Hickey & Boggs ★★★★

Actor Robert Culp does such a good job directing this existential neo-noir that it’s a shame this was his only feature behind the camera. For sure, episodes of I SPY and THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO he wrote and/or directed are among those series’ most interesting segments, but he never was able to get another film off the ground.

HICKEY & BOGGS’ story is confusing and disjointed — Walter Hill (THE GETAWAY, ALIEN, 48 HRS., THE DRIVER) earned his first screenwriting credit here — but Culp sets a steady tone of hopelessness and never gives in to sentimentality. He also shows a strong eye for interesting camera setups and Los Angeles locations. Action highlights include exciting shootouts in the Coliseum and the Dodger Stadium parking lot.

Though HICKEY & BOGGS likely would have made more money at the box office as I SPY PRIVATE EYES, Culp and co-star Bill Cosby play down-and-out detectives — drunk and divorced and too beaten down to banter. Hill’s script has Al Hickey (Cos) and Frank Boggs (Culp) hired to track down a missing woman and somehow stumbling into a search for $400,000 from a botched bank robbery. Hickey is estranged from his wife (Rosalind Cash), and Boggs pines for his ex, a stripper (Sheila Sullivan, Culp’s real-life wife at the time). Luckily, the chemistry between the two stars from their I SPY days on television remains, and fans of heavy crime dramas will find a lot to like (hey, nobody could follow THE BIG SLEEP’s plot either).

Culp also demonstrates a knack for casting, giving early roles to Michael Moriarty (THE STUFF) and James Woods (THE ONION FIELD) and dotting supporting roles with great faces like Ed Lauter (THE LONGEST YARD), Bill Hickman (BULLITT), Jack Colvin (THE INCREDIBLE HULK), Lou Frizzell (THE FRONT PAGE), Isabel Sanford (THE JEFFERSONS), Robert Mandan (SOAP), and Roger E. Mosley (MAGNUM, P.I.). Culp and producer Fouad Said (I SPY’s location manager) made HICKEY & BOGGS independently and released it to little fanfare through United Artists (it later played on NBC — I SPY’s old network — in prime time). It’s a downbeat film that seems to go out of its way to antagonize Culp’s and Cosby’s fans, which makes for good melodrama, if not good box office.