The movie opens in 1972 as a group of gunmen wearing Richard Nixon Halloween masks steal evidence from a police evidence storage unit, killing several officers in the process. Officer Dennis Meechum (Brian Dennehy) is seriously wounded after stabbing one of the robbers. He survives and publishes a book titled Inside Job based on his experience. Years later, Meechum, who by now has become an acclaimed author and a much decorated detective, is working on his next novel. He now suffers from writer's block, and is a widowed father raising his daughter, Holly (Allison Balson).
On a case at the docks, a suspect runs as Meechum gives chase. A man named Cleve (James Woods) joins the chase. The suspect hides in an overhead crane and attempts to shoot Meechum, but Cleve kills the man, then mysteriously disappears.
Cleve arranges a meeting with Meechum, and tries to convince him to write a book about his history as a paid assassin for a corporate empire, Kappa International. Cleve intimidates Kappa's founder, David Madlock (Paul Shenar) about Meechum's next book, and promises Meechum to show evidence to back up his claims. They proceed to take trips to New York and Texas where Cleve tries to convince Meechum of his history of hits. While they are in Texas, it is revealed that Cleve was the injured masked gunman that Meechum had stabbed years earlier. Madlock, through his legal representatives, tries to bribe Meechum but fails.
When an enforcer tries to steal a manuscript of Meechum's novel and attempt to kill Holly, Cleve intervenes by killing him. When Cleve attempts to keep Holly safe by sending her to Meechum's agent, Roberta Gillian (Victoria Tennant). Madlock, however, manages to kidnap Holly. Meechum decides to have a meeting with Madlock at the latter's oceanfront estate. Cleve storms into the house, and guns down all of Madlock's bodyguards. Cleve then sacrifices his own life to save Holly from Madlock. Meechum arrests Madlock, before comforting a dying Cleve. Cleve reminds Meechum about the book and says "Remember I'm the hero". At the end of the film, it is revealed that Meechum has published the book titled Retribution: The Fall of David Madlock and Kappa International and it has had 28 weeks on the best seller list.James Woods as Cleve
Brian Dennehy as Dennis Meechum
Victoria Tennant as Roberta Gillian
Allison Balson as Holly Meechum
Paul Shenar as David Madlock
George Coe as Graham
Anne Pitoniak as Mrs. Foster
Mary Carver as Cleve's Mother
Sully Boyar as Monks
Kathleen Lloyd as Annie
Charles Tyner as Cleve's Father (credited as Harold Tyner)
Jay Ingram as Turner
Jeffrey Josephson as Pearlman
Edward Blackoff as Thorn
J.P. Bumstead as Rothman
Daniel Trent as Jarvis
William Bronder as Foley
Larry Cohen wrote the original script. He was inspired by the film Strangers on a Train (1951) and wrote it with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in mind for the lead roles. The project was in development at a number of studios for years before Orion decided to make it.
John Flynn says he substantially rewrote the script which was originally called Hard Cover.
Cohen was happy with the casting of Dennehy and Woods. He later said, "The picture itself turned out to be pretty good with one glaring exception: the ending. Everything was going along great but then, in the last five minutes, they fucked up the whole movie. That is what I mean when I say it [the film] was only partially successful."
Cohen's problem was that the climax had Dennehy's daughter running towards the killer instead of away from him. He recommended the scene be re-cut without shooting extra footage but says he was ignored.
Cohen says the film " didn’t do that well" financially "even though— as I keep saying— it was a good picture all the way up to the climax. I don’t want to go on about it, but they killed the movie with that conclusion and it’s amazing how you can do that. If they had made that one little cut I suggested, maybe the word of mouth would have been a little better and Best Seller could have made some money."