Even though "The Last of the Finest" opened citywide last Friday without benefit of press previews the fact that Brian Dennehy was billed above its title was encouraging. As it turns out, it's a terrific cop-action picture, imaginative and entertaining, that could have benefited from opening-day reviews.
In addition to Dennehy, one of those natural actors whose every look, gesture and movement is expressive, it has that rarity for a cop picture, an exceptional script (by Jere Cunningham with Thomas Lee Wright and George Armitage) so strong in characterization that it's not necessary to explain the plot, as intricate as it is. It suffices to say that Dennehy and his underground LAPD squad (Joe Pantoliano, Jeff Fahey and Bill Paxton) find themselves taking the law into their own hands in trying to nail a major drug ring and wind up unexpectedly confronted with having to make some crucial moral choices.
Not only are Dennehy et al convincing as cops, they and their families also come across as people first and foremost. Indeed, it's because we come to know them so well that we can accept Dennehy's decision to turn vigilante and not regard it as mere fantasy. For that matter, the film's basic material could scarcely seem more familiar. It becomes fresh because the people, Dennehy's Frank Daly especially, have such dimension, plus the provocative suggestion that drug trafficking and extreme right wing politics are not necessarily such strange bedfellows.
"The Last of the Finest" also deals forthrightly with the terrible temptation that police face with the enormous sums of money connected with narcotics. Also, if there's plenty of action and some credible and tragic violence, there's also some humor. (Somehow it's gratifying to learn that Frank Daly can get fed up with David Letterman.)
While "The Last and the Finest" has a first-rate script and cast (which includes Deborra-Lee Furness as Dennehy's staunch, very real wife, and John Finnegan and Ford Rainey in nifty character turns), it is John Mackenzie's assured, driving and lusty direction that makes it all work. (Mackenzie, after all, directed that modern gangster movie classic, "The Long Good Friday" with Bob Hoskins). Making everything look great--including Larry Paull's spot-on production design, is cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia's beautifully lit L.A. locales--some of which are actually unfamiliar.