Original Air Date: January 31st, 1990
What do you do when you’re a big city copy turned small town sheriff who uncovers a series of murders by someone who just might be another boy in blue? Worse yet, what if you become his friend? That’s the conundrum Sheriff Sam Brodie (Tom Skerritt) faces in the underrated USA original film The China Lake Murders.
China Lake is rocked by a series of murders where the killer’s modus operandi is stuffing the victim in the trunk of their own car, letting them die slowly from the burning desert heat! Brodie is the new guy who tries to figure out who the culprit is. Michael Parks is Officer Donnelly the vacationing cop who likes to commit crimes along the outskirts of China Lake. He’s a sociopathic liar who often fantasizes about enforcing the law in much more violent ways. When he’s not thinking he’s a god or something, you can find him in the desert practicing Tai Chi, or maybe you’ll see him at the podunk diner romancing the lonely waitress (Lauren Tewes in a small but great role). Brodie might not be delusional, but his life is almost equal in its loneliness. He’s newly divorced and spends most of his nights in his wood paneled home drinking beer and wondering why his kid doesn’t want to see him (that is when he's not boinking his hot secretary). When Brodie and Donnelly first meet, a mutual respect and understanding comes into play, developing into a nice friendship. But it doesn’t take long for the sheriff to figure out Donnelly’s game. The difficult part is proving it.
This movie is sort of a late entry into the world of made for television thrillers. By the time the 90s hit, TVMs were more centered on true crime and the always uplifting disease of the week. China Lake is not a network movie, it originally aired on USA, who was just beginning to produce original films at this time (if memory serves me correctly, the first original USA TVM was Murder By Night with Robert Urich. I watched it on premiere night cuz I’m just that nerdy!), and they did well with this little potboiler, which was their highest rated movie at the time of its first airing. It's a little bit of a throwback to the isolated thrillers of the 70s and honestly, it’s small screen heaven, with fantastically desolate desert locales and top notch acting. Parks coulda been way over the top, but as per his usual style, he know exactly which side of the line he needs to stand on, while at the same time letting himself teeter over to the outrageous, just to keep us on our toes. And it’s a big ol’ machismo on a stick fest, with Skerritt and Parks looking gruff and leathery. Mmmmmm. Oh yeah, and it's an engaging thriller, but what does that matter when you have this much machismo?
After a bit of a dry spell with their streaming movies, Netflix has finally added some great titles to their stream, including this one. I do say, check The China Lake Murders out! And tell them Amanda By Night sent ya!