JACK TILLMAN: THE SURVIVALIST (1987) that featured Steve Railsback as the titular character. Tillman wasn’t a “shoot first, ask questions later” type of guy; he was more of a “shoot first, ask no questions” bloke. If Tillman were real, I could totally see him back in the mid-80s stockpiling up on VHS tapes at his local video store. After wearing out copies of RED DAWN (1984) and INVASION U.S.A. (1985), Tillman would be forced to venture into the lesser known titles and there he would find FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER (1986). While at first reluctant to touch anything with the word “French” in the title, the cover art of men firing guns at each other would draw him in. Sitting down in his bunker for some rations by candlelight, he’d pop the tape in and be pleasantly surprised to find this tale of a couple of tough guy New Orleans cops who make Dirty Harry look clean.
FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER opens with a text scrawl talking about how since 1967 terrorists have been dead set on destroying free societies. Since 1980, their main goal has been to target America. We then get case files on three Cuban terrorists – Alfredo Senta, Guilliermo Cartena, and Raul Sanchez. Not only do they have fear inducing foreign names, but they have also been trained by the Russians and are all heading for Louisiana. I can hear Tillman mutter “Russkie pukes” under his Spam-flavored breath. We then meet our two heroes: Detectives Andre Des Moines (Michael Parks) and R.J. Wilkerson (Bill Holliday, who also wrote this). The back of the VHS box actually gives us more info on these two than the actual film, stating they are boyhood friends and partners for 20 years. It is this type of close camaraderie that results in them killing 3 bad guys (in two unrelated incidents) in their first 5 minutes they are onscreen. “A couple of standup guys,” Tillman would say.
"Don't you worry, Jellyroll.
We'll find the guy who stole your chin."
It’s not hard to tell that FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER had some trouble in post-production. The film centers on events that took place in 1984, yet it didn’t see release until 1986. And the Fisher reporter character (among others) is brought in to talk documentary-style to the camera to explain just what is going on (the actor has a totally different look during those scenes). One reason might be the death of Holliday. According to Variety, the film finished shooting under director Joe Catalanotto, who previously directed Holliday in TERROR IN THE SWAMP (1985), in late October 1984. Two weeks later, Holliday was dead from a heart attack on November 13, 1984. Damn, you know a movie is bad when you die after making it. Did he see some of the dailies? Seriously, I shouldn’t joke because Holliday seemed committed to the project. But you have to wonder if all of his exertion (lots of running) led to his early demise. Anyway, by the time it hit video shelves, the film had a new co-director listed in one Patrick Poole.
The film also had other problems. It created a stir when a supporting player was wounded in the face by a shotgun blast using blanks. Again, according to Variety, this incident along with the unrelated death of actor Jon-Erik Hexum on the show COVER-UP (1984) led to serious overhaul in safety management regarding prop guns (apparently it didn’t work given what happened to Brandon Lee nearly a decade later). Additionally, some police officers who moonlighted on this film (while on duty!) were charged with payroll fraud. Wow, can you imagine that conversation in jail? Murderer: “What are you in for?” Cop: “Working on FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER.” Murderer: “Guards, keep this dude away from me! I can't be associating with such scum in here.”
As it stands, FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER is only recommended if you want to see some archival footage of the World’s Fair in New Orleans and a cheap car chase through the French Quarter. Or if you just want to see law breaking cops beat and shoot people for 80 minutes. “Sign me up,” Tillman says.