This is not a bad B-flick.
It had the potential to be better than it was, but it falls into the trap — easy to do — of all films driven strongly by formula and typology. The formula is that of the rogue cop wound too tight and stepping outside procedures in order to get a job done, and of son and father getting to know each other; the typology is that of the katabasis, the hero’s journey through Hell on a quest, in this case the search for and exculpation of a son unjustly accused of murder.
All that we have come to expect from this typology is present: the helping woman (Vera), the underworld landscape (here a rock club named “The Wreck”) of dark and dancing souls that gyrate, a nasty Hades number named Gideon who has his two thugs in constant attendance, the guardian Cerberus of the gates (a huge bouncer who cards everyone entering), the hero’s talisman (his police badge) for entry into the underworld, a Persephone-like darkling named Eve who ‘belongs’ to Gideon but is rescued by the son, the crucial help of a black cop friend (Oakes), and the rehabilitation (= rebirth) of the detective himself.
As readers of these reviews will have recognized by now, the katabasis is an ancient literary typology and it is also astonishingly durable as template for film (not only in detective stories, it should be noted). The danger of excessive reliance on pattern, however, is that spontaneity and inventiveness run the risk of suppression: form triumphs over substance. Although Conflict of Interest is not without merit in the variations it runs on the theme, in the end it strikes me as too deliberate, almost going out of its way to assure us that, yes, this really is a katabasis film.
The acting by Christopher McDonald is overdone in parts to the point of melodrama, which is never good in a film that sets out to take itself seriously. To be sure, the theme of reconciliation between son and father is of great antiquity and speaks to deep needs in human beings, but here one never gets a genuine sense that this objective is anything but an adventitious part of a fancy formula. Like Talons of the Eagle (1992), for example, Conflict of Interest is ultimately uninteresting because it is too categorical in the way it unfolds its story. There is no deepening of the larger texture of the film nor any genuine concern about the characters, who tend merely to be sketches of general types. The father’s uncontrollable rage, as an example, shows up too often and in too limited a range of stylization, and becomes, ultimately, quite tedious — one almost agrees with the crooked cops that Mickey is proctalgesic.
I grant that a nice twist on our expectations is the inversion whereby the son, initially the object of the father’s frantic quest, becomes himself the quester and saves his father from making a huge mistake. In the end, of course, father and son are reconciled to each other, and the former validates himself in the eyes of son and society.
As an instance of decent formula film, Conflict of Interest is worth the ninety minutes. But if you’re looking for great cinematic art, this is hardly the one for you.