“Lonely women seek excitement and romance with men of action…”
OK—I confess, officer, when I read that tag line on the poster, I bit. Hook, line, sinker; even tackle and reel. It appeared on a DVD box for a 1953 police drama called Code Two, plastered right below a picture of a not-overdessed man leering at a scantily clad woman in what you might call an unresistant pose. I have something of a predilection for subject matter that borders on the suggestively sleazy, so that image couldn’t help but catch my eye. It resembled the cover art for those dicey 1950s paperbacks, the ones depicting near-naked ladies who, you suspect, have more than a passing acquaintance with everything that’s illegal, immoral, or fattening. Frankly, I couldn’t resist. Maybe I was in a seeking mood. What the hell; why not grab me some Excitement! Romance! Action! Entertainment!
Well, I wuz robbed. Code Two (“The fastest drama on two wheels!”) is a mild little MGM programmer about three guys joining the LAPD (for Excitement! Romance!) who then move up to the motorcycle squad division—basically to earn more dough. The hell with Excitement! and Romance! Cops make lousy salaries, so motorcycling for dollars is the incentive for our heroes three. Actually, one of them joins the squad because he thinks wearing those militaristic uniforms will make it easier to pick up chicks, but that’s only because he’s a Cocky Bastard who Doesn’t Follow Rules.
All right, so no lonely seeking women. That leaves us with our three men of action, who, in essence, are your typical film trio, brightly labelled so we can easily slot their character types: along with the Cocky Bastard there are the Shy Idealist and the steady-going Family Man. It’s that uncomplicated shorthand that B-noirs, denied big budgets or luxurious running times (this one’s 70 minutes), had to use to kick their stories straight into high gear. The plot predictably follows the men’s basic training as well as their learning of Life’s Lessons. The CB learns to not be a rowdy show-off, the shy guy to date girls, the family man to deal with the wife’s worries. When watching such troikas I always finding myself trying to pick out the dead-meat character, the one you know is gonna get bumped off. (In this case, I picked wrong; but I was nearly right.) It’s all standard fare, done in that 1940s-50s semi-documentary style that’s as flat as felt and about as interesting, its main virtue being that it moves hard, fast, and clean.
Even though it has about as much Excitement! or Romance! as a Care Bears movie, Code Two does have its cult fans because of the dozens of Harley Davidsons that streak through its plot contrivances like piranhas through oil. If you go for vintage hogs and guys dressed in black leather atop them, then this might be your film. The actors ride lots of motorcycles, on which they do lots of things: twisting round traffic jams, bucking over mountain terrain, and roaring down ribbons of concrete, enough to satisfy any Hells Angel manqué. I know nothing about motorcycles, and the one time I took a ride on one I was petrified with fright; so their lure is lost on me. Without the bikes, the film would be pretty much a stock policier, though it ends with a big shootout-cum-fistfight that’s done well, and which includes a pool of bubbling quicklime over which the now-reformed CB cop and the bad guy teeter while slugging it out on a catwalk. A nice little sadistic touch, I thought, one that took some imagination to devise.
I do go for Ralph Meeker, though, who plays the CB like a guy who knows he looks hot in black leather and thinks you should know, too. Meeker makes his character enough of a bastard so that you understand why the police brass want to throw him into a trash compacter and leave it running, but not enough so that you want to toss him in also. As an actor, Meeker was Lee Marvin Lite; he’s got much of the latter’s insouciant toughness and damn-the-torpedoes sexual magnetism, if not his supernova star power. But the clichéd hot-dogger of Code Two doesn’t play to Meeker’s strengths. Like Marvin, or like Michael Caine, he was really an ice-cold sexy beast, who’d freeze your heart while lighting your fire. Watching his escaped con with a dirty grin in Jeopardy, or his coolly impudent Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, you can feel that tight-jeaned sex appeal come screaming at you like a hog on asphalt.
Meeker’s forte was for those kinds of violent, unsettling, off-the-rails characters that, like Marvin’s role in Point Blank or Caine’s in Get Carter, should have made him a star. (Had Marvin played Mike Hammer—and I really can see him in that part—he would have been a star ten years earlier than he was.) But, except for a fine performance as a cynical, anguished soldier in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Meeker’s film work gradually dwindled (he never got anything as good as Mike Hammer again); and his later career was basically confined to standard fare on TV. Somehow I think we wuz robbed.
BONUS CLIP: Ralph Meeker and co-star Keenan Wynn go hog wild riding hogs in Code Two: