Mel Damski, if Badge of the Assassin is any indication, might be the finest TV movie director ever (who never went on to good theatrical films anyway). He understands composition, camera movement, editing–how to let actors do what actors do–beautifully. Badge of the Assassin looks like a TV movie and that description is, thanks in large part to Damski, not at all a pejorative. Admittedly, he has a lot of help. The film’s perfectly as cast, top to bottom. Alex Rocco, Larry Riley, Richard Bradford, all three are particularly good, but there are no bad performances. David Harris is real good too.
But the film really belongs to Yaphet Kotto. Even though James Woods gets a lot to do, he never gets as much to do as Kotto… and he doesn’t get to do it as long. It’s sort of cheap, since the film’s about black militants killing cops and Kotto’s a black cop struggling to understand. Woods’s basically just the driven district attorney, not wanting to disappoint the grieving widow (and the film’s source book is from the real district attorney, so it’d be interesting if the Kotto emphasis was in there too). However, regardless of what a terrible film McQ is… screenwriter Lawrence Roman is of a definite pedigree and his influence is probably significant.
The script is another area Badge really makes a model TV movie. The character content, which is considerable–scenes with Rocco, Woods and Kotto all have a lot of weight–occurs over a really long time. The film’s present action is something like four years. Besides the first act establishing of the characters, nothing is known about what happens in their lives other than in relation to the case at hand. It’s precise, not sweeping. Damski’s a master at knowing how best tell that precise account… and Roman’s script really focuses on the best possible way to get the lengthy period into ninety-four minutes.
Adding to the film–and I’m not not mentioning Woods because he isn’t great, but because it’s depressing how good he used to be (before he came a personality with Casino)–is the location shooting. It helps immensely, forcing the viewer to engage with the reality of what’s on the screen in front of him or her.
In the end, Badge of the Assassin sort of runs out of time. It doesn’t run out of story so much as it runs out of scenes it can enact well. It’s a good looking film, though, with some great acting.
Directed by Mel Damski; screenplay by Lawrence Roman, from the book by Robert K. Tannenbaum and Philip Rosenberg; director of photography, John Lindsay; edited by Andrew Cohen; music by Tom Scott; produced by Daniel H. Blatt and Robert Singer; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.
Starring James Woods (Bob Tannenbaum), Yaphet Kotto (Cliff Fenton), Alex Rocco (Bill Butler), David Harris (Lester Bertram Day), Steven Keats (Harold Skelton), Larry Riley (Herman Bell), Pam Grier (Alie Horn), Rae Dawn Chong (Christine Horn), Richard Bradford (L.J. Delsa), Kene Holliday (Washington), Toni Kalem (Diana Piagentini), Tamu Blackwell (Gloria Lapp), Richard Brooks (Tony Bottom), Akosua Busia (Ruth) and Alan Blumenfeld (Charlie).