The exact formula for 1986’s Band of the Hand is this: The Dirty Dozen minus seven, divided by approximately half in age, strain through Miami Vice, and a tablespoon of sugar stirred in for taste. A corny, violent, foul mouthed, junior varsity Mod Squad with an odd sense of pacing and a structure that feels suspiciously like two episodes of a TV show that never happened but maybe should have, Band of the Hand is both aggressively stupid and thoroughly lovable from the first frame to its last. If I believed in the notion of guilty pleasures, I’d label it as such. But since I harbor zero guilt nor shame in my taste or what brings me joy, Band of the Hand stands as a delicious piece of gorgeous, brainless cheese that was worth the six American dollars I spent on the no-frills and pristine Blu ray from the fine folks at the non-flashy yet solid Mill Creek, the Southwest Airlines of boutique physical media labels.
The story is simple: a group of malcontented, underage criminals from all over greater Miami are locked into a paddy wagon and dumped into the middle of the Florida Everglades where Miccosukee Indian Joe Tegra (Stephen Lang… yes, you read that right) teaches them how to survive in the wilderness so they can go back to the urban jungle of Miami and take the streets back from crime lord, coke distributor, and black magic enthusiast Nestor (James Remar… yes, you read that right).
Split right down the middle as if structured as a two-act play, the first half of the film is all set-up and introduction with a generous amount of padding when moving through the Lord of the Flies portion of the film. First we meet our anti-heroes in an excitingly cut montage over which the title track of the film, written and performed by Bob Dylan with backup by The Heartbreakers (yes… you read that right), is laid with such confidence and gusto that it’s likely to never don on the viewer just how incredibly bizarre all of it is. First in the slam are Reuben (Michael Carmine) and Moss (Leon Robinson), the respective heads of rival street gangs, the Cuban Homeboys and the African-American 27th Avenue Players. Next we meet ultra-slick Carlos (Danny Quinn) who is stung by undercover vice cops while trying to middleman a deal for Nestor (and I swear to all that’s holy that I was shocked that someone didn’t scream “Freeze! Miami vice!” when they flashed their badges). The group is rounded out by J.L. (John Cameron Mitchell), a mute demolitions expert who murders his abusive stepfather in the film’s opening moments, and Dorsey (Al Shannon), an illiterate ne’er do well who has an uncanny skill for escaping from from juvenile lock ups. Quite predictably, but no less entertainingly, these rough and incorrigible youths will be taught a thing or seven by the stoic Joe Tegra including how to build a comfortable sleeping area out of branches and leaves and also how to trap and kill a wild boar. You know… as one has to do when fighting drug lords in Miami.
Once conditioned, the group moves their action back into the city where they take over a derelict building in which Haitian squatters are seeking refuge from the drug dealers that are crawling all over the streets outside (marshaled by a slick drug dealer named Cream, played to the nines by Laurence, then Larry, Fishburne). And like the half before it, this portion is padded out with some really time-specific D.A.R.E.-adjacent do-gooding like the sequence where Moss and Reuben rook their gangs Tom Sawyer-style into painting their building (and, naturally, these otherwise deadly gangs with ancient beefs against each other do this task in absolute harmony). But everything takes a deadly turn which sets up a particularly violent third-act that climaxes in the Band of the Hand, as they begin to call themselves, concocting a scheme to kill Nestor’s drug operation at the source.
Also rolling around in the narrative are a couple of side joints involving Carlos’s girlfriend (Lauren Holly) who Nestor keeps as his own after Carlos is disappeared into the juvenile system and Joe’s battle with keeping his reform program alive. A scene involving the man in charge of funding for Joe’s program (Bill Smitrovich) promises more to Joe’s story but winds up being a half-assed dramatic punctuation mark which catapults Joe into a state of complete frustration where he adopts a total ‘fuck the system, I ain’t backin’ down no more’ attitude.
This is the feature film debut by actor/director Paul Michael Glaser who had previously directed a couple of notable Miami Vice episodes for executive producer Michael Mann, filling the same production role here. But even if the film isn’t directed by Mann, none of this would be remotely possible if not for him. It’s hard to imagine this movie looking or feeling like this without Michael Mann injecting the production with his very unique look and style; it’s as much a “Michael Mann film” as Cat People is a “Val Lewton movie.” Additionally, the idea of vigilantism at the core of the film in which the bad guys become good by comparison (a little Magnum Force here), is prime Michael Mann territory.
Given that it’s not a movie that anyone over thirteen should take very seriously, there are things about it that the audience has to put up with which extends beyond the frontiers of the acceptable, even for 1986. Each time a spat between Reuben and Moss breaks out, they cock sideways and slam their torsos into each other to the point where I wasn’t convinced they didn’t think gold coins would fall out of their nipples if the force was great enough. And it’s a cinch that the entire world will hear your audible eyeroll when J.L. breaks his silence because HE’S HAD ENOUGH OF THEM FUCKIN’ AROUND AND THEY NEED TO WORK TOGETHER, GODDAMNIT!!!! LET’S DO IT FOR THE BAND OF THE HAND!!!
But, God help me, I love the film’s go-for-broke and vulgar style and the filmmakers get extra props for plopping this 70’s vigilante movie into the 80’s without the slightest bit of care how dated its premise was. Additionally, all the performances are fun (dig Miami Vice regular Martin Ferrero as a hardware proprietor) and the film is packed with great tunes by Shriekback and the Reds, contributing to a much better soundtrack than it deserves.
In the annals of 80’s pop culture, there were precious few things that didn’t get some kind of splash influence by Miami Vice. Given its production team and cast, most of whom at least contributed one day’s work on Vice, Band of the Hand might be the one piece of entertainment that feels like it organically grew out of the show and, to be honest, it serves as a better back-door pilot than the one that actually occurred in the waning days of Vice’s fifth season. And if you can’t get down with James Remar playing a Latino drug lord, Stephen Lang playing a swamp Indian, and a whole lot of things getting blowed up real good in-between, stay away from Crain Manor because, first chance I get, I’m pairing this beauty with Miami Connection or any random Andy Sidaris film for the people in my life who like to pile into my living room and know how to party correctly.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain