After two cold-blooded murderers battled several FBI agents on the streets of a Miami suburb in October, 1985--the most violent shoot-out in the history of the law-enforcement agency--it was easy to guess what horror would follow: a movie about the event.
There was only one question: Would it be a theatrical film or a TV movie?
It’s a TV movie--"In the Line of Duty: The FBI Murders,” airing Sunday from 9 to 11 p.m. on Channels 4, 36 and 39--but one that depicts the extended gunfight with the unsparring realism of a theatrical picture.
In fact, after watching the climax and several preceding acts of violence, some viewers may wonder why NBC considered a film like this proper for network TV.
They may also wonder about the odd casting: Many kids are going to want to watch “In the Line of Duty” because it stars Michael Gross, the father on “Family Ties,” the popular sitcom that airs earlier the same night on the same network. (In fact, he’ll be seen Sunday as Steven Keaton both on “Family Ties” at 8 p.m. and, in a guest appearance, on “Day to Day” at 8:30 p.m.)
In “In the Line of Duty,” however, behind a thick mustache, he plays one of the killers. Another former TV good-guy, David Soul (“Starsky and Hutch”), plays the other.
Both Gross and Soul turn in excellent performances. In fact, “Duty” is well done all down the line. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a disturbing film if it had been a less-well-made one. The teleplay is by the writer of “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” Tracy Keenan Wynn. The executive producers, Michael Lepiner and Kenneth Kaufman, made “The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank.”
In detailing the events leading up to the incredibly brutal ending, “In the Line of Duty” attempts to provide equal time to both the bad guys and the good guys. But since there are more FBI men, we merely get sympathy-building glimpses of each, with an emphasis on those played by Ronny Cox (as a veteran agent), Bruce Greenwood (as a rookie) and Ronald G. Joseph (as a Latino agent).
We get a lot more of Bill Matix (Gross) and Mike Platt (Soul), who rob armored cars and shoot the guards execution-style. They’re mean and they’re stupid.
What makes “Duty’s” finale even more horrific is how stupid the FBI agents seem--doing such a poor job of surrounding Matix and Platt that the two killers come very close to finishing them off and escaping. The 1985 gun battle went on for nearly 10 bloody minutes; the faithful 1988 screen treatment, rendered in detail, seems to go on forever.
The shoot-out is hard to watch--the kind of scene that makes you feel what it’s like to shoot someone, or to be shot. There’s none of the bloodless romanticism we’ve seen in too many “OK Corral"-type movies--and none of the slow-motion and other stylistic touches that make “Bonnie and Clyde” and Sam Peckinpah’s dramas less realistic than their reputations would lead you to believe.
“In the Line of Duty,” then, is real and haunting. But to what purpose? Teaching us nothing but more fear and disgust for life, and justifying its existence because “it really happened,” this film is yet another sign that the networks--so very careful about not showing the details of sexual love--don’t care at all about how much violence they air or who sees it.