Opening credits are special. The art of the opening credits has expanded exponentially since the standard of simple title cards with an orchestral accompaniment in the formative days of cinema. A major change with the advent of developing technologies and heightened creativity was the addition of imagery behind or interspersed with the text to give a contextual idea of the programme it precedes. Jean Cocteau would prove ahead of his time with his technically smart credits to La Belle et la Bête in 1946 and by the 60s major studios and directors would develop these techniques further as The Pink Panther (1963) did with such ingenuity by featuring a cartoon pink panther (rather than the precious stone in the film) comically evading the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. Television shows would also follow this loud new format too, think I Dream of Jeannie or Bewitched. This style would be known as the ‘title sequence’.
Directors would also play with having the credits over an opening scene or a prologue. Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) follows a mysterious man dragging a coffin along a dirt track while blood red fonts appear, lingering fiendishly over the solemn imagery giving the nihilistic impression of the death to come. More recently Jason Reitman would utilise a minimalist, retro sequence of beautifully measured aerial shots in-between clouds and of roaming American landscapes that wipe and sweep from one image to the next for his 2009 film, Up in the Air.
I love a good opening credits or title sequence, obviously I can’t list every single one here that’s given me a tingle or I’d bore you to tears but the cold simplicity of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s title cards throughout his canon to David Fincher’s brash cut-ups in Se7en (1995) to the epic nostalgia of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and the haunting and actually quite distressing credits for The Innocents (1961) are just a few examples of how opening credits have been utilised to increase the holistic impact of the feature.
This leads me nicely into my personal favourite introduction for any moving image, and the whole reason for this article, Renegade. For the uninformed, Renegade was a television show created by the tireless Stephen J. Cannell that ran for 5 seasons from 1992 to 1997.
Despite being dyslexic, Cannell was an exceptionally prolific writer creating (or co-creating) nearly 40 shows including The Greatest American Hero (which is rumoured to be getting the reboot treatment), Silk Stalkings and The Commish but is perhaps most famous for The A-Team and 21 Jump Street which both now have big screen adaptations. Sadly he passed away in 2010 so hasn’t been able to witness the success of these. If you don’t recognise his name but have seen any of these shows you’ll recognise him as the guy at the typewriter, post-credits, who throws the sheet of paper into the air, an iconic image from many an 80s childhood, that.
Renegade was Cannell’s modern update of the Lone Ranger and Tonto stories and starred Lorenzo Lamas (now Lorenzo Lamas-Craig after taking his fifth wife’s surname, who incidentally is younger than his eldest daughter) as Reno Raines, the eponymous renegade, and Branscombe Richmond as his friend & Native American sidekick, the wonderfully named, Bobby Sixkiller. Cannell himself would play series antagonist and all-round bad egg, Lt. Donald ‘Dutch’ Dixon, one of the best, most ruthless and nastiest small screen baddies you’ll ever encounter and Cannell pulled it off, the guy had acting chops.
The set-up sees a police officer, Reno, and his girlfriend, Val, disturbed by Hog Adams (Donald Gibb), a known felon whose intent is to murder Reno but he misses and shoots Val instead, putting her in a coma. The instigator of the would-be murder, crooked cop, Lt. ‘Buzzy’ Barrell (Art La Fleur) arrives on the scene only to be shot and killed by Dixon who seizes the opportunity to frame Reno for the murder and therefore sets into motion the multi-talented Mr. Raines’ new life on the road as a renegade.
The show spanned 110 episodes across those 5 seasons so there was plenty of opportunity to explore Reno’s life on the road in either canonical or random one-off stories. The continuity stuff usually involved Dutch and his lackey, Sgt. Woody Bickford (played by real-life detective Ron Johnson) going to extreme lengths to incarcerate Reno. In episode 1.1 ‘Renegade’ they hire Sixkiller Enterprises, Bobby’s bounty hunting firm, to make the capture but after he does, Bobby hears the true story, believes his bounty and they conspire to turn the tables on the unscrupulous Dixon. Incidentally, Reno takes a position as a bounty hunter at Bobby’s firm under the alias of Vince Black. Then there’s the labyrinthine 3 parter to open season 3 in which Dixon & Bickford lay a series of intricate traps which bear fruit but ultimately Reno rides off into the sunset again after a successful prison break in episode 3.3 ‘Escape’.
