The 1970s were a great decade for gritty buddy cop movies with the likes of The French Connection (1971) and Hickey & Boggs (1972). 1974 was a particularly good year with The Super Cops (1974), Freebie and the Bean (1974) and the largely forgotten Busting (1974), which presented the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles through the eyes of two vice cops and blended comedy with dynamic action sequences.
In the film’s opening sequence, Michael Keneely (Elliott Gould) and Patrick Farrel (Robert Blake) bust a high-end hooker named Jackie Faraday. Keneely is the smirking smartass while Farrel is the tough guy. These guys are a tad unorthodox as evident by the way a routine undercover assignment in a gay bar erupts into chaos when one guy (Antonio Fargas) gets too fresh with Keneely. The Faraday bust seems like a pretty open and shut case until their boss tells them that she got released thanks to a phone call from someone with juice.
Something about the hooker case doesn’t sit well with Keneely and when he checks out Faraday’s client book after it’s been entered into evidence he notices it’s missing all the pages with her clients. Naturally, the case is dismissed for lack of evidence and the two vice cops know something is rotten. They decide to pursue it further by digging deeper despite the opposition that mounts, including smug local crime boss Carl Rizzo (Allen Garfield).
Elliott Gould and Robert Blake make an intriguing team with their contrasting acting styles. During the ‘70s, Gould epitomized disheveled cool and continues that look with the bushy mustache, unkempt hair and rumpled attire that he sported in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). He adopts a laidback attitude and is always ready with a joke. Much like his take on Philip Marlowe in Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Gould’s cop treats everything as a joke on the surface but underneath he cares about doing his job, especially when it comes to the corruption he and Farrel uncover. In contrast, Blake, with his tight t-shirts and muscular build, is all intensity and no bullshit attitude. They play well off each other and adopt a shorthand that makes them believable as long-time partners. They have a nice scene together in an empty bathroom where their characters reassess what they’re doing and if they should continue to pursue a case where the odds are clearly stacked against them.
Journeyman cinematographer/director Peter Hyams has had a checkered career with the unnecessary sequel 2010 (1984) and generic thrillers like The Presidio (1988) littering his filmography but Busting may be his best film and oddly influential. When it came to crank out cop shows on television, producer Aaron Spelling used Hyams’ film as a template, even lifting several sequences out of Busting and using them in Starsky and Hutch. Hell, Hutch even wears the same kind of varsity jacket that Gould’s character sports in the film. Hyams, who also wrote the screenplay, clearly did his homework as the film has a scuzzy authenticity that is almost tangible. Apparently, he did a lot of research, interviewing hookers, pimps and cops in order to make sure he got everything right.
Hyams does an excellent job juggling the shifting tones throughout, bouncing back and forth between comedy and drama. He adopts long takes during the action sequences that are very effective and come across as refreshing in this day and age where action films are so heavily edited. For example, there is a sequence early on where Keneely and Farrel chase three crooks through an apartment building, on the street and engage in a tense gun battle in a crowded farmer’s market that is comprised of a series of uninterrupted long takes. Unlike William Friedkin’s edgy hand-held camerawork in The French Connection, Hyams employs smooth, gliding tracking shots and yet still manages to convey an urgency and excitement during the action sequences. Hyams is one of those Hollywood filmmakers able to adapt to prevailing trends. With Busting, he made a gritty ‘70s buddy cop film and then more than 10 years later made the kind of buddy cop film that was popular in the 1980s with Running Scared (1986).