothing more than a pair of witless, violence prone bums who hide their masculine insecurities behind their badges. In the best tradition of seventies movies Freebie & The Bean ends with the sting of nihilism.

As interesting or even compelling as Freebie & The Bean is, it isn’t likely to be a rediscovered classic or to be up for some popular critical re-evaluation. Freebie’s casual racism combined with the vilifying of the only queer character in the film will make this anti-cop cop movie a hard sell to audiences today. Of course, none of these things were unacceptable when Freebie & The Bean was made, so one must watch this film with that historical context in mind. If that is possible, then Freebie & The Bean is well worth seeing.