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Eric D. Snider

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Eric has been a film critic since 1999, and a beard wearer since 2008. He holds a degree in journalism and used to work in "the newspaper industry," back when that was a thing.

Eric’s Bad Movies: ‘Mask of Death’ (1996)

Despite the impression given by movies and TV, most police officers go their entire careers without having to shoot anyone. That’s fairly common knowledge. But did you know that it’s also rare for a cop to get plastic surgery to make himself look like a villain whose criminal operation he’s trying to bring down? It’s true! Only about 25 percent of cops ever have to do that.

“Mask of Death” is about one such cop. You might think from the title that the cop wears a mask, but no, he gets plastic surgery. Masks are for cowards who won’t do what it takes to really commit to the job. “Plastic Surgery of Death” was too unwieldy a title, though. It’s the same reason the Wachowskis called their movie “Cloud Atlas” instead of “Hugo Weaving Is Mean in Six Time Periods.”

The cop in “Mask of Death” is played by Lorenzo Lamas, and so is the villain — because if there’s one thing Lorenzo Lamas is good at, it’s playing multiple distinct and different characters! The cop and the villain are meant to bear some physical resemblance to one another, but they’re not supposed to be identical, as that would be too much of a coincidence for viewers to believe. So when Lamas is playing the cop, named McKenna, he has a putty nose, a Sam Elliott mustache, and a MacGyver mullet, a combination known as “the early 1990s.”

The bad guy (who looks like your everyday Lorenzo Lamas) is named Mason. We can tell immediately that he’s a bad guy because he wears a suit, has slicked-back hair, and conducts all his business on a boat. He’s in the middle of buying something shady from a shady man named Frank Dalilo (Conrad Dunn) when the deal gets botched by the FBI and a chase ensues, spilling onto the nearby seashore where McKenna and his wife and friends are enjoying leisure activities. In the course of the fracas, Mason is critically injured, and McKenna gets shot in the face but survives while his wife takes a slug to the belly and dies immediately.

At the hospital, FBI Agent Jeffries (Billy Dee Williams), whose fault the whole thing was, notices that Mason and McKenna look a lot alike. He hatches a brilliant plan that has zero chance of failure and is routinely enacted by police departments around the world: since McKenna will need plastic surgery to fix gun-shot face anyway, and since he already kind of looks like Mason, and since Mason is basically dead, let’s have the doctors make McKenna look exactly like Mason. Then he can pretend to be Mason, destroy his nefarious enterprise, and avenge his wife’s death.

And what about McKenna? Eh, we’ll just tell everybody he died. No big.

McKenna goes along with this plan, though he does have some reservations about walking around with the face of a notorious murderer, even a handsome one. “He makes Charles Manson look like the Good Humor man!” he declares, like a character in a “Laugh-In” sketch. “He blew up a busload of kids!” (Why couldn’t we see THAT movie??) Nonetheless, McKenna is willing to do whatever it takes to stop whatever it is Mason was doing, which evidently is going to continue even now that Mason is dead.

But he wants to know one thing: “When do I get my old face back?” Jeffries tells him, “As soon as the job is done.” “That easy, huh?” says McKenna. Well, no, actually, it’s not that easy. Reconstructive surgery is complicated, especially when it’s being done to a face that has already been reconstructed once before. Even after the Mason job is finished, and even if the FBI has surgeons skilled enough to achieve it, it will be many long, painful months before McKenna looks the way he did in the beginning. I’m just being realistic here. At any rate, having been promised that he won’t have to spend the rest of his life looking suave and attractive but will be able to once again look like Jeff Foxworthy, McKenna agrees to the surgery.

The rest of the movie is surprisingly and distressingly uncomplicated. McKenna successfully impersonates Mason, regains Dalilo’s trust after the botched transaction that started the movie, arranges a time and place to pay $3 million for the top-secret illegal thing Dalilo is selling — which of course is a microchip stolen from the government, because it’s always a microchip stolen from the government — and, sure enough, kills all the remaining bad guys. It’s very rote, with Lorenzo Lamas serving as the poor man’s Steven Seagal (and Steven Seagal is already the poor man’s drunk neighbor who thinks he can do karate). They don’t even do the thing where the bad guys find out he’s really a cop and almost kill him before he escapes in a clever and resourceful fashion! It’s like the movie doesn’t want any hassle, just wants to get through the required plot points quickly. It’s like the movie has somewhere else to be.

The one thing the movie does to add conflict and intrigue is to have the FBI insist that no one be told that McKenna is alive and posing as Mason. That includes McKenna’s partner, sexy lady cop Cassandra Turner (Rae Dawn Chong) — who, as a result, is constantly almost killing him because she thinks he’s Mason, who she thinks killed her partner. McKenna gets shot at by her on several occasions, always narrowly escaping, never revealing his true identity until the end. I understand wanting to keep a secret under wraps by limiting the number of people who know it, but it seems like that group should include people who will try to kill you if they don’t. Then again, I’m not a police officer, and I’ve only used plastic surgery for disguise purposes a couple times.


Categories: Columns

Tags: Mask of Death