Buddy cop movies have gone the way of the slasher flick.
Birthed in the 70s with classic, critically acclaimed prototypes – The French Connection and Halloween, respectively.
Established in the 80s with the icons – Riggs and Murtaugh, Freddy and Jason. The boom period for both genres. The greats spawned entire Blockbusters full of knock-offs and low-rent copies. By the end of the decade, the genres both had their rulebooks and tropes. The cops couldn’t be more different. The partying teenagers couldn’t be any dumber. But they’ll earn each other’s respect in the end. But they’ll earn gruesome deaths by the end.
Lost in the 90s. The 80s earnest enthusiasm uneasily gave way to the 90s post-modern irony. Jason was turned into a human-possessing slug and killed off. Freddy was blown to smithereens in glorious red-and-blue 3-D only to be resurrected in a meta deconstruction of the slasher genre. Lethal Weapon 3 boldly dragged the 80s into 1992, but by 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4 had to admit it was, indeed, getting too old for this shit. Scream and Rush Hour took the reigns. The smirking, neon veneer of the 80s gave way to hard sarcasm, detached cool and soundtracks desperately trying to be hip.
Forgotten in the 2000s. Horror and action moved on. What made the genres so distinct seemed dated. Unless the movie was a reboot or a comment on the genre as a whole – Hot Fuzz, for instance – it didn’t get much attention. Both genres returned to the very places that gave them life in the first place – buddy cops retreated to television and slashers lived on in direct-to-DVD independent features.
Was that a sweeping generalization? Yes.
Was it at all accurate? Maybe.
What’s the point?
Point is I love buddy cop movies. And they just don’t make ’em like they used to. So I’ve decided to take a look at some of the forgotten, underrated or plain odd entries out there. Just for you.
And I can’t think of a more fitting first case than the only buddy cop movie starring everyone’s almost-favorite Tonight Show host and Mr. Miyagi.
Frankly, Collision Course shouldn’t exist. It plays like a late-80s Mad Lib. But not the “neon, cocaine and synthesizers” shorthand that’s considered an accurate cross-section of the time by oh-so-ironic people who never lived a day of it, but still feel the need to prove themselves above it. No. This movie is an incredibly savvy construction. Pick a director coming off a successful, big budget action-adventure sequel, The Jewel of the Nile.
Give him a cinematographer who’s shot tense thrillers (Thief), effects-driven blockbusters (The Golden Child) and even a Prince musical (Purple Rain). Pack the cast with a who’s-who of 80s action character actors. Score it with a a composer used to handling comedies, mostly of the John Hughes variety, and a soundtrack of pop songs tailor-made for car chases and stakeouts.
I’d watch that movie. I’d watch it all day long. Unfortunately Collision Course is not that movie.
Collision Course is a feature-length thesis on why Jay Leno isn’t believable as a cop or an actor. And they even made his character a classic car buff.
It opens on Leno cruising the not-yet-tragic streets of Detroit in small block Chevy something-or-other. I’ll be calling him Leno from here on out. I don’t know if it’s more telling that I’d need to look up his character’s name or that it ultimately doesn’t matter. Moving on, Leno reaches a traffic light alongside some African-American dudes, and I don’t use the term “dude” lightly, rocking out in a hydraulically assisted muscle car, listening to some hip hop and eating a pizza. Told you they were dudes. But anywho, Leno asks them what radio station they’re enjoying. They tell him he doesn’t get their station. He asks why. They say because he’s white. He smiles and then requests a slice of pizza. They challenge him to race for it. He accepts, then cheats off the starting line, only for a police car to start chasing them. He waves on his new-found pals and lets the police car pull him over. Then Leno accosts them with a completely fabricated story about how he was on an undercover operation they just ruined. The officers, a man and a woman, are terribly apologetic. So Leno lets them slide so long as he gets one of their phone numbers. Guess whose.
That’s the first three-odd minutes of Collision Course and it’s a pretty good litmus test for whether or not you’ll be able to stand the rest of the movie.
Leno’s perfectly comfortable when he’s doing a bit, no matter how cheap or nonsensical it may be, and know – there are a few one-liners that are a complete wash. But the second Leno has to talk to another character, you know, like humans do, he flails. On occasions rare and random, he hits something resembling natural. Shame about the other ninety minutes.
Lucky for us, the plot requires him to get angry and sad in equal measure after a friend of his is killed, which drags him into a conspiracy involving a stolen Japanese turbocharger. Naturally the company that made the device wants it back, so they send Pat Morita to hunt it down. I’m not using his name, either, but mostly because almost every American character in this movie, Leno included, calls him a handful of racist nicknames like Honda and Mitsubishi.
Morita, it should be said, cleans up most of Leno’s mess. The man’s a delight, even when he’s insultingly tasked with asking Leno what common figures of speech mean. He manages to be funnier than his begrudging partner without saying a word. It’s honestly a shame they didn’t pair him with a decent actor or at least give him a second shot at the buddy cop prize.
But that’s what ultimately sells the movie – the cast is all entirely game and wildly overqualified. Leno’s actual partner, who just disappears halfway through the movie, is played by Ernie Hudson, ghostbuster.
One of Leno’s only convincing scenes is when the two of them bluff their way out of a Mexican standoff by pretending they forgot a warrant. Bad guy duties are ably handled by reliable 80s villain, Chris Sarandon.
