C.A.T. Squad (1986)

When you think about it, William Friedkin can compare “best five movies” with just about any director. “The Exorcist”, “The French Connection”, “Sorcerer”, “To Live And Die In LA” and “The Boys In The Band” are all absolutely fantastic, in different ways too, and he made the incredibly creepy “Bug” as recently as 2006. One gets the feeling he’s still, even now, just doing whatever the hell he likes – in semi-retirement, he directed a couple of episodes of “CSI” (possibly as a favour to his old star William Petersen) and in 2017 made a documentary about a priest who performs exorcisms, co-written by film critic Mark Kermode, who’s long championed “The Exorcist” as the greatest movie of all time.

So it was with moderate puzzlement I discovered he’d made two made-for-TV action movies in the mid-80s, with a star I’d never heard of (but co-stars I definitely had). After watching the first one, my best guess is Friedkin wanted to see if he could make a classic 70s Euro-spy-thriller, and took whatever opportunity afforded itself to do so. So, ignore the title, which makes you think of some cheesy all-female boobs-n-guns effort, and settle in for one of the more interesting forgotten gems of the 80s.

Carlos (Eddie Velez) is moseying round the world, killing seemingly random people in very different ways – one guy, he snipes from the roof of a nearby church, the other he switches the candles in a restaurant for high explosives, completely destroying the place and dozens of people. Your normal bog-standard cops aren’t enough for this, so we get…the Counter Assault Tactical Squad! Quite why the movie went for such an offputting title is a question we may never get an answer for, sadly.

Head CAT is Doc Burkholder (Joe Cortese, who looks like a weird mashup of three different actors in one body), and we get a sweet “assembling the team” segment, second favourite to the “ultimate badass” speech. His boss is yer man from “Northern Exposure”, Barry Corbin, and they play a very strange game of…poker?…with each other, but they’re only holding a $1 bill and seem to be reading from it. Perhaps if this had been picked up to go to series – it’s very obviously the pilot for a TV show, made by NBC – they’d have explained some of this stuff to us. Anyway, his second-in-command is the late, great Steve James (the sidekick from the early “American Ninja” movies), Patricia Charbonneau from “Desert Hearts” is one of the others, and the new guy, the one who gets the arc, is a very young Bradley Whitford, even predating his star-making role in the second “Revenge Of The Nerds” movie (or was that just me?)

The script is from the same guy who wrote “To Live And Die In LA”, Gerald Petievich, and he used to be a Secret Service agent, so there’s at least half an idea that the stuff on screen bears a decent relationship to the truth of this sort of operation. The team, each of whom has a nicely defined area of specialty, patiently tracks Carlos down throughout a variety of locations, all over the world.

Even though it’s a TV movie, there’s plenty of artistry on display, as it was shot by Rbert Yeoman, who’d go on to be nominated for Oscars, and with Friedkin at the helm, it’s almost inevitably going to be classier than your normal effort. I mean, I could have done with a few fewer Dutch angles, but I guess it was less of a cliché back then? Also, and this might be the weirdest credit of them all, the soundtrack was done by Ennio Morricone! According to experts, it sounds like offcuts from his other work, but I’ll take it, even the bits that don’t really fit the scenes they’re in.

In what amounts to a small roadblock to enjoyment, it’s a little difficult to get over the mental disconnect of there not being a huge amount of “action” in “C.A.T. Squad”. When you see Steve James, you expect him to kick a little ass and look amazing doing it, but here he’s a quiet family man (he has a deaf son and shows off his signing skills in a touching little scene) who throws a grand total of one punch, and then throws someone off a balcony. Or they fall off after getting punched, which is sort of the same thing.

But what mostly happens is people look pensive in a wide variety of locations. Carlos doesn’t so much seem ahead as running on a different track until the last third of the movie – he gets no joy from his actions, the C.AT.s get no joy from tracking him down. While it’s not fast or action-packed, it’s a more cerebral affair, with much more in common with a 70s spy movie than an 80s action one.

It’s an interesting one, for sure, and I’m looking forward to the sequel, the too-many-animal-words-in-there “C.A.T. Squad 2: Operation Python Wolf”.

Rating: thumbs up


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