Some of the earlier non-canonical episodes were real show highlights usually always resulting in Reno learning a new skill or the audience learning that he already worked in whatever trade features in the particular episode in his younger years. For instance episode 1.8 ‘Payback’ sees Reno’s friend Phil Fondacaro (Land of the Dead) murdered by Jesse Ventura (The Running Man) so Reno goes undercover as a ranch hand to flush Ventura out and claim revenge. Episode 3.8 ‘Black Wind’ sees Reno help out his former sensei track down a dangerous pupil who has gone rogue so he trains and becomes a black belt in a new discipline and in episode 1.11 ‘Lyon’s Roar’ we discover Reno was once a Ranger when he is challenged to a game of survival by an ex-colleague who is now a drug-addled psychotic and has tied Bobby to an exploding toilet to ensure our hero’s participation.
These examples give you an idea how the show would take itself seriously, especially when dealing with the main narrative, but couldn’t help be tongue in cheek. The casting of Lamas, a B-movie action lead, and of Richmond, a television actor who has had small roles in Commando, Batman Returns and The Scorpion King, was perfect in setting the contrasting tone as they strike up a great partnership and have a distinct chemistry that fizzes as the crux of the show.
Lamas himself I find fascinating as he’s not a natural at the acting game and his delivery is slower than my brain after a night on the gin, and he walks around in fluorescent 90s shirts or bare-chested underneath a leather waistcoat, not to mention riding his Harley without a helmet on but I can’t help but like him. He has an inane charisma, you want him to succeed and I find myself yearning for him to clear his name but he keeps getting sidetracked by small town criminals and by many a damsel in distress who often challenge his love for Val. He gets really wholesome lines which he says through his teeth like ‘Being a cop is in my DNA, like dark hair and green eyes’ and (talking about his mother to his long lost brother and brainwashed cage-fighter, Mitch (Martin Kove from The Karate Kid)) ‘She had a shock of red hair and a knockout smile. She loved ya, Mitch’. He just seems to be a really likeable guy or maybe it’s just the hair. Oh the incredible hair.
Talking of incredible hair, no matter how good Lamas’s mullet is, he’s got nothing on Branscombe Richmond. In fact Richmond’s barnet is more of a mane and I’m sure it has its own trailer and wardrobe department, it’s seriously one of the highlights of the whole show. Anyway, hair aside, Sixkiller provides the perfect foil to Reno’s often inwardly philosophical ramblings by acting as the comic relief or the shoulder to burden his many woes on. His cheerful demeanour hides a strong man and true friend to our man-on-the-lam and his other concern is his sister, Cheyenne, played by then Mrs. Lamas, Kathleen Kinmont. Lamas would eventually divorce Kinmont during the show which saw her part heavily reduced then cut altogether.
As with many hit television shows, Renegade was a draw to a plethora of guest stars including, amongst others, Jackie Earle Haley, James Cromwell, L. Q. Jones, Tiny Lister, Kano and Shang Tsung from the Mortal Kombat movie, Don Swayze, Charles Napier and Johnny Cash, who guest starred in a bizarre Renegade re-telling of It’s a Wonderful Life where Cash showed Reno what the world would be like if he hadn’t been born. Terrible of course.
Like Deadwood, Renegade was another behemoth of a show to be axed before its conclusion but unlike Deadwood the lead actor returned for shooting after the post-season break with a freshly shorn head, so, what with Reno’s hair being a major part of his character, he donned a hairpiece for what would be the show’s final season as it wasn’t soon after this that everyone involved noticed that the shark was mid-jump and they quietly decided to call it a day.
Anyway, I hope that’s all gone some way to setting the tone of the show as now we’ll look at the opening credits and then I’ll break it down and explain why it’s brilliant.
First we hear the rumble of the approaching Harley, silhouetted and driving toward the camera ahead of the gorgeous red orb in the sky, then the greatest introduction ever growls the premise in broad strokes-
‘He was a good and good at his job but he committed the ultimate sin and testified against other cops, gone bad. Cops that tried to kill him but got the woman he loved instead. Framed for murder, now he prowls the badlands, an outlaw hunting outlaws. A bounty hunter. A Renegade.’
With the last two words the backdrop changes to smoke with the Renegade logo flashing through bold as brass, reminiscent of the deep south USA with its metallic eagle snarling at its prey and Mike Post’s energetic theme song kicks in. Reno then bursts through the smoke on his wheels and we’re taken straight to the open road giving the impression that that’s where he’ll be spending a lot of his time. The action doesn’t let up there though, thanks to some quick editing we see Reno wield a huge rifle and pop off a round before cutting to an image of him kicking a door open. More impressions given here, this time that the show is going to be action packed and I’ll talk about the significance of the kick later because right now we’ve already cut to a helicopter chasing Reno, clad in his leather waistcoat as he runs to his next adventure.
