The Film: The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990)
The Principals: Andrew Dice Clay, Wayne Newton, Priscilla Presley, Morris Day, Maddie Corman, Lauren Holly, Brandon Call, Gilbert Gottfried, David Patrick Kelly, Robert Englund, Ed O’Neill, Vince Neil, Sheila E., Tone Loc. Directed by Renny Harlin.
The Premise: Short on cash and high on cigarettes, leather and music memorabilia, rock-and-roll detective Ford Fairlane (The Diceman) gets hired by shock jock Johnny Crunch (Gottfried) to find Zuzu Petals (Corman), a missing groupie connected to the murder of hair-metal rocker Bobby Black (Neil). When Johnny gets killed on the air, Ford ends up on a tailspin through the underworld of L.A.’s record industry, crossing paths with an heiress (Presley), a sinister mogul (Newton), and a cackling Australian hitman (Englund) connected to the case.
Is It Good? “You’re ten seconds away from the most embarrassing moment of your life.”
“So many assholes, so few bullets.”
“I coulda been a fisherman. Fishermen, they get up, they fish, they sell fish, they smelt fish. Reminds me of this girl I used to go with, Yvonne. She smelled like fish.”
I love this movie. I fucking love this movie so much. Heralding Andrew Dice Clay as the next renaissance man of comedy and cinema, Ford Fairlane takes advantage of the exuberantly vulgar but pulsating style of the Diceman’s standup by expounding a zany, flamboyant canvas of sleaze and decadence. Rampant self-awareness and sight gags embody it as an ultimate novelty film, relying heavily on the deified image of Clay in a pop culture lexicon where MTV has taken ubiquity beyond cable subscribers and into everyday life. This is the cinematic, monolithic equivalent of a neon-hued Jackson Pollock painting, a grotesque but wild and energetic slice of Warholian pop art.
Nary an attempt is made to cement the film as timeless—Ford Fairlane rode in on the tail end of Dice’s colossal shadow of controversy and quickly became an antique like the namesake classic car he drives. Fairlane is a “rock and roll detective,” but certainly it is a pseudonym for the man who got banned from MTV, sold out Madison Square Garden, ruffled feathers behind the scenes at Saturday Night Live and infuriated women everywhere. Nevertheless, the Diceman exhibits an incredible screen presence, dripping wet with hegemonic masculinity and a rugged physique that evokes Bruce Willis by way of James Dean. In spite of his nonstop quips about women—see the fisherman line above and the part where he kills his morning erection by saying “Roseanne Barr naked”—Clay proves himself as more formidable than his moniker.
The crude comedy style holds nothing but shock value as a gut reaction, devoid of cultural or social insight. However, the universe that surrounds Fairlane is an amusing satire of the corporate, manipulative mindset of the record industry in the 70’s and 80’s. This is apparent from the moment rock star Bobby Black—played by Vince Neil as a paper-thin version of himself—propels onstage with the assistance of a zip line, only to drop dead in front of his horrified fans. Neil’s participation is arguably an in-joke relating to his Motley Crüe bandmate Nikki Sixx’s 1987 near-fatal overdose and subsequent revival. Fairlane’s cash flow is disrupted by piles of goods used as payment, including autographed drumsticks and koala bears, showcasing the cowardice of actual payment from his clients.
The presence of Wayne Newton as ironically lecherous mogul Julian Grendel and Priscilla Presley as an industry-connected socialite are further postmodern footnotes on the film, the former deconstructing Newton’s reputation as the swooning, clean-faced emblem of Las Vegas showbiz. Presley’s credentials go without further explanation, and her presence feels welcome in a universe where, in real life, she might as well have become a celebrity by association. Morris Day plays Don Cleveland, an R&B producer whose name riffs on Soul Train maestro Don Cornelius, while cameos from Sheila E. and Tone Loc as a sultry club singer and a boombox-clutching rap enthusiast, respectively, add to the strong clout of self-referential bliss.
The most compelling thematic device in Ford Fairlane is the power of nostalgia, that those who have stuck with the music industry for years have become jaded by the excessive, vulgar direction that an artist like Bobby Black has taken music in. Ford Fairlane was released concurrently with the obscenity controversies of artists such as 2 Live Crew and N.W.A., and in the wake of Tipper Gore’s crusade for censorship in rock music years earlier. In perspective, the heroism of Ford Fairlane is a paradox, but his noble cause in exposing the corruption and remembering more innocent times vindicates him, especially as he teaches a kid who views him as a role model not to smoke or curse.
Fairlane was friends and bandmates with shock jock Johnny Crunch, a Howard Stern caricature played by Gilbert Gottfried. Crunch is a misogynistic equal to Fairlane, screeching on the radio for “teenage virgins” to “show up at KDRT right now with a jar of petroleum jelly.” Still, beneath Crunch’s brand of discussing his sexual conquests is a deep-seated friendship with Fairlane that shows a fleeting glimpse of charm inside of them. When Crunch is murdered by the cackling Australian psycho Smiley (Robert Englund), his legacy is a series of bizarre sex tapes that Ford is horrified to see. “What is this, the Rob Lowe channel?”* he bellows, firmly etching the film in its time. Furthermore, Crunch’s on-air death plays out as a sort of bastardized, darkly humorous parody of talk-show host Alan Berg’s murder, which Eric Bogosian later used as the inspiration for Talk Radio—right down to Smiley’s receding hairline and slimy appearance singling him out as a neo-Nazi.
In what is arguably the film’s funniest scene, hard-ass LAPD detective Lt. Amos (a stoic, humorless Ed O’Neill) arrives at the scene of Crunch’s murder. Amos laments Crunch’s murder could be the work of “everyone from the Glendale skinheads to Magic Johnson,” and wastes no time in projecting his initial frustration on tearing into Ford’s outrageous attitude and behavior. Ford seizes the opportunity to not only refer to him as “Anus”—a great example of the extent of the juvenile sense of humor—and revealing that their feud was over Ford’s contempt for Disco Express, a one-hit wonder group that Amos fronted in the 70’s. Watching Ed O’Neill, sporting a suburban-dad mustache and permanent glower, embarrass himself at a crime scene singing a song called “Booty Time” with the same passion Al Bundy would sing the Psycho Dad theme is this film’s stroke of genius.
While he has wallowed through the lowly ranks of barely-there theatrical films and direct-to-DVD fare for the past several years, I feel like not enough credit is given to the directorial style of Renny Harlin. Die Hard 2 is the best Die Hard sequel. Cliffhanger is a truly breathtaking action film. The Long Kiss Goodnight is a work of manic geniuses. When he got the Ford Fairlane gig, his biggest films were a financially successful but middle-of-the-road slasher sequel (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master) and a fucking incredible horror film that only got a disc release recently (Prison). His style here flourishes like Tony Scott in his prime, a smoky, music-video finesse that nevertheless has a colorful, symphonic slickness.
Fairlane may be far from the classiest film he’s made, but it may be his most visually vibrant and offbeat film. Separated from the novelty of Andrew Dice Clay’s persona, it plays like a predecessor to what the Coens perfected in The Big Lebowski, a coked-out derivative of Altman’s The Long Goodbye with accentuated sex appeal and flashier material goods. Destined to be a cult classic from the get-go, the stigma of (co-)winning the Razzie Award for Best Picture years ago felt unjust retaliation for Dice’s 15 minutes running out, and watching it now it’s fallen into place as a breed of misunderstood brilliance. Many have accused his comedy of being brash and disgusting, and the film has weathered myriad criticisms for doing the same mean-spirited wrongs. Like what Mike Judge would end up doin with Beavis and Butt-head years later, however, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane proves something paramount—it takes a lot of thought to be smart, but to churn out something this madcap, the workload is twice as much.
Is It Worth a Look? Hit pay dirt with KDRT and watch the shit out of this. If I was to not recommend it, I would say it’s worth watching for the “Booty Time” scene alone, but hell yes, this is worth your time. For me, this ranks up there with They Live and Cobra in the spectrum of mindless films that are 150 percent smarter and better than the grand majority of critics and film buffs make them out to be.
Random Anecdotes: Billy Idol’s song “Cradle of Love” turned out to be not only the soundtrack’s biggest song but one of the biggest singles of 1990. It was the flagship cut from his 1990 album Charmed Life. Idol, who’d been in a motorcycle accident in February, was filmed from the waist up for the video, featuring clips from the film and already an MTV hit before the film’s release. Clay’s ban from MTV meant no clips of Fairlane himself appear. The video was directed by David Fincher.
Pegged as one of the wild-card summer hits of 1990, Fox played hot potato with the release date of the film, moving it from June to May and back to July. Harlin directed this before taking Die Hard 2, which ironically came out nine days before this film’s release. Released July 11, 1990, the film crashed and burned at #5 at the box office with Die Hard 2 staying at #1 and Ghost outgrossing the film in the #2 spot.
Joel Silver reportedly gave Harlin the job for Die Hard 2 based on impressive results with this film’s dailies.
Hopes were so high for the Diceman at Fox that a multi-picture deal was signed for him. This was to be the first, and the concert film Dice Rules was to hit for Christmas 1990. The poor performance of Fairlane at the box office led to Fox voiding the deal and dumping Dice Rules. Finally, it was released in May 1991 to scornful reviews and an NC-17 rating, making a dismal $637,327 at the box office and cited by Gene Siskel as one of the worst films of the year. Dice lamented of Fox’s decision to ostracize Dice Rules (which I’ve never seen) from their slate, “The whole thing stinks. It could have been a cool Christmas present for my fans to see the Diceman up there on the screen, 40 feet tall. I completely trusted the people at Fox, put my entire career in their hands, which turned out to be my mistake.”
Among the band names contracted to Grendel’s shady condom-factory front are bands named after other Joel Silver-produced films—the Nakatomi Boys’ Choir (a Die Hard nod), Alba Varden (the name of Rudd and Vorstedt’s shipping freight in Lethal Weapon 2), and Ellen Aim and the Attackers (of Streets of Fire fame). Further, Fred’s Condom Factory is based in Johannesburg—another possible Lethal Weapon 2 reference.
Recalling his experiences making the film to Movieline, co-writer Daniel Waters said working with Andrew Dice Clay was “traumatic” and found himself relieved when the Diceman touted a nonexistent writer named Bobby Rivers as the film’s writer in interviews.
DC Comics created a four-part prequel miniseries detailing Fairlane’s earlier adventures. The character itself was the creation of journalist Rex Weiner, who wrote two stories chronicling the character. The first was published in 1979 in weekly installments of the New York Rocker, while the second story was serialized in the L.A. Weekly in 1980. Weiner also penned the teleplay for the early Miami Vice episode Glades.
Cinematic Soulmates: The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski, Beverly Hills Cop, The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
* – One of my most-quoted lines from the film.