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Satan, Stone and Big Fucking Guns: The Strange Pull of Split Second

I read about Split Second (1992) before I saw it. As both the 1980s and my teenage years were coming to a painful end, magazines like Starlog and Fangoria were publishing set-visit promo pieces on a forthcoming sci-fi-action-horror hybrid set and shot in London. I was in the bag for most things sci-fi, action, and horror, but this also starred Rutger Hauer, who at that point in my life I had come to love as the master of all things direct-to-video.

At that point I’d seen Hauer in Blade Runner (1982), which my newly-adult brain was finally accepting as a bona fide masterpiece over my childhood notion that it was just a dull movie where Han Solo gets rained on. But I came to really appreciate Hauer in perennial video rentals like The Hitcher (1986), Wanted: Dead or Alive (1987), the wonderfully ridiculous Zatoichi whitewash Blind Fury (1989), and Salute of the Jugger (1989), where Hauer and Joan Chen play Mad Max hockey with a dog skull. Not to mention Paul Verhoeven’s English-language debut Flesh & Blood (1985), a film so good that Jennifer Jason Leigh’s frequent full frontal nudity isn’t even the best thing about it.

When I eventually saw Split Second for the first time, it was fittingly on a rental tape. I don’t recall how many times I watched it, but the damn thing seared into my brain and stayed there. Something about the combination of waterlogged post-apocalyptic set design, the warped but witty interplay between Hauer and sidekick Alastair Duncan, and the fact this was an action film set in London stuck with me through the film’s many shortcomings.

I wasn’t alone: I read somewhere at the time that the film was shown to returning Iraq War troops, perhaps a slightly dubious honour, but they were apparently taken with the film’s third-act mantra: “we need big, BIG FUCKING GUNS!”

Split Second came at a time when it seemed like there would be a British vanguard of sci-fi action movies, though in the end it really only included Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990) and fizzled out after Steve Norrington’s Death Machine (1994). There was something about their Britishness that set them apart from similar films such as The Terminator (1984) and Robocop (1987), a feeling that they’d been ripped from the pages of the UK’s venerable 2000AD comic. In the case of Hardware, the owners of 2000AD felt there was a little too much ripping from their pages and sued, but that’s another story.

In fact, Split Second’s genesis was in the USA, as a highly-regarded spec script called Pentangle by Gary Scott Thompson, who would go on to create the “Fast and the Furious” series. The original treatment was a contemporary buddy-cop movie set in a US city, where the main character is tracking a Satanic serial killer. The script was set to be turned into a film, until the release of the Lou Diamond Phillips vehicle The First Power (1990), which used the same idea. “It was horrible, and it really destroyed my script,” said Thompson in a 1992 Fangoria article.

The screenplay found its way to producer Laura Gregory, whose commercial production company, Challenge Films, was looking to get into the feature business. Relocated to the UK, moved to the far distant future of 2008, and with an additional thread of global warming added to the plot, the film, now called Black Tide, gained traction when Hauer signed on to play the lead. Unlike many action films of the day, which were flailing for inspiration after the NRA-wet-dream big white guy hero flicks of the 80s fell from favour, Black Tide focused as much on character as it did violence and gore, an element the cast were keen to emphasize. Thompson also deliberately laced dialogue interactions with a thread of warped humour, one that most critics ultimately seemed to miss.

Admittedly, the final film is a mess. Shooting didn’t go exactly smoothly. The budget was small, the script was constantly being rewritten, and the schedule was short, to the point that original director Tony Maylam (he of slasher classic The Burning, 1981) left while the project was still unfinished. Ian Sharp, a TV regular and second unit director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), stepped in to shoot the climax of the film. Reviews were not kind, and the film was also saddled with the much more generic title of Split Second. This, plus it being a film about rule-breaking white cops in a shattered city that was released during the LA riots, didn’t do much for the box office returns.

But something about this movie circumvents all critical faculties and makes itself comfy in my lizard brain. Part of this at least is to do with the setting, a future-London that wasn’t—dark and ankle-deep in water after forty days and nights of rain flooded the Thames (the religious symbolism is not accidental). That is, flooded the bits of the city which are in fact part of the abandoned jam factory where most of the film was shot. Locations like Tower Bridge and Fleet Street look perfectly fine despite their proximity to the river. Funny that.

Today, the 1992 version of 2008, with sweeping aerial shots of the pre-millennium dome wasteland of the Greenwich peninsula, is pure hauntology, at least the interpretation that speaks of a nostalgia for lost futures. In some ways this historical hiccup adds to the strange melancholy of the film. Since the Dome and forest of offices around Canary Wharf are now so familiar, seeing the peninsula still derelict industrial brownfield, and with only One Canada Square standing, suggests some terrible disaster. Maybe punters eventually took issue with the price of a pint in Docklands and tore the place down.

