The structure has changed! Now, in the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th, 30th or 40th anniversary of initial release this year — five from 1983, four from 1993 and four from 2003. The self-imposed rules of the column remain the same: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
Go in cold to Striking Distance and you might guess, from its goofy title credits, that it concerns a sentient, perhaps homicidal lightning storm. The film’s actual plot is simultaneously far less loopy and yet still bafflingly bizarre: Bruce Willis plays a disgraced Pittsburgh boat cop named Tom Hardy (funnier now than in 1993), who is investigating a series of grisly murders in which the victims are all women he has bedded. Why, the killer even goes after Hardy’s prom date!
If that wasn’t enough, the murderer’s M.O. matches a maniac who also executed Hardy’s police captain dad (John Mahoney) years earlier and escaped into the night. Paired with Hardy’s strangely specific forensic assessment of the bodies, his familiarity with the deceased stokes suspicion that he is the killer. It also positions Hardy as a guy many women have found sexually attractive because he is otherwise the dorkiest-looking Willis character outside of a comedy.
Hardy’s typical ensemble encompasses a black shirt, blue shorts and a red hat. Pants? Sometimes, but always just short enough to see the pop of white socks. Does Hardy ever eschew stockings? Occasionally, but only in favor of loafers. Could you fit two Bruce Willises inside the suit Hardy sports in the final scene? Definitely. Does Hardy leave his knee brace on during a sex scene with his new partner (played by Sarah Jessica Parker)? Sir, this is 1993. Of course. (Not to be accused of favoritism, Striking Distance lets Parker’s white socks pop, too.)
Throw in suspension-shattering car chases. Boats flying off river dams for real. Willis doing that Homer Simpson thing with his mouth as he fires his gun. A different that-guy character actor screaming every few minutes. Hearing Willis say the word “Monongahela.” What could go wrong?
According to nearly all parties involved with Striking Distance, everything.
Three Rivers started out as a grounded drama meant for Robert De Niro and concerning a family of alcoholic cops chasing a killer — akin to the sort of lament for decency in public service that Sidney Lumet might make or, at the very least, an acting showcase a la Gavin O’Connor’s Pride and Glory more than a decade later. When Columbia Pictures balked at that bummer idea, De Niro departed. Mel Gibson was busy. Michael Douglas told them he’d just played that type of character in 1989’s Black Rain. Enter Bruce Willis. The problem was that Willis, coming off the humiliating box-office performance of 1991’s Hudson Hawk, sought something more serious, too, and allegedly insisted on inserting such moments back into the more traditionally exciting version being filmed.
Stuck between serving egos and meeting expectations, director Rowdy Herrington attempted to conjure a reasonable compromise. But abysmal test screenings prompted a delay from a summer release date, extensive reshoots (including a new ending), substantial editorial revisions and, yes, a studio-mandated title change to Striking Distance. Willis blamed Herrington. Herrington tried to play nice. The bowdlerized version didn’t break out, taking in just $24 million stateside on a $30 million budget. And yet overseas audiences put Striking Distance in the black, albeit marginally; the international take added $53 million to the total. Perhaps that’s because, however unintentionally, Striking Distance hews closer to the somber and sober trappings of the poliziotteschi genre than the slam-bang excitement of a Hollywood project.
Popularized amid Italian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, poliziotteschi films incorporated graphic violence, car chases, gunfights and rampant corruption — all involving rogue loners running up against the rot of institutions intended to protect and serve. Sure, Striking Distance opens with an expertly choreographed and clearly expensive pursuit through Pittsburgh neighborhoods. But it ends with Hardy’s father dead, his knee shredded from an accident and the trunk of the killer’s abandoned car popping open to reveal another dead body. (What about fingerprints? The killer wears black gloves in a hallmark aligned with giallo — another iteration of Italian cinema.) The very next scene? Hardy’s partner, against whom he has testified in a corruption trial, leaps to his death in front of Hardy, as well as his own father (Dennis Farina) and brother (Tom Sizemore).
This is an exceedingly grim, gruesome setup to which Willis’s core fanbase was not accustomed. If you take Die Hard 2’s premise alone as punchline (and why wouldn’t you), this was the most straightforward action film he’d made since Die Hard. Yes, the rest of Striking Distance sometimes tries to incorporate smirks and quirks. It boasts a superfluous John McClane-ish drug bust and features Willis’s hairy mitts all over Parker (among reshoots meant to make their encounters “sexier”). Herrington and co-writer Marty Kaplan also attempt a catchphrase for Hardy, but “Let me rephrase that for you” sounds more like them couching their contempt at being forced to constantly recalibrate the narrative. But all of this is frippery around a more European sense of fatalism that no futzing could fully excise from the final product.
