The Warner Archive has released a Blu-ray edition of director Richard Rush's 1974 action comedy "Freebie and the Bean". The movie clearly rode the wave of enthusiasm during this period for maverick cop movies, largely because in those bad old days America was awash in crime. Consequently, Hollywood provided us with tough guy lawmen- Harry Callahan, Popeye Doyle, Lon McQ- to name but a few, who decided to toss away the rule book and bring about their own brand of common sense justice. The fact that, in doing so, these protectors of the peace often endangered far more innocent bystanders than the criminals did, was a common theme of these pro-vigilante cop flicks. "Freebie and the Bean" takes this element of rogue lawmen movies to an extreme, perhaps intentionally as a satirical device, or perhaps just to satiate the whims of the audience who, back in the day, would howl with delight every time a constitutional right was violated in order to mete out justice to a villain. The wafer-thin plot presents us with two San Francisco detectives - Freebie (James Caan) and his partner Bean (Alan Arkin)- as wise-cracking nonconformists who are borderline psychopaths. They routinely beat up suspects, deprive them of civil rights and in one "amusing" scene actually murder someone while he is sitting on a public toilet. In between, they terrorize half the population of the city by engaging in high speed chases that cause enormous damage. The only thing that separates them from the criminals they hunt is the fact that they are sanctioned by wearing badges. Freebie and Bean are assigned to protect an organized crime figure (Jack Kruschen), who the D.A. needs to appear as a witness as a high-profile trial. However, there is a contract out on him and the two cops must keep him safe until the trial begins.
Most of the film consists of endless chases on foot and by car, as the vulgarians in badges exchange insults and Bean is inevitably the victim of Freebie's cruel practical jokes. Arkin does his usual slow-burn shtick while Caan goes for his typical wise-ass approach. About the only cliche left out of this cop/buddy scenario is the "one guy is black and the other guy is white" standard. The script by Robert Kaufman is a crude, patchwork affair that resembles something some drunken college students could have churned out during a dorm party. Arkin and Caan do display a good deal of on-screen chemistry but director Richard Rush, who would go on to make the more estimable "The Stunt Man", places most of the emphasis on staging spectacular car chases. It must be said that the stunt work and action scenes are truly impressive and give the film its most redeeming qualities. However, the characters are all cringe-inducing sleazebags- including the good guys. The impressive supporting cast includes Loretta Swit, Alex Rocco, Mike Kellin and Paul Koslo- but their characters are woefully underdeveloped. Only Valerie Harper injects a note of grace and dignity as Bean's long-suffering wife who he accuses, in howling Ralph Kramden style, of having an affair with a gardner. The scene offers some humanity and poignancy but even that slips into vulgarity with a tasteless caveat about feminine hygiene. The movie has one other opportunity to veer into some genuinely emotional territory when, in the climax , one of the key characters is shot point blank and apparently mortally wounded. For a few brief minutes the film develops a sense of human compassion before plunging into the absurd final act when the severely wounded character inexplicably leaps from a hospital gurney to engage in a wrestling match.
Upon its release, "Freebie and the Bean" was greeted with largely awful reviews. Vincent Canby of the New York Times noted the sheer inhumanity of the characters, writing: "It's as sensitive as a doorknob and as witty as a bumper sticker" and also observed that there were so many automobile chases that he suspected the film was actually directed by a car. Alan Arkin dismissed the film as "absolute garbage"- but audiences loved it. The movie became a surprise hit and went on to develop a cult following that thrives even today. Fans of the film will welcome its Blu-ray release. The transfer is up to Warner Archives standards but the only bonus extra is the theatrical trailer. That's good news for "Bean" freaks but scant compensation for those of us who decry the sheer waste of talent in the film.