Under Oath

Director: Dave Payne
Jack Scalia, James Russo, Richard Lynch

When I'm away from watching unknown movies my television set and subsequently writing reviews about them on my computer, there's a good chance that you'll find me at my place of employment. And while I'm there, there's a good chance you'll find me being driven crazy by customers regularly interrupting me. For some reason, customers simply cannot find anything on their own despite the various sections of my store being clearly labelled. Don't get me wrong - for the most part I do enjoy my job. I'm given work that makes me feel like I'm genuinely contributing something. But I do get those regular reminders that my job is not perfect. But that's how practically all jobs are like, and these annoyances do make it easier for me to believe the reports I hear about jobs much tougher than my own. There are some jobs that are tough just to get into. For example, there is acting. First you have to invest a lot of work and money just to land an agent. If somehow you've managed that, it's not clear sailing from there - you have to go to one audition after another, where you are competing with hundreds of other would-be actors. I could never have that much perseverance. Then there are other jobs that might be easier to get into, but come with a lot of stress. Having taught English overseas, I know that the life of a teacher can be tough, with problems ranging from uncooperative students to all the work you have to do outside of the school to prepare for class. One of the most stressful jobs I have read about is being an air traffic controller. Having to continually monitor the safety of hundreds of lives and multi-million dollar aircraft is something I know that would be simply unbearable to me.

While jobs like teacher and air traffic controller may be very stressful jobs, you don't very often hear about such stressful jobs driving people past the breaking point in one specific way - breaking the law at the job. I'm not talking about petty stuff like stealing pens from work, but major felonies. Most jobs, as stressful as they may be, don't influence people to use their position to break the law. But there are some jobs where this does happen every so often, often illustrated in various movies. There's one such job that I would like to discuss, and that is the job of a police officer. At first glance, one might be puzzled as to why some police officers break the law. There seems to be great things about being a police officer. You get to wear a nice uniform, you get to drive fast in a police car, you can get a lot of people you encounter to tremble from just your presence alone, you get the opportunity to find and arrest various scumbags and put them behind bars, and you not only get to carry a gun around, you just might be able to use it on a scumbag. But over the years, I've found that there is a downside to being a police officer. I've heard police officers complaining of inadequate salaries (though personally I would be pleased to make at my job what the average police officer is making), they have to endure a lot of verbal abuse from various people in the public, and they often get to see that the various people they arrest or detain shortly after get released and continue the illegal activity that got them thrown behind bars in the first place.

There's no mistake about it - being a police officer can grind your spirit down. So I can understand why in real life, some police officers start to take advantage of their position in an illegal way to try and improve things. This can range from beating a suspect to helping themselves to evidence. I am sure that the majority of police officers do abide by the law, but you might not know that if Under Oathyou were to look in the world of motion pictures, which are filled with corrupt police officer characters. The reason for that is simple - a corrupt police officer character can make good drama. I have seen my share of cinematic corrupt cops and been entertained, so I'm usually up for another one. But I was not looking forward to the corrupt cop movie Under Oath when I first watched it several years ago. It was a 1990s Roger Corman production, and Corman's typical output in that decade was mostly lacking, to put it kindly. But when I watched the movie, I was surprised - it was much better than I expected. My good memories of the movie lingered long afterwards, so I decided recently to track it down again to see if it still stood up. The movie takes place in Los Angeles, and it concerns two veteran police officers, Nick Hollit (Scalia, T-Force) and Ray Ramirez (Eddie Velez, White Chicks). Both have been in the force for a number of years, and their job has worn both of them down to the breaking point. When their precinct's captain (Russo, Donnie Brasco) tells them that their request for a pay raise has been turned down, it's the last straw. When they are alone and start talking, they get an idea - they will approach a local illegal arms dealer with an offer to provide him with guns, but will instead rip him off and steal his money. After all, he couldn't subsequently complain to the cops, right? Nick and Ray arrange to meet the illegal arms dealer at a secure location, but seconds after meeting face to face with the dealer, threatening armed people start coming out nearby with seemingly the intent to do Nick and Ray harm. Nick and Ray manage to get away, but the arms dealer is killed during their escape. A short time later, Nick and Ray return to work, and are called in by their chief. They are told about the death of the arms dealer, and learn that he was actually an undercover ATF agent. The ATF has requested help from the police to find who killed the agent, and guess who is assigned to solve the case. That's right - Nick and Ray.

