Vice Squad is a stellar entry in the grimy crime-film canon of decades past, the kind that used to be shot on location that depicts a netherworld illuminated by neon lights and their reflections in rain-slicked streets. The protagonists were usually troubled and disheveled, looking right at home amongst the city’s most squalid corners. Gary Sherman’s 1982 cult classic nails that tone, but swaps out the usual New York setting for Los Angeles in a thriller more shocking for its high level of artistry than graphic subject matter.
Grindhouse connoisseurs unfamiliar with Vice Squad (as I had been) should add Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray reissue (out Aug. 13) to the top of their queue. It’s a relentlessly tense exercise thanks to air-tight pacing and a delectable turn from Wings Hauser as sadistic slimeball Ramrod. Like Abel Ferrara’s hypnotic Ms. 45 (1981) or Lucio Fulci’s queasy The New York Ripper (1982), the movie holds up as a slice of elevated exploitation, forcing viewers to reckon with lurid sexual violence through the sheer power of its filmmaking.
That craft is the reason director Sherman pulls off such a patently ridiculous premise with a relatively straight face. A single mother and failed businesswoman known only as Princess (Season Hubley) turns to prostitution to support herself, and as these things usually go, she’s street-savvy enough to go it alone for a while and avoid any cops / creeps that cross her path. When she’s eventually picked up on a prostitution charge, however, vice squad detective Tom Walsh (Gary Swanson) enlists her as bait to catch Ramrod, a psychotic pimp whose recent murder of one of his girls has caused police attention.
The trio of actors all handle themselves admirably, but Hauser’s performance as Ramrod is no doubt Vice Squad’s main attraction. The movie wastes no time establishing the character’s cruelty with his vicious attack on a prostitute early on; be warned, it’s pretty harrowing stuff, and I could have gone my whole life without knowing what a “pimp stick” was. Ramrod is a wholly memorable creation, sporting a 10-gallon hat and speaking with a Southern cowboy charm that quickly vanishes to reveal a demented rage on par with Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth. The film is essentially a cat-and-mouse suspense flick that allows Ramrod to wreak havoc on the L.A. streets in pursuit of our heroes.
At a svelte 97 minutes, Vice Squad never loses traction and also leaves one time to explore the wealth of special features exclusive to this Shout! Factory release. The director’s commentary from the previous DVD release remains intact, but this Blu-Ray adds a new track featuring both Sherman and producer Brian Frankish, which provides plenty of worthy insight to those craving it. Sadly, there are no interviews with Hauser, despite including several talking-head featurettes with other cast members. What makes this purchase-worthy is the presentation remastered in 4K, which is pristine without sacrificing any of the movie’s inherent sleaze.