This next shot is interesting as it juxtaposes officer Reno Raines with his alter-ego, Vince Black before more quick cutting from a close-up of his smouldering eyes to a metal embossed imprint of the word ‘framed’, because that’s what he’s been, to his mugshot from the wanted poster, which he hides in a saddlebag on his bike. He’s then chased by police dogs and another wanted note goes up in flames to signify he’ll fight like an angry inferno to prove his innocence. There’s more running and a slow motion jump, then a beautiful woman, as the show often turns these up, then there’s a break for a couple of seconds as Reno kicks a man coming up behind on a flight of stairs. I touched upon the kick earlier and it’s important as his signature, and strongest, move is his kick, affectionately dubbed ‘The Reno Kick’ (by me anyway). He uses this to kick down a prison wall early in season one.
After another quick shot of the beautiful woman we return to the stairs where Reno takes down a felon in front of him with an impressive right hook to the jaw, he will often take down more than one opponent at a time in the show. No letting up though as a pistol chamber spins, much like Reno’s wheel of fate then he’s back on his motorcycle, hair flowing in the wind. A look to the camera and another quick fight later brings us to Reno cooling himself down by pouring a tub of water over his exposed torso while leaning against his treasured Harley, incidentally the bike does actually belong to Lorenzo Lamas and is one of his most prized possessions. After another nifty cut from a fight and a dog barking we arrive at his credit and what a shot this is. The camera lingers on our man as he takes an extended glance toward it while wearing a subtle blue shirt on his back and a pout on his face. Then he’s off again, this time down ‘Z’ road and up some stairs to wield a sidearm and check his reflection on a broken shard of glass, then he enjoys another bare-chested refreshment break before a lady poses on a window ledge.
From all this we gather Reno’s a complicated man. Okay he’s strong, 90s good looking and he likes gun play and beautiful women but he’s oppressed, his freedom has been snatched away from him thus making him the underdog and a sympathetic character for us to believe in and boy does he fight the good fight.
Okay, now things get interesting as you’ll notice the music changes key and almost genres as we’re introduced with a bang to Bobby Sixkiller. He evades a baseball bat swung at his temple and delivers a counter punch to his attacker’s midriff then he shows us his lighter side by pretending to shake a man’s hand but pulling away and chuckling at the gag. Oh Bobby you joker. Similar to Reno’s earlier juxtaposition we get one here for Bobby too when we see him as a cool guy with shades on (the best pair of sunglasses he wore were some chunky, colourful Nikes in episode 2.9 ‘Wheel Man’ where Reno becomes a race car driver) compared to his spiritual side which is explored more in episode 1.7 ‘Eye of the Storm’ where he helps Reno take down some prison escapees by getting more attuned to his ancestor’s beliefs. By the way, if you were wondering, Bobby’s special move is the clothesline.
After Bobby comes Kathleen Kinmont but she doesn’t really do much other than look at the camera and stand near some flowers which is a pretty fair representation of her input to the show. Okay, she did some sleuthing early on when she was still on speaking terms with Lamas but in the later seasons she was all but sidelined. Interestingly after season one this was changed slightly as Bobby’s Hummer (which was introduced in season 2, he would drive a huge Winnebago in season 1) was added but Kinmont would come first and Richmond’s title card was changed from ‘Branscombe Richmond’ to ‘and Branscombe Richmond as Bobby Sixkiller’.
Then we’re back to some quick cuts of Reno running, fighting, training, jumping from a great height, doing a roundhouse kick and swinging on a rope while firing another rifle. Then there’s a rattlesnake which is symbolic of the show’s unpredictability as its tongue hisses and its tail rattles angrily and intently ready to strike at anyone or anything in range. The sequence then draws to a close as it started with Reno riding off into the sunset ready to fight off all that comes his way tomorrow. Most episodes end like this too.
Well there it is, a magnificent specimen I’m sure you’ll agree and also a wonderful, and even wistful, look back at 90s television programming, it was loud, proud, brash, colourful, silly, romantic, action-packed, carefree and many other things in excess just like the decade it came from. Then with the 2000s more serious and downright brilliant shows courtesy of HBO were developed and from there the quality of television has snowballed to such an extent that a show such as Renegade is now consigned to a bygone era but no matter how cinematic modern TV is these new shows will never have the spine-tingling impact of that rumbling engine prowling those California roads.
– Greg Foster