There are few subjects less amusing than police brutality, yet “Lethal Force” (also known as “Cottonmouth”) takes this disturbing subject and has more than its fair share of gruesome fun with it. Nearly all of this unlikely pleasure comes from a wildly over-the-top performance by Richard Tyson as a homicidal policeman who assumes the roles of judge, jury and executioner. And this is fun…but with a bitter aftertaste.
Taking place in Houston, “Lethal Force” focuses on the bullet-happy shenanigans of one Police Officer Thomas Carruth, whose disgust with the endless arrests of lowlife scum makes him rue the power enjoyed during the reign of the legendary Judge Roy Bean. During a routine drug bust, Carruth’s partner is fatally shot and the angry cop goes completely off his nut and fires unapologetically into the backs of the drug dealers. This begins a string of incidents where Carruth winds up killing those he is seeking to arrest. Carruth also has a selective take on the Bible, pronouncing verses which supposedly provide holy sanctification for his authority.
Needless to say, Carruth begins to earn the attention of a district attorney named Jackson Thornton (played by Steven Owsley, who also wrote the screenplay). However, during the prosecution of Carruth Jackson’s family was mysteriously killed by a car bomb. The assasin was never identified, but Thornton’s quest for justice against Carruth crumbled with the D.A.’s tragic loss. Years later, Thornton can be found running a tiny private law practice while Carruth continued slaying anyone whom he felt was guilty.
The bulk of “Lethal Force” is a cat-and-mouse game in which Thornton, prodded by an excessively glamourous lawyer (Renee Alexander) who appears from out of nowhere, tries to crack down Carruth’s invincibility via a wrongful death civil suit filed on behalf of the mother of one of the cop’s victims. The investigation into Carruth is hampered by the fabled blue wall of silence within the Houston police department (many of whose officers actually assist Carruth in the messier aspects of his justice-serving) and by the nasty cop himself, who turns up to menace and sneer at the attempts to get him behind bars.
On its own, “Lethal Force” is a mildly forgettable thriller that follows a predictable path from start to finish. James Dalthorp’s direction is functional and pushes the film through some Texas-size credibility gaps in the screenplay. The ensemble cast (including a brief appearance by a tired-looking Robert Vaughn as a judge) is acceptable without raising an iota of special consideration or scorn.
But the fuel behind “Lethal Force” is the astonishing interpretation of Carruth by Richard Tyson, a character actor who has long been at home in the supporting ranks of both major Hollywood fare and B-Movies (last year saw him in backgrounds of “Black Hawk Down” and “Me, Myself and Irene”). Given the chance to enjoy the starring role, Tyson runs amok with a crazy performance that often seems to come out of another film.
The physically nondescript Tyson lacks the fear-inducing physical stature to successfully suggest the menace of a brutal cop, so he overcompensates this with the funniest attempt at a Texas accent ever put on film. Using a drawl that could swallow the Rio Grande, the actors slams an emphasis in the wrong syllables while stretching the pronounciation of words as if they were strings of taffy. Thus, a simple sentence like “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord” is transformed into a howling “Venge-ANCE is maaaaaaaaaaaahn, saaaaaaaaay-ETH da Laaaaaaawd!” When confronting his nemesis Thornton regarding the civil suit, he proclaims with tiger-worthy growling: “Yaaaar cooooooon huntin’ in da WROOOOOONG woods, suuuuuuuuuhn.” Imagine Rod Steiger imitating Yosemite Sam and you have an idea what to expect from this performance. Police brutality should never raise giggles, but Tyson turns his character into a work of nasty camp.
“Lethal Force” is supposedly based on a true story, and if this film is based on fact then it calls into question some terribly serious questions on how the Houston Police Department conducts itself. While the idea of a maniac cop serving double-duty as self-proclaimed executioner can be passable for the course of a B-Movie, “Lethal Force” provides several scenes in which Carruth’s colleagues in blue either actively assist him in his murderous ways (at one point taking a handcuffed man from the trunk of a police car and throwing him off a bridge) or stand by in mute indifference while he goes bonkers and shoots people in the face or back. Whatever amusement can be mined from Richard Tyson’s hammy performance is lost when the film paints a broad picture of wide brutality within Houston’s police force. If this is the case, then the suggested “true story” behind “Lethal Force” was clearly wasted in this little movie and in Tyson’s excessive performance.