Hawk Jones (1986)

Are you a parent or family member with the necessary stamina to watch a 95-minute school play with no intermissions but decent production values? Are you capable of sitting through a VHS recording of the aforementioned school play at a later date? Do you enjoy 1980s buddy cop movies filled with violence, melodramatic story beats, and comedic moments? If you somehow fall into all of these categories, as one might assume director Richard Lowry probably did, he’s got the movie for you: 1986’s HAWK JONES.

The people of “Minitropolis” are on edge as crime hits a historic high. Bank robberies, break-ins, and even the arson of an art museum are just a few of the awful offenses orchestrated by Cuban gangster, Antonio Coppola (Tyler Vargas), and his massive gang of miscreants. To put the clamps on crime and clean up the city, the police department brings in hired gun, Hawk Jones (Valiant Duhant). Despite an impressive resume, he gets little respect from those around him. His colleagues on the force mock his stature, and his lieutenant repeatedly derails his attempts to properly investigate “good citizen” Coppola (“… and Hawk, no more fights in night clubs!”) To add to his problems, Hawk has a new partner, McAllister (Charmella Roark), who is every bit as stubborn and determined as him.

Will these two ace cops stop bickering long enough to work together and put Antonio’s reign of terror to an end? Will the Chief allow them to do their jobs without the burden of bureaucratic red tape? And did I forget to mention that the cast is comprised entirely of kids under the age of 12 years old committing felonies, driving cars, and shooting at each other with semi-automatic weapons?

Produced, directed, composed, and photographed by Richard Lowry – and written by sibling Tor Reyel Lowry – HAWK JONES was a family affair, filmed in the Lowrys’ home state of Illinois and released under the production banner of Quad Kiddie Productions, Ltd. Borrowing from the all-kids casting template of the 1976 gangster-themed musical-comedy BUGSY MALONE – starring, among others, future film star Jodie Foster and future TV lawyer and conspiracy theorist, Scott Baio – the Lowrys updated their crime tale for an American decade awash in action-packed, buddy-comedy copaganda, but with less than one-quarter of its predecessor’s budget.

The result, despite an admittedly generic plot, is a unique, shot-on-video, 1980s action movie oddity. After the awkward novelty of the kid cast wears off – violent shootouts and jealous quarrels co-mingle with giggling fits, random naps, characters chugging glasses of milk like booze, and assorted “mother” jokes – the film’s creative energy and silly tone help to carry the film to the finish line. That the Lowrys are able to stretch this concept out to nearly 90 minutes without too much sag or slowdown in the narrative is a testament to how the film is paced. Nearly every 10 to 15 minutes, there’s a twist, a visual gag, a new hurdle is established, or an action sequence breaks out. Sure, most of the acting is amateurish, but cut them a break – they’re kids for chrissakes!

The action set-pieces take various forms, from car chases to foot chases to shootouts and explosions. There are flying kicks, haymakers, mannequin tosses, and even a samurai sword showdown. Flash effects accompany most gunfire and characters meet bloody, unsavory ends in various armed encounters. The most gruesome weapon of all might be the “copper stopper” device Antonio introduces partway through the film, a radiating vaporizer weapon straight out of a 1940s science-fiction comic book. To counteract the baddies’ firepower, prior to the final battle at Antonio’s mansion, Hawk has an amazing Rambo-esque “gearing up” scene that concludes with him chomping on a lollipop, ready for war. These sorts of touches help to elevate this from rigid mimicry to a winking, self-aware nod to the genre trappings of the era.

The characters are lively and occasionally strange. From their first meeting through the very end of the film, Hawk and McAllister trade in solid back-and-forth banter that never gets overly grating despite some cringey line readings (“Why don’t you go home and bake some brownies?”) As the pressure on his criminal enterprise ramps up, Antonio enlists a punk-rock enforcer named the Destroyer, who falls somewhere between a nightmarish schoolyard bully and a stoic automaton. In his first appearance, he’s wrapped in chains and adorned in spiky hair, torn clothes, and new-wave sunglasses that never move out of place. Last, in what feels like a spiritual nod to Frank McRae (of 48 HOURS and LAST ACTION HERO fame) Chief Tuttle, played by Royce Wright, sports a mustache, screams a lot, and presides over a desk covered with junk food and boxes of antacid.

For many years, HAWK JONES has been a hard-to-find VHS obscurity prized almost exclusively by niche genre movie collectors. Original copies can fetch hundreds of dollars in secondary marketplaces like eBay or social media clusters of tape-trading enthusiasts. There have been limited runs of tape re-dubs in recent years – I watched the 25th Anniversary edition put out by LUNCHMEAT VHS – so all of that is to say that if you really want to see HAWK JONES (legitimately), you’ll need to put your ace detective skills to work.

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