New looks at old flicks — and their comic-book adaptations …
By ROB KELLY
“They’re not just cops…they’re Super Cops.”—Axel Foley
1974’s The Super Cops stars Ron Leibman and David Selby as two real-life NYC cops whose antics brought them such notoriety that they came to be known on the streets as Batman and Robin.
It opens with the NYPD training a whole gang of new recruits, including David Greenberg (Leibman) and Robert Hantz (Selby). On their first day, the two show an instant rapport and a complete unwillingness (or inability) to follow the rules. Upon receiving their badges, they are assigned hum-drum duties like paperwork filing and traffic duty, but they decide on their off hours to run undercover missions, busting dope peddlers and other miscreants without the supervision of their superiors. They get chewed out by their bosses, and threatened with suspension. They smile, promise to shape up, and then go right back out do it all over again. They seem on the verge of being kicked off the force but, dammit, they get results!
Finally, as punishment, they are sent to the (fictionalized) 21st Precinct in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, which looks like Mad Max: Fury Road except not as friendly and inviting. Their new boss, the hangdog Capt. Krasna (Dan Frazer), tells them not to make waves, but of course they don’t listen to him either—before they’re even officially part of the precinct, they find some prostitutes and press them for info on the local drug kingpin. Greenberg starts to take a shine to one of the women, named Sara (Sheila Frazier). She initially regards Greenberg with understandable suspicion, but when she sees he and Hantz are actually trying to clean up the streets, she starts offering them valuable info.
Against all odds, the Super Cops become local heroes in the neighborhood, racking up busts left and right. Little kids refer to them as Batman and Robin (“Why am I Robin?” Hantz wonders). Capt. Krasna eventually gives them his unofficial blessing to keep going, assuming that under the leadership of new Police Inspector Novick (Pat Hingle, who would of course go on to play another big city cop, Commissioner Jim Gordon, in the first four modern Batman films) the Super Cops’ stellar arrest record will assure their promotion, and he will “ride their coattails” out of the 21st.
But it soon becomes clear that Inspector Novick doesn’t like, or trust, the Super Cops at all. After pulling off a huge bust of local drug runners the Hayes Brothers, they are roped into a sting where it seems like they accept a bribe. When Novick and his men try to arrest the Super Cops, Greenberg and Hantz insist they are the ones doing the arresting, for trying to bribe them! It becomes such a publicity and paperwork nightmare that the only way to fix it is to promote everyone, so the film ends where it started—with the Super Cops getting a commendation from Police Commissioner Patrick Murphy, complete with Greenberg wearing his red-and-white Batman t-shirt. The End!
The Super Cops is supremely grungy fun. Directed by Gordon Parks (Shaft) and written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (one of the creative forces behind the 1960s Batman TV series!) it’s cynical, foul-mouthed, and violent, full of pimps, drug pushers and other assorted criminal elements. So, of course, Archie Comics did an adaptation of it!
OK…maybe not Archie, exactly, but it was by Red Circle Comics, one of the company’s many imprints. Instead of adapting the movie, Red Circle chose to present four random adventures of Greenberg and Hantz — one drawn by Gray Morrow, and another by Frank Thorne! I bought this book off of eBay for a buck, charmed by the idea that someone actually did a Super Cops comic. I had no idea it would feature work by two of the greatest comic-book artists of all time, making my purchase a better score than any seen in the film.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that The Super Cops is based on the adventures of two real-life officers (who we see at the opening of the film in some documentary footage). The film cheerfully glosses over what had to have been the numerous civil-rights violations perpetrated by Batman and Robin in their dogged pursuit of big busts, but Leibman and Selby (who would also play Commissioner Gordon, in the animated adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns) are so charming and have such easy chemistry you don’t really think about any of those silly details. Unfortunately, the real-life Super Cops weren’t as squeaky clean as their four-color namesakes; eventually both Greenberg and Hantz would find themselves arrested for various offenses and drummed out of the force.
The Super Cops was part of a wave of gritty cop thrillers of the time, but unlike contemporary films such as The French Connection and Serpico, it fell through the cracks and pretty much disappeared by the 1980s. But director Edgar Wright is a mega-fan, so all it took to get the film put on DVD was a tweet to Warner Archive and Bam! out it came in 2011. (Wright later lifted a scene from The Super Cops for his 2007 action-comedy masterpiece Hot Fuzz).
While The Super Cops works and is worth seeing on it own cinematic merits, it’s an especially fun diversion for die-hard Batman fans. The connections are everywhere: the nicknames, the cast featuring not one but two Commissioners Gordon, Greenberg’s rad t-shirt, the brief shot of some Batman graffiti (also referenced in the comic-book version), plus the whole thing ends with a Batman TV show-inspired Pow! sound effect (had to be Semple’s idea).
You’ll enjoy spending 90 minutes with this Dynamic Duo!
Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the co-host of The Fire and Water Podcast (and the host of its sister show, The Film and Water Podcast), the co-creator and writer of the award-winning webcomic Ace Kilroy, and the creator of the book Hey Kids, Comics!: True-Life Tales From the Spinner Rack. He would really love to own one of those red-and-white Batman t-shirts. (So would his editor.)