The Cohen Case Files: I, the Jury (1982)

Written and Produced (Uncredited) by Larry Cohen

Through print interviews, commentary tracks, and in person question and answer sessions, I feel like I may have heard more about I, the Jury than any other film in which Larry Cohen has had a creative hand. The problem is that most everything Cohen has to say about the film is incredibly negative. I am not sure how much his anger and frustration at the producers of the film and the actual finished product affected my view of it, but it is certainly a messy piece of cinema.

Adapting the novel by Mickey Spillane, Cohen’s script tells the story of Mike Hammer (Armand Assante), a tough private detective investigating the murder of one of his best friends. His investigation leads to a sex therapist named Dr. Bennett (Barbara Carrera) who may be involved in a far-reaching (and nearly impossible to follow) conspiracy involving the CIA, mind control experiments, a psychopath (Judson Scott) with mommy issues, and a sleazy mobster (Alan King) whose bulletproof limousine comes in handy during the third act.

In actuality, calling Hammer’s investigation an “investigation,” is misleading. With some serious anger issues and a willingness to shoot first and forget to ask questions later, Hammer seems like a pretty lousy detective. The only interrogations when he learns hard facts come from an old friend (an under-utilized Geoffrey Lewis) willing to talk to get rid of him and a pair of buxom, naked “therapists” (Lee Anne Harris, Lynette Harris) whom he spends more time ogling than questioning. Interestingly, one of the only hard clues Hammer finds is planted by a shadowy third party with their own agenda.

In certain circles, Mike Hammer is an iconic character. Spillane wrote the character as a man’s man; a tough guy vigilante capable of killing the bad guys and satisfying every woman who throws herself at him. But what just seemed like masculinity when Spillane introduced the character in 1947, feels like the misogynistic and violent behavior of a Neanderthal to modern audiences. The wrinkle of transplanting Hammer to 1982 (when the film was released) is an interesting idea because it places the character firmly in the camp of an unlikable antihero. Sadly, this changing of the time period is the only thing intriguing about the film.

I, the Jury is a largely forgotten film. In fact, if it is remembered at all, it is usually as the film Cohen was fired from, spurring the largely impromptu production of Q. The story goes that Cohen clashed with the producers, resulting in his removal as director after just a few days of shooting. In order to get revenge, Cohen launched into pre-production on Q without a completed script or cast. If for no other reason than it inspired a fit of vindictiveness in Cohen that resulted in the beloved Q, the existence of I, the Jury is justified. But that is the only good reason for the film to exist.

Director Richard T. Heffron replaced Cohen at the helm. In all fairness, this was probably a difficult job. Not only did he have to replace a writer/director with a very specific style, he had to do it with no preparation. The resulting film feels like a shapeless mass of scenes that have nothing to do with scenes that come before or after them. And while there is usually plenty of conflict within a given scene (screaming, shooting, explosions, fist fights, stabbings), there is never anything actually dramatic about any of the activity because the filmmakers don’t seem to have an idea of how to explain what is actually happening in the story.

It is hard to know how much of this mess is Cohen’s fault. He bought the rights to the novel and wrote the script with the plan to direct it himself, so it is possible that he would have made a better film than Heffron and the producers ultimately put together. But the murky subplot involving rogue CIA agents is the biggest problem with the film and has Cohen’s fingerprints all over it. It also goes to reason that Cohen put the cast together, since there was no lag time between his firing and the resuming of production. Unfortunately, this would assume that he was involved in the casting of Assante as Hammer, a move that puts the film in an immediate hole. Assante comes off as more of a lecherous, sarcastic scumbag than a tough guy avenging his friend’s murder.

The rest of the cast also bears the Cohen touch: Laurene Landon, a Cohen regular, is on hand as Velda, Hammer’s secretary/gunsmith. Paul Sorvino (who Cohen used in The Stuff) is police detective Pat Chambers, Hammer’s friend who may be hiding a duplicitous nature (that Sorvino plays this character should be a clue about that). Carrera infamously appeared as Bette Davis’ replacement in Cohen’s execrable Wicked Stepmother. While Landon has fun with her thankless role, Sorvino looks lost about what tone he is supposed to be reaching for and Carrera gets to do nothing but stand around as exotic eye candy.

While I believe Cohen would have done a better job with the elements at play, I wonder how much better the film could have been. Aside from Hammer’s ingrained misogyny and the batshit insane portrayal of Dr. Bennett’s sex therapy sessions, the film finds plenty of ways to be ugly with sadistic overtones in its sex scenes and unnecessary slasher elements.

But how often can a bad film claim to be the inspiration behind a good one? Even though I, the Jury failed on almost every level, at least it helped to launch Q into cinemas. I’ll take that.

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