The Film: No Man’s Land (1987)
The Principals: Charlie Sheen, D.B. Sweeney, Randy Quaid, Lara Harris, Bill Duke, M. Emmet Walsh. Written by Dick Wolf. Directed by Peter Werner.
The Premise: When an undercover detective gets gunned down, rookie and part-time mechanic Benjy Taylor (Sweeney) is recruited to infiltrate an auto-theft ring run by suave yuppie Ted Varrick (Sheen). Naturally, the temptation of swiping exotic European sports cars in L.A.’s wealthy neighborhoods and the romantic advances of Ted’s sister (Harris) cloud Benjy’s loyalty to his job as he grows closer and more comfortable in Varrick’s empire. Can he follow through on his word, or will he turn rogue?
Is It Good? Early on in Taylor’s undercover operation, he accompanies Varrick to an elitist country club/restaurant where all its patrons don the latest in stylish Armani garb, enjoying glasses of champagne and bottles of Michelob (it’s nighttime and the night belongs to Michelob). One of its less vapid, more astute guests speaks an observation that could apply not only to Varrick’s circle of friends, but to the entire sort of junior-yuppie niche of the generation: “Lifestyles of the rich and aimless.”
No Man’s Land is yuppie action noir—the lifestyles of the rich and aimless and their dangerous adventures. The youth of 1987 live their champagne wishes and caviar dreams without any mind for the law, indulging in their Porsche and Ray-Ban fetishes with bolded, italicized extravagance. The surplus of designer items and young, beautiful people are reminiscent of an episode of Miami Vice written by Bret Easton Ellis, a morality tale where the lawless breaks the law and crime pays.
Wolf—yes, the creator of Law & Order, back when he was showrunner on Vice—penned the script for this film, and the Vice parallels are rampant in style and plot. The underworld that ends up consuming the quiet, fresh-faced Benjy is straight out of a discarded script for the show—just swap D.B. Sweeney for Crockett and have a young Johnny Depp play Varrick and “No Man’s Land” would have been one of the show’s highlights in its second or third season. I digress, however: even though No Man’s Land has a very television-like sheen—its director, Peter Werner, has a heavy TV background—it still has a slick grit with its edge amongst the pastel colors and stucco décor, plus a kick-ass Basil Poledouris score that is distinctly synth-heavy—surprising for a composer well-known for sweeping orchestral work.
Speaking of sheens, in one of his first big roles post-Platoon, a suave, uncorrupted Charlie Sheen plays Ted Varrick as less a villain than a spiritually dark shade of gray. His intentions are not inherently evil but rather a questionable guy, doing what he feels is right for himself and his operation and not out of malice. While he is not the main character, Sheen has top billing, and his assuredness in playing Varrick as strangely likable and deeply flawed.
It’s up to D.B. Sweeney to carry the film, and he feels more or less adequate in the face of what Sheen puts into his role. Benjy is established early on as a sort of farm boy who treasures his family and seems more accustomed to his talents as a mechanic rather than a cop. Restated, he needs to learn how to be a badass like his surrogate brother Ted, and it’s his experiences in risk-taking that are meant to make the character grow. Looking at other films with similar plotlines, however, Sweeney does not seem to feel tough or masculine enough to feel heroic. He’s a nice guy, not cocksure but passive—something that Point Break gets right with Johnny Utah and even the Fast and the Furious series and the Brian O’Connor character. Sure, he has old pros like Randy Quaid, Bill Duke and M. Emmet Walsh to assist, but from this performance, I can see why D.B. (Dale Bartholomew?) Sweeney has ended up in more of a capacity to be the third wheel of Liam Neeson’s underused CIA barbecue/sports buddies in Taken 2.
What No Man’s Land ends up standing for, however, is Wolf’s noirish prose and especially the pulsating eye candy. From beautiful women to Varrick’s explicit Porsche obsession (he has distaste for anything else, especially “Italian trash” like Ferraris), the film indulges in cars, fashion and architecture as if it’s subliminal advertising for the stuff. The stunt work and car chases showcase smaller-scale but exhilarating destruction, and the product placement bleeds in there when a Pepsi truck gets obliterated by a flying car. This relic is a minor achievement in filmmaking, but the rush is solid and certainly worth a… test drive.
Is It Worth a Look? Absolutely, it’s worth a look, even though the DVD from MGM only exists in fullscreen. That said, you cool kids with cable can catch it in widescreen on MGM HD if you’ve got it.
Random Anecdotes: No Man’s Land is the second entry of an unofficial trilogy of Charlie Sheen movies involving flashy sports cars and illicit activities that accompany them—The Wraith and The Rookie being the bookends of this potential triple bill. Randy Quaid also appears in the former as a cop.
Watch out for a young Brad Pitt sporting a heinous mullet as a waiter. In case you don’t catch him, here’s the pre-fame Moneyballer himself:
Charlie Sheen was injured by a faulty squib that exploded overnight.
Ron Howard, of all people, served as executive producer. He also directed the car-themed Gung Ho the previous year, which fetishized economical Japanese automotives more than it does Mimi Rogers’ boobs. Not that I don’t sincerely enjoy the movie…
Cinematic Soulmates: Point Break, The Wraith, The Rookie (1990), The Fast and the Furious