Two years after the prologue, Hardy has the full kit of macho-man grief — houseboat, housecat and hangover. The river is now his roadway. His shift consists largely of confiscating booze from boaters that he will later knock back. Hardy’s exasperated boss (Timothy Busfield) has assigned him a new partner to keep him in check. “What’s he like?” Hardy asks. “Not what you expect!” he’s told when Parker shows up as Jo Christman — a cop, diver and paramedic all in one.
Herrington’s facility for urban exteriors and such places’ palpable hum often propels this plot past its most perfunctory bits, aided by the production design of Gregg Fonseca (Wayne’s World) and the cinematography of Mac Ahlberg (From Beyond). There’s a palpable sense of brackish backwater here and decaying infrastructure abounds in the background. If Farina, Sizemore, Busfield and Mahoney didn’t offer enough steely support, a baby-faced Andre Braugher turns up as an internal affairs officer, as do B-movie staples Brion James (as a ball-busting homicide detective) and Tom Atkins (looking pretty much the same at 57 as he does now at 87). Yes, nearly all of them get to scream in Willis’s face at least once.
Amid the investigation of new murders, old resentments from Farina and Sizemore’s characters rear their ugly heads; at one point, Sizemore bellows at the top of his lungs as fireworks boom behind him — a nice homage to Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, its own Pennsylvanian triumph of lurid sleaze en scene. The river’s reflection of dim light, the screaming to hoarseness, the secrets converging in an inescapable current just like the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio? It all feels as dead-end as it should, and Striking Distance’s alluring allocation of light and shadow reflects Herrington’s atypical ascent to the director’s chair.
The Pennsylvania native served as an electrician, grip, best boy and gaffer on numerous films throughout the 1980s. If the director and cinematographer are a film’s head chef and sous chef, the grip is its station chef … or the one who actually cooks most of the food customers eat. In that role, Herrington operated equipment to support camera movement (dollies, cranes, tracks, jibs and the like) as well as lighting stands, diffusers and nets. In his work as a gaffer, he would position lights and figure out how to most quickly change setups between shots.
That’s a bit more of a blue-collar byway into the business of directing a film, which Herrington first did in 1988 with Jack’s Back, an underrated thriller starring James Spader in a dual role as twin brothers suspected in a series of Jack the Ripper copycat killings. That got Herrington the meeting for his masterpiece, 1989’s Road House — eternally raucous and ridiculous but also sensitive and sophisticated in ways that elevate it above redneck reverie. (Because Howard Herrington sounds like the sort of guy Patrick Swayze would have to punch in Road House, the filmmaker has used a nickname in his professional credits.)
Of the film that stalled the mainstream momentum built from Road House, Herrington has said: “I didn’t enjoy it at all, and that’s putting it nicely.” Indeed, after Striking Distance, Herrington largely pivoted to fare that went straight to VHS or DVD — the exception being 2004’s golfer biopic Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, which is the filmmaker’s most recent produced credit.
As Herrington said to UPROXX of Striking Distance in 2020: “I tried being nice and it was the biggest lesson I ever learned in the business. You have to win the first one. Because otherwise they start walking on you. I was trying to be nice and make it work. And about halfway through I just said fuck it. I just put my foot down. ‘No, I’m not doing that. Fuck you.’ And then that studio came in and we had the meeting and anyway, it was just kind of fucked up and it’s my least favorite film actually. I think we ended up with a feathered fish. You know, it was neither fish nor fowl.”
All that compromise clutters a conclusion that otherwise plays rather propulsively like Patriot Games in Pittsburgh. There’s really no compelling reason for the killer to be who it is other than that it’s the least plausible outcome and … well, that’s also what a movie called Distanza impressionante would have done about 15 years earlier. There are also so many pointless stingers in which the murderer is not actually dead, including one where Willis (otherwise boasting an impressively robust head of hair) briefly appears shorn to his scalp — indicating he had already moved on to his next project. The hard truth is that Willis is just one of many faces going forth here as gamely as possible. And yet for its crude stitching, Striking Distance remains weird, wobbly and eminently watchable.