If you live anywhere else in the world other than Pittsburgh, you’d never care about this movie. But within Allegheny County, Striking Distance is celebrated with the same ardor that some folks reserve for movies like Gone With the Wind and Citizen Kane. Sure, other movies have been filmed here. But few have the names of our streets shouted or have riverboat cops or just feel like Pittsburgh, the biggest small town in the world.
Maybe that’s because writer/director Rowdy Herrington (Jack’s Back, Roadhouse) is a native son (a Yinzer, if you will) who even worked at the venerable PBS station WQED, home of Mr. Rogers.
That means that this is a film packed with Pittsburgh. Real neighborhood names. Real streets — even if somehow Bigelow Boulevard (the phrase “Take Bigelow!” is constantly used in town (or “tahn”) 26 years after this movie was made) — doesn’t match up with the real one. In fact, I live literally two minutes from the giant hill that the police cars tear down (Center Street in Duquesne, just a few hundred feet away from where Martin is buried in Tateh Cuda’s Braddock garden) and I can attest to the fact that it absolutely decimates shocks and bumpers. Even real TV newspeople Sally Wiggin and Ken Rice show up. This is a town where local news (and newspapers and KDKA AM radio) are all still important. Striking Distance gets it.
Detective Sergeant Thomas “Tommy” Hardy, comes from a family of cops — five generations of them, some Italian and some Irish (honestly, this should be Polish, but all movie cops must be Irish). He used to be a former homicide detective, but he didn’t follow one of the most basic rules of being a Yinzer: He told Hornes how Kaufmann’s does their business by testifying against his partner and cousin Jimmy Detillo (the late Robert Pastorelli).
En route to the Policemen’s Ball with his father, Vincent Hardy (Frasier‘s and Diane Court’s dad, John Mahoney) — a place where everyone will surely hate him — a call comes in. The Polish Hill Stranger has been spotted. There’s a huge chase — seriously, that second Pittsburgh Orbit article goes into great detail about this — that ends with Tommy injured and his father shot and killed.
The police arrest Douglas Kesser as the Strangler while Jimmy decides he’s never going to prison, diving off the 31st Street Bridge right in front of Tommy.
Our hero reacts to this by getting drunk for two years. He’s finally reassigned to the River Rescue Squad, which sadly doesn’t exist to the level that it does in this cinematic masterpiece. He’s joined in the lack of sobriety by his cousin Danny (Tom Sizemore) who has also left the force.
On one of his first river cases, Tommy finds the body of a girl who ends up being his ex-girlfriend. It’s not the last dead ex that he’ll find by the end of Striking Distance‘s 102 minute running time.
That’s when he meets his new partner, Jo Christman (Sarah Jessica Parker), who discovers from her boss, District Attorney Frank Morris (Homicide‘s Andre Braugher) that Tommy was demoted because he told a reporter that the Polish Hill Strangler had to be a cop.
Speaking of that killer, he starts calling Tommy and playing Sam the Sham and the Pharaoh’s “Little Red Riding Hood.” The only problem is that most of the cops, like Detective Eddie Eiler (Brion James!), are still holding a grudge against our protagonist. One of those cops that really has a grudge is Tommy’s uncle Nick (real-life cop Dennis Farina), now a captain, who blames him for what happened to his sons, one dead and the other a drunk.
There’s another Policemen’s Ball that Jo asks Tommy to take her to. After some initial awkwardness, his family embraces him. This would be a scene that Steel City audiences would go nuts over, as favorite son Tom Atkins shows up as Uncle Fred. Of course, Danny shows up drunk and Tommy gets into a fistfight. But the upside is that the partners fall into bed with one another, as usually happens when you’re a cop. And in an 80’s movie. And you’re Bruce Willis or Sarah Jessica Parker.
Bonus: You can also see Kurt Russell in a super fast cameo as a man on a boat, Roscoe Orman (Gordon from Sesame Street) as Sid, Jodi Long (she’s the girl who argues about reincarnation in New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” video) as Kim Lee, Mike Hodge (Judge Delano Burns from Law and Order) as Tommy’s boss Captain Penderman and Timothy Busfield as Officer Sacco.
After the couple thinks they’ve found another body – just rugs — it’s revealed that internal affairs have had their eye on Tommy. During a court hearing to kick him off the force, the big reveal happens: Jo is really Emily Harper of the Pennsylvania State Police, there to discover evidence of misconduct. However, she perjures herself and Tom goes unpunished for stealing police files so he can discover who the strangler really is.
I don’t really want to reveal any more, because I want more people outside of our fair city — and even those within it — to watch this movie. You can get it for $1 or less at any used store, except right here. Here, it’s going to be $10 and up. Also: this movie is hard to find on blu ray and has never had a big Shout! Factory reissue. I’m here to change that. And I’m volunteering our services to do a commentary track.
After thirteen weeks of filming, the original cut of this movie, called Three Rivers, bombed with test audiences. Extensive reshoots were held in Los Angeles, pushing the action and making the lovemaking scenes sexier.
One of the big test audience notes was that the film was confusing. That’s because Willis would continually insert his own story into the movie. A crew member said, “He had scenes rewritten. He did what he wanted to do. We were working with Orson Willis.” Willis was enraged that he had to do reshoots, blaming Herrington, who defended him despite the way he was treated.
With the new title of Striking Distance and all this extra work, including a totally new ending, the movie still bombed everywhere in the world but here. Such is life.
That said, if you want to get people to cheer in Pittsburgh, you can always work a few of these quotes into your conversation:
“Never scald your tongue on another man’s soup.”
“Who’s the best cop now?”
“You belong on the river, you fuckin’ rat!”
I reiterate this offer: Shout Factory — or whatever boutique label would like to release this — we really need to do commentary on this, along with the original Three Rivers cut. We can easily sell a few hundred copies at a table in the Strip District on Saturday morning.
Bonus: Listen to us discuss this movie on our podcast.