If ever a city seemed over-copped, it's San Francisco, with Dirty Harry, Frank Bullit and Sam Spade elbowing their way toward the shooting line in the corpse accumulation contest that is the essence of modern police work, according to the movies.
But no. What San Francisco really needs, according to "Kuffs," is callow teen-age boys with smirks and Berettas racing around blowing people away, while making wisecracks about it.
In fact, the gunplay in "Kuffs" is so persistent and so ridiculous that it quickly subverts what hold the movie may have had on our hearts and minds and instead grabs us by the trigger finger. It makes gunfighting look like an evolutionary development of Skeeball. This may be the first film ever made where the 9-millimeter budget exceeded the doughnut budget.
The movie spins off a local eccentricity of the Bay City. It seems that in the 1850s, the overwhelmed cops allowed the various municipal districts to hire their own private policemen. This tradition has persisted and the private cops, now called "Patrol Specials," subsist handsomely on community contributions and are moreover sanctioned by the state.
Christian Slater plays a ne'er-do-well named George Kuffs, first seen joking about the fact he's about to run out on his pregnant teen-age girlfriend. Soon he shows up in Frisco, where it turns out that his brother (Bruce Boxleitner) is the ranking Patrol Special in a district that seems to include every San Francisco landmark. But in another few seconds, the brother has been shot death (in church, like Thomas a Becket) and the feckless George inherits the district rent-a-bull franchise. His first move? He buys "a really big gun that holds lots of bullets."
Slater's irrepressible callowness is the movie's primary appeal, so much so that more than once the director, Bruce Evans, simply stops the narrative and allows Slater to riff with the audience. It's ingratiating, even if the director and the star seem to think they're making a talk show instead of a movie.
But . . . bangbangbang . . . bangbangbang . . . bangbangbang . . . the casual slaughter and the movie's completely irresponsible attitude toward it soon crush whatever anarchistic joy Slater provided. Also lost in the smoke is a neat comic turn by Tony Goldwyn (the bad boy in "Ghost") and whatever mild claims the film may have made toward plot coherence.
In the best B-western tradition, it is alleged that by killing a whole lot of guys, Slater becomes a man. That's a great message in these troubled times for a PG-13-rated film: homicide as a part of the human potential movement. Somebody should be ashamed, but I doubt that anybody is.
Starring Christian Slater.
Directed by Bruce Evans.
Released by Universal.