Bruce Willis stars in the Detective Knight trilogy (Photos: Liongate)

By Matt Brunson

★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Edward Drake
STARS Bruce Willis, Jimmy Jean-Louis

★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Edward Drake
STARS Bruce Willis, Lochlyn Munro

★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Edward Drake
STARS Bruce Willis, Jack Kilmer

Here’s the thing about the Detective Knight film trilogy: Detective Knight, played by Bruce Willis as his career comes to a close, is arguably the least interesting character on view. Luckily, that’s not a crippling problem in two of the three films, as there are compensations.

Detective Knight: Rogue is the first and best of the trio, a cops ‘n’ robbers drama that divides time between the two factions. Writer-director Edward Drake is a self-professed fan of Michael Mann’s Heat, and that’s apparent when watching the manner in which the movie easily slides between its separate yet interlocking storylines. It begins with a bank heist that leaves detective Fitzgerald (Lochlyn Munro) in critical condition and his partner, detective James Knight, hot on the assailants’ trail. When the gang departs Los Angeles for an assignment in New York, Knight dutifully follows, even knowing it will put him in contact with a crime kingpin (Michael Eklund) from his own tainted past.

Not much time will be spent analyzing Willis’ contributions to this movie or its follow-ups. As widely reported, Willis has been suffering for years from aphasia — dictionary-defined as “loss or impairment of the power to use or comprehend words usually resulting from brain damage (as from a stroke, head injury, or infection)” — and it would be cruel to critique his recent performances. At any rate, he’s mainly around for marquee value, as he doesn’t register the most screen time in any of these three pictures (or Gasoline Alley, another of the many Drake-Willis collaborations, reviewed here) and does little more than speak softly and carry a big gun. As for Munro, his character of Fitzgerald spends most of the movie in critical care, and he will only rise to prominence in the next film.

Jimmy Jean-Louis in Detective Knight: Rogue

Instead, it’s Jimmy Jean-Louis who commands the “cops” sections of the story — indeed, he ends up stealing the entire film. He’s excellent as Godwin Sango, a smart and compassionate detective who assists Knight in his investigation but begins to suspect there might be something that his colleague isn’t telling him. Jean-Louis is so commanding in the role that I wondered why this Haitian actor, who (according to IMDb) speaks five languages, holds a business degree, and was a successful model in Europe, Africa, and North America, isn’t more well-known. He’s a 30-year veteran with appearances in approximately 100 movies and television series, his most prominent being a semi-regular role on TV’s Heroes as, logically enough, The Haitian.

Also of note in Detective Knight: Rogue is the character of Casey Rhodes, played by Beau Mirchoff. A former football player who’s now the leader of the band of outlaws, Rhodes is the closest thing the movie has to a protagonist. Much of the tale is centered around his problems: a dependency on pain pills, an estranged wife and daughter, and an uneasy alliance with the NYC crime lord. Casey Rhodes is one of Life’s Losers™, the sort of character usually found in the margins of crime thrillers and rarely thrust to the forefront of a movie (a notable exception would be Max Dembo, the petty crook portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in 1978’s Straight Time). On paper, Casey is a “bad guy,” but his inability to catch even the simplest of breaks offers him a measure of sympathy — what’s more, he’s a Boy Scout when compared to the masterminds in this film and the subsequent one, committing crimes mainly to stay afloat rather than to wreak havoc on the world. Mirchoff’s performance is sneaky-good, as Rhodes is initially meek and mild to the point of invisibility, only to come into focus as his woes threaten to consume him.

Detective Knight: Rogue is rough in many spots — fluidity is a problem, as the piece often lurches rather than flows — and much of the dialogue is, at best, cliched, and, at worst, downright insipid, proving to be a frequent distraction. But Drake (co-scripting with Corey Large, who also appears in a sizable supporting role as sad-sack thief Mercer) should be commended for not only creating a handful of compelling characters but for also finding the best actors to properly tease out all nuances.

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Beau Mirchoff in Detective Knight: Redemption

A similar strength of character can be found in Detective Knight: Redemption, albeit to diminishing returns. This sequel continues the story threads explored in the first picture while also expanding the narrative in dramatic fashion. Unfortunately, the expansion isn’t as compelling as the established material, in part because of the new character at its center.

In this one, the circumstances that occur at the end of the first flick lead to Knight and Rhodes both finding themselves in prison. There, they run into Ricky Conlan (Paul Johansson), a religious counselor who, initially unbeknownst to them, is also the Christmas Bomber, a madman who blows up banks packed with innocent customers. Conlan instigates a prison break in order to round up more followers, including a very reluctant Rhodes. Knight, who doesn’t take part in the escape, is offered a full pardon if he can bring down Conlan.

Anyone who might have seen the 1998 Patrick Swayze actioner Black Dog might recall Meat Loaf as a Bible-thumping villain prone to yelling things like “Witness the resurrection, brothers and sisters!” Yes, Ricky Conlan is that sort of character — a blustery cartoon who’s moronic rather than menacing — and, yes, Johansson delivers that sort of broad, hambone performance. It would be an entirely laughable part of the picture were the character’s sadistic actions not so amplified — of course evildoers do most of their damage against innocent men, women, and children, but this picture takes particular glee in exploiting these moments.

Thankfully, the returning characters provide the requisite hooks. Rhodes’ oh-woe-is-me saga continues in an interesting manner, and while Jimmy Jean-Louis’ Godwin Sango is almost a complete no-show, there’s Lochlyn Munro’s Fitzgerald to pick up much of the slack. Trapped in intensive care for almost the entirety of the previous film, Fitzgerald has recuperated enough to again serve and protect, albeit from the confines of a wheelchair. Detective Fitzgerald provides the picture with some snarky comic relief, and Munro is loose and lively in the role.

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Bruce Willis in Detective Knight: Independence

The Detective Knight series should have ended at two movies, since the primary character arcs have been completed. Instead, there’s a third movie, the newly released Detective Knight: Independence, and it’s largely a nonstarter. The Casey Rhodes saga has concluded (and Beau Mirchoff isn’t in this picture), meaning Detective Knight is now basically a character for hire. So in this one, he squares off against Dezi (Jack Kilmer), a young EMT who suddenly snaps and begins committing crimes while dressed as a police officer. It’s not particularly inventive or exciting, and it all plays like a lesser episode of, say, T.J. Hooker (reviewed here), or a sanitized variation on Maniac Cop (reviewed here).

But wait! Godwin Sango is back in action! Or is he? Jimmy Jean-Louis reprises his role as the diligent detective, but the part has been reconfigured as a completely different person. Admirable and heroic in the first film, he’s a rude and obnoxious bully and brute here, and his big scene finds him beating the living hell out of a still-innocent Dezi (this beatdown one of the reasons the kid snaps) for no real reason. It’s a shocking about-face, so startling that I thought maybe Jimmy Jean-Louis was imaginatively cast in a different role, one completely opposite from the sage saint he portrayed in Rogue. But nope, the credits list him as again playing the role of Godwin Sango. More than anything else, this waste of a great character is the biggest crime found in any of these three flicks.

(Detective Knight: Rogue is presently available on Amazon Prime, Vudu, and other streaming services as well as Blu-ray and DVD. Detective Knight: Redemption is presently available on Amazon Prime, Vudu, and other streaming services and will be available on Blu-ray and DVD January 17. Detective Knight: Independence opens in select theaters January 20, will be available on streaming services that same day, and releases on Blu-ray and DVD February 28.)

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