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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

IRONSIDE SEASON 2 -- DVD Review by Porfle

Hunkering down to watch a 7-disc DVD set of 26 hour-long episodes from a 60s cop show was a daunting prospect for me. So, steeling myself against an impending ordeal of boredom topped with plenty of cheese, I popped in the first disc of IRONSIDE SEASON 2 and began to wade through it.

To my surprise, it wasn't long before I discovered that I was being thoroughly entertained. In fact, IRONSIDE is one of the best classic TV series I've ever seen.

Each episode begins with an animated opening sequence that shows Raymond Burr's "Robert T. Ironside", San Francisco’s chief of detectives, being dramatically cut down by a sniper's bullet. First-time viewers will no doubt recognize the strident synth notes here if they've seen KILL BILL, since Tarantino used this intro as The Bride's revenge music. Then BLAM! Ironside goes down and ends up in a wheelchair as Quincy Jones' famously supercool theme kicks in and the iconic Burr glares at us in a series of closeups.

After the disabling assassination attempt, Ironside becomes a special consultant to the SFPD with a team of bright young assistants and a spacious, specially-designed office that serves as his Batcave. His Batmobile is a revamped paddy wagon driven by his personal aide and bodyguard, Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell), a black reformed ex-con with his sights set on a law career. Ironside's legwork is done by straight-arrow Det. Sgt. Ed Brown (Don Galloway, THE BIG CHILL), and rich-girl-turned-cop Officer Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson, who snagged an Emmy for the role). There's a lot of good interplay between these likable, believable characters, which is a major factor in the show's appeal.

Ironside may not be able to walk, but he's still got the keenest mind on the force and is a terrifically dynamic individual. Raymond Burr plays him as a gruff, tenacious man with a keen intellect who doesn't mince words or suffer lawbreakers, while earning the undying respect and affection of his team. Burr has a field day with the character, aptly portraying the difficulties that a big, tough, self-sufficient man has in dealing with and triumphing over his disability.

In "Desperate Encounter" he's being held prisoner in a secluded cabin by three men, and ends up crawling through the window and driving away in their own car, using a stick to operate the pedals. He's recaptured, but then manages to rig up a pre-MacGyver trap out of materials within reach and electrocutes one of the suckers when he turns on the light switch.

He'll still throw a punch at a bad guy or grab a fleeing suspect, even though it means ending up sprawled on the floor. But the emphasis is on his brilliant detective work rather than mindless action--unlike so many cop shows, this one doesn't devolve into generic car chases and shootouts in the fourth act.

Disc 1 begins with "Shell Game", which concerns Ironside's efforts to make sure a priceless royal jewel collection makes it from the airport to the museum and back without being hijacked by a master thief (Sorrell "Boss Hogg" Booke). It's a nifty police procedural with a fair amount of suspense, but it gives little indication of the depth of character that will be seen throughout later episodes.

The 2-parter that follows, "Split-Second to an Epitaph", is the first example of how good this show really is and contains many of its best and most representative elements. Ironside goes into the hospital for an operation that may have him walking again, but there's someone trying to kill him with the inside help of a nurse. The danger of the impending operation puts Ironside and his team in a reflective mood that results in a lot of emotional flashbacks from season one (employing the kind of imaginative, freestyle editing later used by Dennis Hopper in EASY RIDER) which emphasize the three-dimensional quality of the characters and their relationships with each other while bringing us newbies up to speed on a few things.

Meanwhile Ironside spends his pre-op time helping a patient he once sent to prison cope with the potential loss of his own ability to walk, while also trying to figure out who's trying to kill him. This all leads to a suspenseful conclusion as the oxygen that's to be used during Ironside's operation has been replaced with cyanide gas and we see his team trying to discover the switch before it's too late.

As in many of the subsequent episodes, Ironside's plight as a physically-disabled cop is explored in fascinating ways--the wheelchair isn't just a prop to give the character a distinguishing quality, like Baretta's bird or Kojak's lollipop. They may not make a big deal out of his disability in every episode, but it's always a defining part of his character nonetheless, and is an essential part of much of the action and drama. He's more than just a cop on wheels.

IRONSIDE is definitely a product of its time, with the hot topics of the day--racism, abortion, drugs, etc.--tackled head-on in several of the scripts. Few punches are pulled, and some of the dialogue scenes really crackle with a pre-PC frankness and no-holds-barred attitude. In "I, The People", Milton Berle plays a rabble-rousing talk show host who asks one of his guests: "You've, uh...never been married, right? In fact, you're never seen in the company of women. Little queer, isn't it?" In "Robert Phillips vs. The Man" Paul Winfield is a militant black civil-rights activist falsely accused of murder in an episode smoldering with racial tension. And yes, he calls Ironside "whitey" a few times. The show is much smarter and more in tune with the era than its contemporary, DRAGNET (another big favorite of mine), with its stereotypical hippies and reactionary mindset.

The guest cast regularly features other notable actors and familiar faces such as Joseph Cotten, Burgess Meredith, Troy Donahue, Ricardo Montalban, Charles Aidman, Johnny Seven, Andrew Prine, Don Stroud, Margaret O'Brien, Dane Clark, Clu Gulager, Ralph Meeker, Peggy Ann Garner, and Anne Baxter, among many others. Good performances and sharp scriptwriting keep things consistently interesting.

With the exception of a slightly rough patch here and there, these episodes pretty much look and sound just as good as they did when they first aired on NBC back in ‘68. Some bonus features would've been nice, but I'm not complaining--I still have a couple of discs to go, and I know I'm gonna have a ball watching them. And Raymond Burr? He da man.


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