It’s a sequence you’ve seen countless times in an untold number of action films. A cop chases a fleeing perp through the streets of a major American city; they duck and dodge, dive around back alley dumpsters, hurdle low-set fences, evade braking cars, their tires screeching as they slam to a stop. The scene always ends the same way, of course. The cop catches the perp. He gets his man. He knocks him to the ground, and usually, he follows it up with a quip, a wit to match his badge and gun.
Well, in a key early sequence in John Frankenheimer’s Dead Bang (1989), starring Don Johnson as Detective Jerry Beck, you get all of that, with one key difference: as Beck cuffs the perp, he’s getting dizzy. He’s out of breath. Then, he vomits all over the unconscious crook. And then, after a moment, he vomits on him again. It’s one of those moments in an action film that manages to shock. It’s sudden, hilarious and, ultimately, bizarre.
Frankenheimer is one of the great action filmmakers. His 1964 film The Train is essentially one long chase sequence, utilizing mastery of geographical space and Burt Lancaster’s acrobatic, intensely physical performance. 1998’s Ronin features not one, but two thrilling car chases. Action films depend heavily on the established conventions of their governing genre. Directors like Frankenheimer try to surprise by flipping the audience’s expectations. Hence, the cop chasing the perp through the streets (which satisfies a need), along with the insane moment when Beck vomits on the man he’s just caught.
The Dead Bang plot is typical for a cop thriller: a convenience store robbery gone bad results in the death of a night clerk and an unlucky sheriff’s deputy. Beck is hot on the trail of the killer, which leads him to a gang of white supremacists who may be responsible. The chase sequence in question happens early — Beck spews by minute 24. It’s crucial that Frankenheimer foregrounds this moment, giving it to viewers the first time Beck is seen in action. He’s signaling that Beck isn’t the typical action hero cop one might have come to expect, especially in 1989, with Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs (1987) and Die Hard’s John McClane (1988) fresh in audiences’ minds.
The undermining of the character extends further, though, when taken in the context of who plays him. In 1989, Johnson was one year from wrapping up a five-season run on one of the most famous cop shows of all time, Miami Vice. Johnson’s Sonny Crockett is a far cry from Beck; Crockett is cool and collected, and Beck is rumpled and unstable. Crockett is slick, and Beck is a mess. Crockett keeps his food down. Beck doesn’t.
But more than all this meta-commentary on action films, the vomit moment is unfailingly human. And above all, that’s what action films ought to deliver. The action hero has to be capable of vulnerability because it calls the outcome, however prescribed by genre conventions, into question. If Beck can get his man, but can’t stop himself from puking all over him not once, but twice, then does he really have what it takes to track down these white supremacists and bring them to justice? That doubt infuses tension into each action sequence that follows.
All that from a little upchuck.
Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.