Surely ripe for a remake, or at least a more accurate version of Joseph Wambaugh’s book, Robert Aldrich’s film was a pretty strange choice for a Christmas movie from Universal in 1977; it flopped at the box-office, perhaps understandably given the scabrous content. The author, who specialised in front-line tales of police departments, hated the result and removed his name, but there’s still vestiges here of what make the book so compelling in its catalogue of urban atrocities.
The setting is LA, and the cops are put-upon; they blow off steam with intense drinking sessions in a public park. After a near accident involving the discharge of a gun, they’re warned not to bring firearms, but the killing on an unarmed man threatens to disrupt their routines. The appearance of Charles Haid as Nick Yanov, who announces the daily news to the assembled cops, reveals this as a fore-runner of Hill Street Blues, in which Haid played a near-identical role as Renko; there’s an iconic strength in his scenes that would later play more successfully on tv.
The Choirboys has a reputation as an offensive movie, and even in 2020, decades after I saw fragments of it unwisely broadcast as a Scottish television Wednesday night movie, it’s still a shocker. Racial epithets are screamed, gay stereotypes and homophobic baiting are positively revelled in, and the attitude to women is repellent. Whether this reflects the police, then or now, is for the audience to decide, but the director feels no need to make the cops sympathetic, making him the wrong man for this particular job. But shorn of respect for the thin blue line, this is certainly an eye-opener in terms of what a big studio might consider adult entertainment; there’s themes in here which would produce Animal House and Police Academy, but jumbled together in a way that’s guaranteed to upset wallflowers and snowflakes of all persuasions.
The cast is phenomenal; today’s august political commentator James Woods makes a big impression, as do Rocky’s Burt Young, Louis Gossett Jr and Randy Quaid; the shoot for the film must have been like herding cats. Any film that runs opening credits over a fist breaking a stained-glass window has malicious intent, and The Choirboys is a dirty, nasty film that is more interesting now as a catalogue of issues which are covered up today. While not good, per se, it’s something of a novelty for any film to play so fast and loose with expectations. The attitudes may be retro, but The Choirboys still has a certain whiff of crude authenticity that makes it worth seeking out if you’re sick of vanilla PC culture, but with strongest of content warnings and reservations.