Split Second also pre-dates the CGI superhero revolution, when London became a popular world capital to destroy to demonstrate high stakes without suggesting damage to anywhere that actually mattered, e.g. America. The film owes more to the type of modest apocalypse like Trancers (1984), where the best you could do to show the destruction of, say, Los Angeles was a couple of matte paintings and an old warehouse. The production design is the real hero here, I’ve always been a sucker for films where future-guns are realised by normal revolvers with gadgetry of unspecified purpose attached to them.

I’m not convinced Rutger Hauer has ever been better as twitchy burnout mercenary/cop Harley Stone, whose life went to Hell when his best friend and partner was killed by a mysterious serial killing rubber-suit monster. Prone to panic attacks and wearing sunglasses indoors, Stone is the 1980s damn-the-rules, just-give-me-24-hours archetype cranked up to eleven. He lives in a derelict apartment full of feral pigeons, uses a blowtorch to light his cigars, and at one point interrogates a dog.

Stone is teamed with straight-laced serial killer expert Dick Durkin (Alastair Duncan, fresh from solving TV murders in Taggart). Between bouts of being shouted at by their obligatory angry captain (national treasure character actor Alun Armstrong) and asshole other cop in the precinct (national treasure character actor Pete Postlethwaite), the duo pursue the killer through London. They consistently arrive too late to prevent him/it eating the hearts of victims, but find time for much amusing interplay. One running gag centres around Dukin’s exceptional sex life, and there’s also a wonderful moment when Rutger Hauer wakes up with a pigeon on his head. Stone also has a somewhat awkward relationship with Michelle (Kim Cattrall), the wife of his dead partner. Michael J. Pollard shows up briefly to play that character Michael J. Pollard always plays, and it soon becomes clear…

OK, look. I’ve already admitted this movie is all over the place. After multiple viewings I’m still only eighty percent clear on the killer’s motivation, which may be so muddled as a result of the constant changes to the script. What I’ve figured out is, global chaos and environmental destruction has given rise to a manifestation of the biblical Satan, in the form of a monster composed of the DNA of multiple serial killers. The creature is eating the hearts of its victims to gain their souls by somehow also absorbing their DNA. It’s focusing on people with the star sign Scorpio because this is a water sign, which has something to do with the rising river. By making Stone (who has been left with a psychic link to the creature)  its final victim (his partner was the first) it completes a circle of power that makes it invulnerable. Or something.

The creature itself was designed by the aforementioned Steve Norrington, then a veteran of films like Alien3 (1992) and Gorillas in the Mist (1988). He later began a promising directing career with Death Machine and Blade (1998), which came crashing to a halt with the disastrous The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). In any case, the production problems left Norrington little time to get the suit together, so the result is something that looks like a xenomorph in wraparound shades wearing a mouldy wetsuit. Both Maylam and Sharp wisely keep it offscreen as much as they can.

It’s the chemistry between the actors that really makes Split Second shine. Hauer and Duncan both seem to relish the oddball, arch humour in Thompson’s script, which is pretty obviously sending up the 80s action genre (and while the film came out in 1992, it’s very much a product of the 80s). Like those returning soldiers I’ll freely admit to still trying to work Durkin’s panicked plea (“we need big, BIG FUCKING GUNS!”) into conversation whenever I can. It’s this chemistry that makes up for the lacklustre nature of the action scenes. When Durkin and Stone finally do get their hands on those big fucking guns, they are cool-looking mini-Gatling efforts that resemble the minigun from Predator (1987) without the giant backpack. At least, they look cool until someone fires them. I assume the props department’s limited funds are why the multiple barrels spin with a firing rate of about one round every two weeks.

Split Second has the feel of a film that could have started a franchise had it been better received. It even ends with Durkin espousing a desire for further adventures, at least until Stone tells him to shut it. I wish that had happened: the more I watch it, the more I appreciate this odd little flick. The environmental message is more prescient than ever; at one point a bit of TV background noise states the USA has blocked another UN environmental initiative, which probably actually happened while I was writing this piece. And what I once dismissed as a terrible grasp of London geography, in that every car journey seems to go via St. Paul’s Cathedral, I now assume is another piece of religious symbolism. Stone and Durkin, the apostles of Light in a battle against a demonic wetsuit with teeth. Sometimes, that’s all you want from a film.

Split Second comes to special edition blu-ray via 101 Films in the UK in July 2020, and MVD Visual in the USA in August.

References:

  • Fangoria #110, Mar. 1992
  • Starlog #178, May 1992

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