If you are fairly knowledgeable about major Hollywood studio movies from the 1990s, you have likely recognized that the plot of Under Oath has some strong similarities to that of the Orion Pictures movie Gang Related. While the first instinct might be to think that Under Oath is a rip off of Gang Related (after all, we are talking about a Roger Corman movie), the truth is that both movies were filmed in the summer of 1996. So the similarities seem to be a coincidence. There are differences between the two movies, of course, and I would first like to talk about one specific difference, one that you are probably expecting since Under Oath is a Roger Corman movie. Unlike Gang Related, Under Oath at times has a cheap feeling to it. I don't blame director Dave Payne (Alien Terminator) for this - I know he was working with a budget close to rock bottom. In fact, I will say that unlike other directors working for Corman during this period, Payne carefully spent the limited funds so that the movie looks somewhat better than those other '90s Corman movies. Also, a significant amount of the movie takes place with the characters having secret meetings in abandoned buildings and worn out areas of Los Angeles, so sometimes the run down background of the movie seems justified and realistic. All the same, there are some parts of the movie that suffer from the low budget, mostly with those taking place at the precinct Nick and Ray work at. The precinct's interiors are extremely cramped and are so dimly lit that one has to wonder why no one has turned on a light. There are also a couple of action scenes involving cars being shot up at close range by assault rifles but few to no bullet holes appearing. In fairness, Payne does manage in one of these gun battle scenes to add dialogue mentioning that one of those cars is bulletproof, so that particular shooting sequence remains credible.

Though Under Oath does have some tacky touches due to its low budget, the movie manages all the same to work due to some strong efforts in other parts of its production. The biggest reason why the movie is effective is due to the well-written screenplay by Scott Sandin. For starters, it's a very efficient screenplay. Just about every scene seems to fulfil a purpose, so there is seldom a wasted moment. The movie certainly doesn't waste time having the characters of Nick and Ray come up with their plan - when Under Oath reaches the seven minute mark, the movie has managed by this point to illustrate Nick and Ray (as well as their frustrations) well enough so that when their illegal scheme is proposed seconds later, we can buy why these formally honest cops are deciding to break the law. As the story progresses, we get to see another strength of the screenplay. Slowly but surely, the two cops find that the possibility of them being found to be the culprits increases as new evidence appears and a good number of completely unexpected twists happen. As every new danger revealed its ugly head to Nick and Ray, quite frankly I was riveted to my seat. Although I did not sympathize with these two dirty cops, their increasing troubles came across in a way that made me keep thinking just what I would do if I were in their shoes. One reason for this was that they were not written to be stupid. Careless and cold-hearted, yes, but not dumb. I kept wondering what would happen to them, especially since the movie (especially towards the end) has plenty of surprises that unfold right up to the closing credits. This is one movie that can't be labelled as predictable.

One other thing about the screenplay that I liked was that it gave many of its characters various quirks, making them stand out from standard B movie characters. The undercover ATF agent is shown to have a penchant for burritos, Ray has a Catholic faith that causes him to have deep guilt for what he's done, and the police officers at the precinct's evidence store locker are always up for a dirty joke. The various members of the cast, from the leads to the supporting players, take these quirks and use them to help make their performances very strong. Richard Lynch (Invasion USA) has a rare good guy role with this movie, and he manages to come across with authority, dedication, and responsibility. Of course, most of the movie depends on Scalia and Velez to make it work, seeing that they play the central characters. They both do well, having a great rapport whether their characters are playing basketball together or having one of many heated arguments as their luck begins to fade. They are believable and command your attention. Director David Payne seems to trust his cast, letting them take their dialogue and scripted quirks to make their characters work. He lets the pressure rise for the characters without any flamboyant directorial touches getting into the way. The only fault I really found with his direction was with a couple of action sequences. These scenes (a car chase and a shoot-out) are not without some power, but in the end weren't completely satisfying since they seemed like they were both quickly planned and shot. However, as I revealed a few paragraphs ago, Under Oath is a low budget Roger Corman production, so I'm willing to believe that the low budget made it impossible for Payne to bring those action scenes to their full potential. But despite the disappointing action sequences and the sometimes tacky look and feel of the production, Payne in the end managed to make the movie work well enough to make it worth a look. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a good 1990s Roger Corman production.

(Posted December 10, 2016)

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See also: Brigham City, New York Cop, The Offence