He doesn’t show up much apart from the last fifteen minutes, but he still manages to sell the menace. His first-in-command is responsible for most of the villainy throughout the movie and they brought in Tom Noonan of RoboCop 2, the man to call when you need tall, bald and disturbing.
It’s a movie of capable “that guy”s and it only maroons Leno on his island of shtick even further. It’s pretty damned entertaining to watch this thing as an elaborate prank at his expense.
Though someone must’ve recognized some of his (and, by extension, the production’s) limits because they don’t try to give him a love interest. In fact, off the top of my head I can only think of two women in the whole picture, both of whom Leno attempts to charm. He fails both times, probably because there is a God and he/she/it didn’t want us to see a Jay Leno love scene.
I deliberately left out a strong lead actor in my hypothetical Mad Libs earlier. But there’s another key member of a production that I left out. Notice I never said anything about a proven screenwriter.
The plot makes enough sense for government work, but the tone is absolutely bonkers. You’ve got Leno bantering with the locals over a slice of pizza starting the same movie that ends with Pat Morita jump-kicking through the windshield of Chris Sarandon’s moving car and CAVING HIS FACE IN. I’ve rewatched that death scene over a dozen times and while the head on the Chris Sarandon dummy may have just turned awkwardly, I’ll stake my reputation that Mr. Miyagi crushed his face in like a pumpkin three weeks after Halloween.
And it’s played entirely straight, I should add. The whole movie runs at that level of tonal schizophrenia. In one scene, two groups of arguing bowlers (go with me on this) debate the true cause of the economic decline of Detroit. Then later Jay Leno kills a man by throwing him a live grenade. Maybe it wouldn’t have seemed so bizarre with a more serious actor, or one who could walk the line of comedy and drama, but with Jay it’s like someone was handed a season of a forgotten buddy cop show and a few episodes of Looney Tunes and told to just cut them together. No one will notice.
Well actually. No one really did notice.
If you’ve read this far, first off, thanks a bunch. Secondly, you might’ve wondered why you’ve never heard of this movie before. Seems like a colorful enough piece of gum on the floor of pop culture.
Here’s where our story becomes a half-assed legend.
Collision Course stopped production in 1986. It didn’t finish. It stopped. Morita was a guest of Leno on The Tonight Show and both of them remembered the same account – the production ran out of money on the last day of shooting, leaving several scenes entirely unfilmed. There wasn’t even enough in the budget to edit what footage they had.
So the cinematic gold sat on a shelf for a few years.
In 1989, Collision Course was released in Europe. Direct-to-video.
It wouldn’t reach the States until 1992. Direct-to-video. By then, Leno had not only given up on his acting career, but just started hosting The Tonight Show. Morita had done two more Karate Kid movies.
I tried to find out why the production ran out of money, or at least why it took so long to get released. I really tried. So don’t say I never did anything for you.
But there’s nothing to find. It’s surprisingly difficult to nail down just when the movie even came out. While I’m pretty confident about those release dates, some accounts suggested it was released in the U.S. on home video in 1989, while others claim it first showed up stateside on HBO.
The fact that the movie exists at all seems to be a minor miracle. Until 2006, it wasn’t even available on anything prettier than VHS tape. Even still, I’m not sure there was ever or will ever be a widescreen version of Collision Course. Not that anyone’s clamoring for it. There was never a soundtrack release in any format, probably because the gratuitously 80s sound of the music was in very low demand by 1992 and even 1989. It’s no mistake that Ghostbusters II’s soundtrack leaned toward hip-hop.
That said, I really enjoy Collision Course. That probably comes as a bit of a curveball, but I mean it.
Director Lewis Teague knows how to handle action and keep the movie, uh, moving. The chase scenes are confidently done and exciting. There’s at least one stunt that made me gasp. Granted, that’s mainly because I thought the stuntmen nearly died while doing it, but that counts (for the record, it’s when Leno and Morita dive out a window as the building explodes behind them; the stuntmen cut it real close). It’s certainly not an ugly movie, given its default VHS quality. These days it’s worth it just to see Detroit in better economic days. I’ve taken a lot of shots at Leno, but a few jokes land, and even when they don’t, he’s still not boring to watch. You’ll learn to relish any scene where he’s supposed to be sad.
The rest of the cast, as I’ve said, is golden. The tonal roller coaster is off-putting and alluring in equal measure. The soundtrack is pure, undistilled 80s pop, so your mileage may vary, but I live for the stuff. It came as a genuine disappointment that I can never own the music. And the movie ends on not only a freeze-frame, but a split-screen freeze-frame. You just can’t beat that.
Collision Course is a curiosity. That’s about as far as its cultural legacy will ever reach. It’s clunky. It’s somewhat offensive. It’s an hour-and-a-half. And it’s fun.
Which is more than I expected from a Jay Leno-Pat Morita buddy cop picture in the first place.
Also, you didn’t hear it from me, but it’s available in its entirety for free on YouTube. I suspect it’ll be up for a while; if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that nobody really cares about this movie.
As the end credits song says, “I’ve got a feeling that I’m gonna see you again. It won’t take forever before we’re back together again.”
While the Collision Course II it promised never happened, it does mean I’ll be back with another case soon enough. And I think these guys are my prime suspects: