To put The Adventures of Ford Fairlane into context, one has to understand the popularity of Andrew “Dice” Clay at the time of its release. The unquestioned king of the late-’80s standup-comedy boom, his overwhelming popularity makes Dane Cook look like Geechy Guy (look him up). All this despite the fact that his explicit, misogynistic, oftentimes racist humor alienated enormous chunks of the audience. I’m no sociologist, but I have a theory that he came at exactly the right time to capitalize on the male fear of turning into the “sensitive ponytail man.” Dice served as a life preserver and a mouthpiece for all the terrible things weak-minded meatheads wished they could voice in a rapidly changing society where—gasp!—women and minorities were starting to receive the same fair and equitable treatment as white males. Needless to say, Dice’s celebrity was short-lived, but this misguided film existed to catapult him into bona fide superstardom.
Of all the people to force Andrew “Dice” Clay on the moviegoing public, I can’t think of a better person than Joel Silver. He doesn’t receive enough credit for his savvy understanding of genre conventions and bold willingness to subvert them within a seemingly mainstream movie. The man who produced revelatory genre blockbusters like 48 Hours and Die Hard had no problem with satirizing them with films like The Last Boy Scout, Hudson Hawk, and Demolition Man. In order to make Dice palatable for the masses, it would take someone with Silver’s canny instincts and willingness to poke fun at his own oeuvre.
Silver made a valiant effort, hiring director Renny Harlin (who helmed Silver’s incomparably silly Die Hard 2 the same year) and trenchant satirist Daniel Waters (Heathers, Hudson Hawk) to salvage a script about a “rock ‘n’ roll detective.” They attempted to turn it into a sublimely silly action-comedy, and at some points they succeed, but they’re consistently held back by Andrew “Dice” Clay.
It’s not so much Clay as the Dice persona. Clay may not be Laurence Olivier, but he has a charisma I only wish I could deny and proved his ability to act competently in Michael Mann’s TV series Crime Story. The key should have been to humanize the Dice persona, in order to make him somewhat appealing to people outside the scope of his audience. Every time it feels like the film intends to do that, Dice forces another reference to banging broads or beating the shit out of someone. The thing is, there’s an obvious sadness haunting Clay’s surprisingly expressive eyes, showing his extreme confidence and crudeness as a façade. The film sometimes plays with the idea that Ford’s life—and, by extension, Dice’s—is sad and empty, but Dice refuses to let self-awareness denigrate who and what he stands for.
Ostensibly, the plot revolves around the title character, Ford Fairlane, the epitome of cool circa 1959. He has the sideburns, the pompadour, the beaten leather jacket, the slick car, and the attitude. He’s frequently called “Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll Detective” by those who know him, and true to his name, he keeps an office on the Sunset Strip and spends his nights clubbing, drinking, and screwing his way into solving cases. The only scenes in the movie that work are a few early ones in which Ford revisits his old friend and former bandmate, Johnny Crunch (Gilbert Gottfried), who now works as a shock-jock for a radio station. Clay and Gottfried play these scenes as two old friends who simultaneously loved and hated their time together. Through nothing but subtext, they create a shared history that’s more interesting than anything else in the movie.
Johnny Crunch dies almost immediately after his few early scenes, but the film still could have worked. The screenplay tries to stick Ford into the modern version of a hardboiled detective story, and just as Miles Archer’s death serves as a catalyst for Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Ford and Dice could have earned some audience respect by actually caring about his slain friend. Unfortunately, the film is too easily distracted to care much about Johnny, and Dice is too macho to show any concern for anything that won’t allow him to eventually see boobies. Johnny becomes one of a handful of music-scene deaths that Ford finds himself investigating. Both Johnny and wealthy socialite Colleen Sutton (Priscilla Presley) pay Ford to find a missing girl, Zuzu Petals (Maddie Corman), which anyone who has ever seen a movie from the ’40s knows will tie into the series of murders in one way or another.
In addition to Presley, Silver keeps Wayne Newton (in an impressively slimy performance as record company executive Julian Grendel), Vince Neil, Sheila E., and Morris Day on hand to prove the film’s rock ‘n’ roll credentials. Ed O’Neill gets the film’s only laughs as an incompetent detective whose burgeoning disco career was destroyed by Ford Fairlane. Ultimately, though, the film doesn’t add up to much more than a lot of solid supporting players and big-budget production values trying to prop up Dice as a movie star. Unfortunately, he’d get a lot more laughs if he stopped trying so hard to get laughs. He has a distinctive comic rhythm, but nothing he says or does in this film is ever funny, in part because he’s covered in the desperate flop sweat of a comic who realizes he’s in a vehicle that doesn’t match his persona’s sensibilities.
Harlin and the screenwriters desperately try to mine demented comedy (very similar to that featured in Hudson Hawk) by twisting action and mystery clichés. At every turn, Dice undercuts their efforts with unfunny voiceover narration or a not-as-pithy-as-he-thinks-it-is one-liner. I couldn’t tell you if Clay, Silver, or 20th Century Fox (or any combination thereof) made the decision to not allow Clay to break free of the Dice persona, but it was a bad one, one that ruins an expensive movie with enough potential to make me angry about its creative failure.