Retro Review: “Striking Distance” has Pittsburgh “Loyalty Above All Else”

In our Retro Review series, we ask our Editorial Intern Emma Malinak to watch made-in-Pittsburgh flicks from the 20th century — long before she was even born.
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Pittsburgh takes center stage in the ’90s thriller “Striking Distance,” a film that still captures life in the Steel City thirty years after its release.

The action-packed movie, which hit theaters on Sept. 17, 1993, follows the story of a stubborn fifth-generation police officer named Tom Hardy, played by Bruce Willis.

Tom, once a respected detective, is labeled as a traitor after convicting his partner (and first cousin), Jimmy, of using excessive force on the job. Tom’s only advocate, his father and colleague Vince, guides him with the mantra “loyalty above all else — except honor” — a saying that Tom clings to after Vince dies in a car chase while pursuing a serial killer. Exiled from the city’s police force, Tom resentfully takes a job with the river rescue squad, waiting for an opportunity to clear his name and avenge Vince’s death as a new pattern of serial murders emerges.

While Tom values honor above loyalty in his mission to reveal police corruption, the Hollywood minds behind “Striking Distance” also committed to “loyalty above all else” — loyalty to Pittsburgh, that is.

Rowdy Herrington, a Pittsburgh native, directed and co-wrote “Striking Distance” and was determined to not only film in the streets and rivers of his hometown, but also anchor the action and dialogue with Golden Triangle references. Herrington’s co-writer, Harry Kloman, a longtime Pittsburgh Magazine contributor, wrote in an October 1993 article that “Striking Distance” was “the first locally filmed mega-production to feature Pittsburgh prominently in the plot.”

Herrington and Kloman’s loyalty to Pittsburgh is evident in the film’s details, from casual mentions of locations such as Neville Island and Polish Hill to cameos by local reporters such as Sally Wiggin.

The writers showed further Pittsburgh pride by highlighting the city’s unique topography, haze free in a post-steel era. The breathtaking shots of the skyline, thematic focal points on the rivers and car chases on roads that every local recognizes come together to set a perfectly Pittsburgh backdrop. The New York Times review of the film even noted that “Pittsburgh looks so beautiful and clean that it seems slightly unreal.”

But Herrington and Kloman’s Pittsburgh “loyalty above all else” might have been the downfall of this flick — for audiences that don’t bleed black and gold, this was seen as just another ’90s thriller featuring a disgruntled cop, a soap-opera-style family drama and a convoluted plot that fuels a surprise finale.

Even if “Striking Distance” wasn’t the most popular movie of the decade — it only grossed $24.1 million, compared to the more than $300 million made from 1993’s biggest hit, “Jurassic Park” — it still holds a special place in Pittsburgher’s hearts, offering action inspired by, filmed in and tied to the locations and local traditions that we know best.

A supplemental note to Gen Z readers: I was hesitant to watch this movie at first, worried that the cheesy ‘90s action plot would be too embarrassing for our city. But I was pleasantly surprised, and I think “Striking Distance” is worth a watch for a trip down Pittsburgh’s memory lane and these five timeless, entertaining elements.

  • The action:
    If you’re a fan of shootouts and stunts, “Striking Distance” is the film for you. And while car chases may be cliche for cop thrillers, “Striking Distance” amps up the action with boat chases too — yes, you get to see Bruce Willis race through the Ohio River with a siren wailing from the top of his speed boat.
  • The show-stopping supporting actress:
    Sarah Jessica Parker plays Jo Christman, Tom’s fearless river rescue partner who is later revealed to be an undercover detective. Her killer style and role as Tom’s love interest provide a refreshing break from the gruesome murders.
  • The Pittsburgh humor:
    “Striking Distance” overflows with humor that southwestern Pennsylvanians will appreciate more than any other audience. Keep an eye out for Tom’s sarcastic, quick comebacks.
  • The addition to Pittsburghese:
    In the movie’s opening car chase, Vince yells “Take Bigelow!” to Tom as they look for shortcuts. According to The Incline’s Pittsburghpedia series, the phrase quickly became a part of locals’ language, acting as shorthand for Pittsburghers’ know-how; it continues to inspire T-shirt designs and artwork.
  • The animal sidekick:
    Who isn’t a sucker for cute animal sidekicks? Tom’s pet cat, Bob, watches over Tom’s houseboat while he is at work, comforts him through the stresses of solving murders and even wakes him up with kisses on the cheek.

Watch the trailer⇓

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