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When the CIA started formally working with Hollywood in the 1990s, a direct-to-video action comedy about government drug smuggling starring Billy Blanks and Rowdy Roddy Piper is presumably not what they had in mind.  But that’s what they got, in the form of Tough and Deadly, a somewhat Iran-Contra inspired action comedy that’s heavy on the action and the comedy but very light on anything resembling a plot or motivated, well-defined characters.

We will be examining Tough and Deadly as part of ClandesTime 268 – The Cinema of Iran-Contra: Part II, which is coming soon, but I wanted to recount this bizarre episode in the history of entertainment liaison offices.  This is one that took even me by surprise – why were the CIA providing assistance to this low-rent, kitsch movie about perhaps the biggest CIA scandal of the 1980s?  Is this another example of them quietly pushing the ‘dark’ image of the CIA via Hollywood and entertainment media, while denying it via factual media?  Is this doublethink, or a screw up?

Our story begins in March 1994 when the US Marine Corps office in Los Angeles recorded in their logs that a casting agent named Dennis Hansen got in touch asking for 8 Marines to appear in a scene for the film, set at CIA headquarters.  They reviewed the script and found it was a no-go, due to the depiction of a secret cabal trafficking drugs through a US military base.

TOUGH & DEADLY: Casting agent in LA asked for 8 Marines in dress blues to play as security force at CIA headquarters… reviewed script and declined offer to assist with Marine extras… had scene that portrayed illegal shipment of drugs through an Army base.

As a result, there is no scene with Marines playing a security force at Langley, making Tough and Deadly another example of a film influenced by the US military not by supporting it, but by rejecting it.  However, the movie does include scenes set at CIA headquarters and an extended aerial of Langley that can only have been filmed with the permission of, or provided by, the CIA themselves.

CIA Headquarters starring in Tough and Deadly

CIA Headquarters starring in Tough and Deadly

The file also contains a bunch of handwritten notes recording details of phone conversations between the Corps’ Hollywood office and the film-makers.  These notes show how the 8 Marines in dress uniform would be needed at ‘CIA headquarters, week after next’, and specifically the producers wanted an ‘ethnic mix’ – ‘4 whites, 2 blacks, 2 latinos’.  There is no indication of the Marines checking with the CIA at any point during these discussions, so presumably the Agency had approved the project and were happy for the filming to take place.

The Langley shot is proof of some kind of CIA support, begging the question of whether they ever reviewed the script themselves.  The Marines weren’t happy with the story of a private detective (Piper) and a martial artist hitman (Blanks) taking on a criminal organisation including people from the CIA and high-ups in Washington DC who are smuggling drugs into the country.  So why would the CIA be OK with this?  Was it about trying, any which way they could, to gain greater influence in the entertainment business?  Or had they decided that by the mid-90s, no one really cared about Iran-Contra anymore and thought the controversy over the drugs trafficking was over?

If so, they were wrong because it was the following year that Gary Webb published his Dark Alliance series, which laid bare the CIA’s role in helping create the crack epidemic, and led to the Agency launching an aggressive media campaign to smear Webb, discredit his work and ruin his life.

It truly is a mystery, at least until the CIA ever get round to responding to my FOIA request on Tough and Deadly.  And let’s face it, even then it’s likely to remain an enigma.  Such is life exploring the CIA’s role in propaganda around their own black operations.

Documents on Tough and Deadly

US Marine Corps file on Tough and Deadly (1995)