Night Vision (1997) Review
Night Vision was directed by Gil Bettman (Crystal Heart, Knight Rider), written by Michael Thomas Montgomery (South Beach, High Midnight), and stars Fred Williamson (Atomic Eden, Devil’s Triangle), Cynthia Rothrock (New York Ninja, Tiger Claws), Robert Prentiss (Red Ridge, The Rage Within), Frank Pesce (Beyond the Neon, Ice), and Robert Forster (Peacemaker, Grave Intentions). It follows a cop and his new partner as they track down a serial killer who records every crime.
The Plot: For most films, especially those of the 80s and 90s video boom, having a new story to tell isn’t a high priority. Night Vision is a reminder of that fact, as it doesn’t have a beat you haven’t seen or an ending you won’t guess, and Montgomery is fine with that.
Dallas county’s authority has just been replaced, dismaying officer Taylor (Forster) and his wily subordinate Smith (Williamson), but any hope for the latter to tone himself down is tossed out in under 15 minutes as Smith runs into a hostile man during a traffic stop. This is more than a little coincidental, but someone had to get the plot in motion. The man is revealed to be the Video Killer (Prentiss), who has over a dozen kills under his belt and the proof to match. Although the blame is somehow placed on Smith, Night Vision ditches that idea as quickly as it introduces it – but it does stick with another cliche: his fellow officers, including Mahoney (Pesce), aren’t happy that the killer wasn’t caught.
Keeping the familiarly structured story going, Smith is paired with new transfer O’Connor (Rothrock) right as the Video Killer starts sending his tapes and ill regards to the would-be apprehender. As one could guess, the two men (and O’Connor) start a more personal conflict that kind of counts as plot progression. Montgomery tries to add a second search by linking the killer to an unknown (but not really) police officer who gives him access to their CCTV footage and paper records, but it doesn’t really add much to a paint by numbers plotline that needs no special type of vision to see through.
The Characters: Charismatic performers often set otherwise movies average and below a notch above where the written material should put them. Night Vision is one of those, with a few B-movie legends filling in the tepid writing.
Dakota ‘Dak’ Smith is the typically troubled one-man show. His amiable personality is easy to see, but his issues with alcohol – which are repeatedly mentioned but never made into any sort of conflict – and getting bold on the streets keep him at an arm’s length from friendliness with his colleagues, barring Taylor. Some vices like root beer and Twinkies are shown to make him a skosh different, but it’s Williamson’s innate likeability that carries the character, who would otherwise resemble about half of the million other on-screen cops.
O’Connor isn’t a change from that established interchangeability, and she’s not a character that plays to Rothrock’s martial arts training, but rather her underutilized acting ability. A banal backstory about a bad decision in the heat of action and a dissonance towards authority remains present, but the casting makes this more believable than most movies can manage. Exterior hardness is illustrated, but the rapport between O’Connor and Smith, or rather Rothrock and Williamson, gets Night Vision through what would be insufferable non-development.
Prentiss tried hard to give the Video Killer a maniacal presence, but his performance doesn’t do much to elevate the murderous man beyond “insipid antagonist”. The virtual stalking is a means to an end; that being ending the lives of lecherous women. Montgomery’s writing doesn’t bring up a starting point to the man’s activities, opening on the 13th victim, which distances the killer from being a true character. Bit parts and supporting roles help to make the leads feel more like people, but on their own, they’re still forgettable characters.
The Crime: While Bettman did have an opportunity to make the investigation and retaliation of Night Vision novel, very little of it actually is. Procedural elements and assorted police business dominate the movie, but the antagonist’s methods are far more interesting.
Concerningly for the streets of Dallas, the cops don’t put that much emphasis on catching the killer at large, and the investigative work being done by Smith and O’Connor isn’t anything to write home about. Most of their work is done with the power of the pen, as their encounters stem from happenstances like pulling over the wrong guy, going to an apartment that one of the killer’s hired assailants is at, and being sent the tapes of the crimes directly. All of this is framed as though the partners are doing work, but most of the time that’s not the case.
Although he’s in the double digits for kills, Night Vision does little with the Video Killer. While clearly a move made to preserve menace, some explanation about his technique and other connections should’ve been present, as Bettman gives too little to the audience. The idea of a videographer with technological know-how has promise, but we only see a couple of kills, a team of unnamed and unaffiliated thugs shaking up the cops, and a few insert shots of the recording process. It’s never shown how the man has access to personal security cameras or anything of that sort. There’s a vacancy that needed filming, and the Video Killer cut that out, leaving the film to become a generic battle against unseen powers.
The Technics: Not just an actor, Williamson produces many of the movies he takes part in. Unfortunately, few others do, as the film’s premise and parts of its execution sink without more funding and/or experienced hands like his.
Budgetary restrictions are a double-edged sword for Night Vision, as the initial griminess of the subject matter is one of the first things shown, and the dark underpasses, public locations, and untouched attire give a 70s-esque seediness to the proceedings. However, once Bettman moves beyond the streets and police headquarters, the weirdly empty interior settings start taking away from the profile of the film. This also lets slipups take the limelight, as moments where an X (a form of positional direction for actors) is seen on the floor and the boom mic passes into frame become more noticeable.
Pacing is the other key issue here, as filler scenes like Smith finding out what cirrhosis looks like via a dead girl’s liver, being berated by other cops who soon disappear from the movie, and various insert shots break up the case. As an unintentional effect, this also makes the cops seem even less interested in apprehending the Video Killer. They have lives and time off, sure, but there should be an insistent focus on the pressing matters at hand.
Decently acted but clumsily produced, this isn’t one of those gems you haven’t seen, but it is one with a fairly workable premise that could use a more polished update in the near future. Watch it if you’re a fan of the leads or are rewriting the script, but otherwise avoid viewing Night Vision.
Night Vision is currently available on various Digital Platforms. It has been available on Blu-ray and DVD but seems to currently be out of print. If you’re looking for something similar, but hopefully better, FilmTagger can suggest a few titles.