“It’s still not about anything.” The stubborn last words of private investigators Frank Hickey (Robert Culp) and Al Boggs (Bill Cosby) splash ice-cold water on the grizzled face of the detective genre they represent. Despite a miraculous investigative victory over dangerous men with murderous intentions, downtrodden Boggs still can’t muster any optimism when he and his emotionally broken partner walk off into the sunset. Considering the physical and psychological toll their pursuit for truth has taken, it’s hard not to understand their reasons for begrudging traditionally heroic delusions of grandeur.
Hickey and Boggs, more a cinematic tombstone than a billboard, takes the lasting genre foundation established by Huston, Lang, Hitchcock et. Al. and gives it a backhanded slap to the face, turning the whole universe upside down until nothing is sacred and everything is unforgiving. Each layer of the onion represents a different perspective, a new world spinning out of control. Hickey’s attempts at family structure are forced, then destroyed, while Boggs has already given in to the emotional indifference plaguing every other character. Friendly banter between men remains the only respite from the harsh realities of pain and disappointment, and even that fails to document specific moments of transition.
There’s a crippling sense of space in Hickey and Boggs that permeates through each aesthetic element. As directed by Culp, the film feels jam-packed with bodies during interior shots, and isolated and barren in specific exterior set pieces. A seedy dive bar has very little room to breath, only enough for the camera to fluidly capture Boggs’ attempt to convince Hickey of their professional worth. Yet the epic belly of the Los Angeles Coliseum feels vast and endless, with heroes and criminals alike waiting on separate levels of the arena for the action to set them in motion. As each body peeks out from separate cavernous entry ways, the entire space feels like a gigantic ant hill ready to explode with activity. That this brilliantly staged action scene resolves nothing proves once again that Hickey and Boggs is an increasingly rapid whirlpool of failed cause and effect.
The ragged and deteriorating milieu of Hickey and Boggs reminds of Michael Mann’s criminal alternate realities, where professionals glide under the surface of everyday life by subverting notions of good and evil. But unlike Mann, Culp brilliantly constructs unforgiving dark scenarios in prime daylight, where marks, scars, and wounds of all kinds are easier to recognize. The final sequence on a sunny Los Angeles beach is a prime example of mayhem juxtaposed with unwitting reality. As a helicopter crashes, multiple people are killed, and chaos erupts, Culp cuts to a wide shot and reveals people enjoying a nice day on the sand a mere jog away. If there was ever any doubt to Hickey and Boggs’ isolation, this moment puts the question to rest.
Not surprisingly, Hickey and Boggs is more about creating questions than answering them. The performances, the narrative, even the cinematography contain a rightfully incomplete feel, proving that any form of heroic closure is a thing of the past. Currency is measured in sacrifice and compromise, and by the end these men walk away from the natural world together, at odds with anything resembling hope. And honesty, how can we blame them for doing so?