This 1980 film has been called the “the sleaziest movie ever released by a major studio,” and I’ll have to concur. The setting is New York City in what has been called the city’s most violent period, a fact reflected in the film’s contents, which aren’t what you’d call family-friendly. The film is essentially the most expensive grindhouse movie ever made.
NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER had a troubled history, having commenced filming in 1978 under the direction of Sidney J. Furie. He quit the production after 23 days, and was replaced by the veteran television director Robert Butler (who’s since been credited with bequeathing the gritty streetwise aura of HILL STREET BLUES, which would appear to stem from the present film). Further trouble occurred during a chase scene in which the film’s star James Brolin broke his foot, resulting in a lengthy production shut-down, and when the completed film went before the MPAA, which among other things forced the re-dubbing of a climactic line of dialogue (in which a character threatens to “keep” the hero’s young daughter—apparently the original version utilized a far less palatable four-letter term).
Sean Boyd (James Brolin) is an ex-cop whose young daughter Kathy (Abby Bluestone) is kidnapped in Central Park by a scumbag named Gus Soltic (Cliff Gorman). Boyd spots the kidnapping and gives chase, commandeering a taxi cab and stealing (and crashing!) a car in one of the sleazier corners of Times Square, but Soltic gets away with the girl–stabbing two people in the process!
Soltic has mistaken Kathy for the daughter of a real estate magnate, who Soltic plans on blackmailing as revenge for the razing of his South Bronx neighborhood. It’s also implied that Soltic’s true reasons for kidnapping the girl are far more nefarious.
An increasingly obsessed Boyd heads back to Times Square to question a stripper who witnessed the chase. He once again creates a huge ruckus, busting into a peep show booth and beating up some bouncers. He’s eventually thrown out but emerges with a clue to Kathy’s whereabouts: a collar that leads him to a dog pound patronized by Soltic.
Along the way Boyd is pursued by Sgt. Barnes (Dan Hedaya), a crooked cop against whom Boyd once testified in court. Boyd also manages to get into yet another brawl, this time with a Puerto Rican gang who grow upset after he hooks up with the comely Maria (Julie Carmen), who helps Boyd in his quest. The gangbangers, however, view her as their property, and become determined to take down Boyd. And let’s not forget Soltic, who’s behavior toward Kathy is becoming steadily more erratic…
All of this involves a great deal of politically incorrect dialogue. Included are an assortment of racial slurs that would never be allowed in a contemporary movie but were quite evocative of the film’s setting and time period. So too the racial tensions that underlay the narrative, and the copious nudity and violence.
The narrative is perilously thin, but director Robert Butler (and/or Sidney J. Furie) makes up for that with a superbly picturesque evocation of New York City at the end of the 1970s. You simply won’t find a more richly textured depiction of the city’s sleazier environs, from a Times Square peep show emporium (whose interior was admittedly created on a soundstage) to the urban squalor that comprises much of the scenery. Kudos, also, to the impeccably chosen cast, from the lead actors James Brolin, Cliff Gorman and Dan Hedaya to the supporting players, all of whom blend in seamlessly with the atmosphere of big city scuzziness.
Beyond that NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER works, simply, because of its superbly choreographed action. The opening chase, which stretches from Central Park to Times Square, is easily one of the finest action set-pieces of the era. The following action sequences aren’t as strong (particularly the climactic sewer set one, which is so darkly lit it’s difficult make out on a small screen), but Butler/Furie succeed in turning out a consistently entertaining film that stands as an indelible time capsule of a very particular time and place.
NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER
Director: Robert Butler (and Sydney J. Furie)
Producer: Jay Weston
Screenplay: Bill Norton , Rick Natkin
(Based on a novel by William P. McGivern)
Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper
Editing: Argyle Nelson
Cast: James Brolin, Cliff Gorman, Richard S. Castellano, Linda Miller, Barton Meyman, Sully Boyar, Julie Carmen, Abby Bluestone, Dan Hedaya, Mandy Patinkin, Marco St. John, Frank Abu, Nancy Andrews, Rick Anthony, Tony Azito