It all boils down to this: How do you like your '50s pulp fiction?
Writer Mickey Spillane (he of beer commercial fame) introduced private investigator Mike Hammer in the 1947 pulp detective novel, "I, the Jury." With its heaping helping of sex and violence, it was such an immediate success that four sequels quickly followed: "Vengeance is Mine!" (1950), "My Gun is Quick" (1950), "The Big Kill" (1951), and "Kiss Me, Deadly" (1952). Spillane revived a genre that had been sagging a bit, though coming in on the tail-end of a publishing (and screen adaptation) phenomenon was certainly a disadvantage. "I, the Jury" was made into a film in 1953, and Mike Hammer would make it onto the small screen in 1957 (with Darren McGavin, who played the father in "A Christmas Story," starring in 78 episodes). But the market for violence and sexist behavior was drying up, and Hammer did what old soldiers do.
In the '80s, someone got the bright idea to bring Hammer back to life, and after one false start with Kevin Dobson ("Margin for Murder," 1981) they tried Stacy Keach, whose naturally hammy, overwrought style of acting apparently seemed perfect for the exaggerated pulps-on-TV. After two made-for-TV movies, "Murder Me, Murder You" (1983) and "More Than Murder" (1984), CBS launched the second TV incarnation of Spillane's wise-cracking tough-guy. Surprisingly, it ran for three years—though not without a hiatus in the middle.
But CBS did a strange thing with Hammer. They kept the P.I. in his tilted fedora and '40s-style suit and gave him all the hard-boiled attitudes and mannerisms of the original character from the late '40s and early '50s. They even treated the lines and plot with the same hard-boiled tone of those early Hammer outings. But everyone else looks like they've come out of the '80s—with big hair, shoulder pads, you name it—and people are talking casually about Vietnam and the "Me Decade." It's a disconnect on the same level as "The Brady Bunch Movie," and if you like your hard-boiled detectives straight-up, these Keach films are going to be tough to swallow. It's like half noir. If, however, you just like a good by-the-numbers P.I. plot with a nice murder mystery instead of the usual cheating spouse cases that plague private investigators, then this double-feature will score a few points.
Veteran TV director Gary Nelson ("Kojak," "Police Story," "McMillan and Wife") calls the shots, and if scenes and lines go a bit overboard or turn unintentionally funny, maybe you can blame it on his TV comedy background ("Get Smart!," "F-Troop," "Gilligan's Island"). And there are moments that seem unintentionally funny, as well as lines like, "Back off, or I'll blow-dry your brains." That's what adding a touch of the '80s does to old Hammer.
The better of the two (by a dry hair) is the first unofficial pilot, "Murder Me, Murder You." After two female couriers are killed, Hammer becomes involved with an old flame of 20 years ago who tells him, after all these years, that he's the father of a bouncy baby girl . . . of 19. I won't spoil things, but let's just say that Daddy's little girl didn't turn out the way he would have liked. Still, Hammer has to find her before the bad guys do, and this hour-and-a-half mystery does a pretty good job of keeping the plot moving forward. Former Mamas and Papas singer Michelle Phillips plays the former flame, while Lisa Blount is the daughter. Some familiar faces turn up as well, including Tanya Roberts ("Charlie's Angels") as Hammer's girl Friday, Delta Burke ("Designing Women") as a secretary-sex toy, and character actors Tom Atkins as a suspect-client and Jonathan Banks ("Beverly Hills Cop") as a sleazy filmmaker. As Hammer says, "Honey, right now the only person who isn't a suspect is me."
In the second feature, Roberts is replaced by Lindsay Bloom, who would go on to appear in the revived series along with Don Stroud, who plays Pat, an NYPD detective chum of Hammer's. Look for Lynn-Holly Johnson ("For Your Eyes Only," "Ice Castles"). Also, Tim McIntire plays an over-the-top country singer, while this time around Robyn Douglas is the object of Hammer's affections. In this one, a friendly poker game with a little dope thrown in for good measure results in a robbery and murder, and Pat ends up being taken into custody as an accessory to murder. It's up to his hard-boiled pal to prove his innocence, while flipping through a list of suspects that includes art dealers, country singers, body builders, mountaineers, and undercover agents. Even more than the first film, this one has some twists and turns that stretch the imagination. But as with the first, it's still a plot that entertains if you aren't bothered by Keach's hammy style, the '40s/'80s disconnect, or confusions that are never quite cleared up.
Video: Except for slight graininess that's to be expected from color TV film stock from the early '80s, the picture is actually pretty decent. Presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, it has good color saturation.
Audio: The audio is a nothing-fancy English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, with subtitles in English and French. What can I say, except that it doesn't detract from the film, and doesn't add all that much either. It's there.
Extras: There are no extras.
Bottom Line: I like my hard-boiled pulp fiction straight-up, and thought that the '40s/'80s split left these two films with one foot on the dock and one on the boat. What we have feels oddly half-noir. Then too, Keach is as hammy and one-note of an actor as George Hamilton, Jr. or Burt Reynolds. Too much of him can be, well, murder.