Written by Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack and Mike Gray
Directed by Andrew Davis
Eddie Cusack (Chuck Norris) and his crew (among them Dennis Farina, Ralph Foody and Joe Guzaldo) are undercover cops stationed just outside a rundown apartment complex in a Chicago slum, waiting for the right to storm the building for a drug bust. Unbeknownst to the detectives, a rival gang is also prepping to raid the building, and when both forces collide, the entire operation explodes into a mess for all three factions. At present, two Chicago gangs are on the cusp of war and Eddie Cusack must contend not only with that terrible situation but a cover up within the force following the unwarranted demise of a teenage boy during the muffed raid. As the film’s tagline states, Eddie Cusack is a good cop having a very bad day!
Often credited as Norris’s best film, one should therefore not be too surprised to learn of its director, Andrew Davis. Davis would go to bigger and better projects shortly after, leading up to his Academy Award nominated The Fugitive in 1993 and the 1998 Dial M for Murder remake, A Perfect Murder. He is a director that understands both style and pacing, capable of impressively ratcheting up tension any number of ways. His work in Code of Silence comes off as an extension of the sort of police thrillers that were abundant in the 1970s. The film is gritty, thematically and aesthetically dark, serving as a poor man’s French Connection of sorts.
Whereas the William Friedkin classic was set in a grimy New York city, this 1985 Norris vehicle utilizes Chicago, both the downtown and its perimeter, as the city that erupts in violence at any moment of the day. There is nary a ray of sunshine, as most scenes transpire either at night or on wet, overcast days, making the Windy City look far less inviting and warm than its actual reputation warrants. Not that that is to the film’s detriment. On the contrary, director Davis and crew do an admirable job at making a modern Chicago (modern for 1985, that is) look and sound just as dangerous as it did back in the days when Al Capone and various other gangsters ran amok in its beautiful streets. If anything, Code of Silence’s greatest strength is the location shooting. Whenever directors or actors utter the overused term ‘the place as a character’, Code of Silence is a movie that actually fits the bill.
As for everything else, it’s rather hit or miss. Henry Silva is appropriately vile as the well dressed and manicured Italian mafia boss who orders hits like it was nobody’s business, the second half car chase between Eddie and a couple of mobsters is truly exciting and brilliantly caught on camera, and David Michael Frank’s jazzy score (another aspect that harkens back to cop films of the 1970s, even those of the 60s to a degree) make the ride palatable.
That being said, much of the film meanders in mediocrity, hampered primarily by a very unfocused script. What would have been the issue if Detective Cusack only had to contend with the two rival Italian mobs readying themselves for street fights? Why does the movie feel compelled to tack on the police corruption subplot, one that actually only affects the very climax and not much before that? What’s more, Code of Silence is a prime example of the why legions of movie buffs mock the bearded star himself, Chuck Norris. Lacking any sort of presence or charisma, Norris is toxic to any scene requiring an inkling of gravitas, of anything denoting a hint of personality. He may be physically gifted and capable of delivering some decent roundhouse kicks to the head, but quite literally is incapable of doing anything else at all, at least in this film.
It might be considered star’s best picture, but what praise it deserves is due to the efforts of others involved, certainly not his. The film is at its best when Norris himself heeds the code of silence.