Penelope Spheeris’ Hollywood Vice Squad is not a sequel to Gary Sherman’s Vice Squad of four years prior. Guess no one bothered to tell Spheeris or Hollywood Vice Squad, because the movie sure plays like one, if lighter, fluffier and with 100 percent more Travolta! Sure, it’s Joey Travolta, yet the stat still stands.
After a title card promises we are about to see stories “based on actual cases” undertaken by “one of the most unusual police organizations in the country,” the film introduces its cop characters at a quick clip, almost as an afterthought. Its semblant spine is built upon a concerned Midwestern mom (Trish Van Devere, Messenger of Death) coming to Tinseltown to plea for the help of LAPD Capt. Jensen (Ronny Cox, Deliverance) in locating her daughter (The Princess Bride herself, Robin Wright, pre-Penn and in her mo-pic debut). Unbeknownst to Mom, the girl’s become a smack-addicted hooker under the employ of the town’s most fearsome pimp, logically portrayed by Frank Gorshin, aka The Riddler to TV’s Batman.
Meanwhile, the token black cop (Leon Isaac Kennedy, Penitentiary) goes undercover as a rival pimp; the token female cop (Carrie Fisher, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is hungry for action and itching to bust her friendly neighborhood pornographer, whom she believes is using underage studs in his homemade productions; and the token Asian cop (Evan Kim, The Dead Pool) and the token Italian cop (the aforementioned Travolta, To the Limit) partner up and have all sorts of crazy adventures. There are many others, but these head the most prominent of seemingly a dozen subplots between which Spheeris’ film leaps.
Scenes of action — usually involving vehicular pursuit and inconsequential to story — hold Hollywood Vice Squad together like transparent tape. The seams of the episodic approach show, yet Spheeris (Wayne’s World) seems not to care. And nor do I, when the results are this entertaining. (Watch for the cameraman in the back of a car during an alleyway scuffle — you won’t have to watch very hard!) The quite-a-cast movie is as rough around the edges as her acclaimed Decline of Western Civilization trilogy of punk/metal documentaries and certainly as fascinated with colorful characters — some may call them “freaks” — for whom phrases like “only in Hollywood” were coined.
Set on the streets, so authentic you can smell them (starting with the Church of Scientology’s neon sign), the movie works as crime exploitation and as a time capsule of mid-1980s El Lay. Serving as markers are the Sunset Strip’s various theater marquees, luring patrons to see Rocky IV, Invasion U.S.A., Clue, Spies Like Us and Bodacious Ta-Tas. Only in Hollywood. —Rod Lott