❉ Full of vehicular mayhem, this neglected film set the tone for the ’80s “buddy” action/cop comedy!
When I was a kid, there was the almost daily ritual of retreating to the basement of my childhood home, and sneakily turning on HBO to watch something totally inappropriate for my age. One of those movies was Freebie and the Bean, an asinine cop comedy that used to make me endlessly laugh. I had no clue what I was watching (I was probably six or seven years old at the time) but I knew it was delighting me no end.
With wild vehicular mayhem that would serve as a warm up for things to come over the years, especially the immortal grand finale of The Blues Brothers in 1980, Freebie and the Bean was released at Christmas in 1974, and served as an early precursor to the glorified 80’s “buddy action/cop comedy,” clearly influencing the tone and set-up for films such as 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop, and Midnight Run. And now, thanks to the Warner Brothers Archives Collection, the film is available on Blu-ray, and is completely ready for rediscovery. Upon initial release, the film was critically panned, but did big box-office, thus cementing the public’s appetite for this sort of studio product, which would also include early genre efforts like Busting (also released in 1974), The Super Cops, Hickey & Boggs, Across 110th Street, Cops & Robbers, and many more.
The film stars Alan Arkin, who plays Bean, a policeman of Mexican descent, a mostly by the book cop, who begins to suspect that his trophy wife (Valerie Harper) is cheating on him. James Caan is Freebie, Bean’s rambunctious and casually corrupt partner who shoots first, asks questions later, and loves to drive at fast speeds with little regard for anyone’s safety. They’re constantly cracking wise, messing with each other, and generally acting like two clowns with badges. The two of them get mixed up in a sketchily-written plot involving a hijacker that the two officers have to bring down. But in reality, the film was really a showcase for director Richard Rush, who would later direct one of the ultimate cult films, 1980’s The Stunt Man, to stage all sorts of action idiocy all over the streets of San Francisco, destroying public property, tons of automobiles, with casual disregard for logic or physics. There can be no doubt that Michael Bay essentially remade Freebie and the Bean with his magnum opus Bad Boys 2; the similarities at times are striking.
Caan and Arkin were perfectly cast, bouncing off one another with clear affection for each other, verbally sparring and physically grappling with one another repeatedly, much to the comic delight of the audience. This was their show and they ran with it. The plot is hardly important, with the clothes-line narrative essentially serving as an excuse to execute one massive set-piece after another (another Bay trademark), with a doozy involving the duo’s cop car flying off a highway overpass and landing in the bedroom of an unsuspecting couple’s apartment complex. And how can one ever forget the insane daytime pile-up and cross-city chase replete with cars, vans, and motor-bikes smashing into each other, wrecking fruit stands, and running amok over the general populace? It all needs to be seen to be believed.
Rush directed with a madcap energy that never relented; it’s almost as if he knew he was making something totally outlandish, and he just went for broke, which makes for a film with an odd integrity that’s sort of hard to put your finger on. He also utilized an Altman-esque soundtrack with overlapping dialogue (Caan and Arkin are CONSTANTLY talking over each other), with conversations occurring off-screen or off in the distance, and an overall irreverent tone that veers between slapstick comedy, fairly graphic gun violence, cheesy humor, and overtly racist cop talk.
Robert Kaufman, who also wrote Rush’s excellent college satire Getting Straight, and Floyd Mutrux’s screenplay is a lark, consisting of one visual gag after another, with a clear obsession with seeing cars smash into each other; all lovingly photographed with more class and skill than was probably expected by master cinematographer László Kovács (Ghostbusters, Easy Rider, Paper Moon, Shampoo, Alex in Wonderland). This film simply looks fantastic, from the on-location shooting, to the grainy visual texture that seems so far removed from the digital smoothness of today’s cinematic output. It really lives and breathes like a movie from an entirely different era.
The slap-dash quality of the story is sometimes at odds with how nice looking of a picture it is, and the fast-paced editing by Michael McLean and Frederic Steinkamp kept a manic sense of energy all throughout. Freebie and the Bean was obviously made with an “All In Good Fun” spirit, and despite the film taking critical knocks back in the day, it’s become a well-loved cult item over the years, and totally served as a blueprint for fantastic things to come during the high-concept action-movie rush of the following decade.
❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.
❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.