Friday, September 7, 2018

Retro Review: STRAIGHT TO HELL (1987)

(US/UK - 1987)

Directed by Alex Cox. Written by Dick Rude and Alex Cox. Cast: Sy Richardson, Joe Strummer, Dick Rude, Courtney Love, The Pogues, Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, Edward Tudor-Pole, Jim Jarmusch, Juan Torres, Biff Yeager, Zander Schloss, Sara Sugarman, Miguel Sandoval, Jennifer Balgobin, Xander Berkeley, Kathy Burke, Michele Winstanley, Sue Kiel, Ed Pansullo, Graham Fletcher-Cook, Luis Contreras, Del Zamora, Fox Harris, Cait O'Riordan, Martin Turner, Jem Finer. (R, 91 mins)

Born in 1954, Alex Cox established himself as a major new talent with 1984's cult hit REPO MAN and 1986's critically-acclaimed SID AND NANCY, and as a result, the British wunderkind immediately found himself being courted by the major studios for a variety of commercial, big-budget projects. He turned down offers to direct THREE AMIGOS (eventually made by John Landis), ROBOCOP (Paul Verhoeven), and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Stephen King adaptation THE RUNNING MAN (Paul Michael Glaser), and instead chose to make the low-budget, spaghetti western-inspired STRAIGHT TO HELL for the prestige indie Island Pictures. A critical and commercial bomb in the summer of 1987, STRAIGHT TO HELL only made it into a handful of theaters on the same day as DRAGNET and SPACEBALLS, and topped out with a final box office tally of $210,000. The script was written over the course of three days by Cox and co-star Dick Rude, and only came about because the far-left Cox had organized a benefit concert in Nicaragua to be headlined by Elvis Costello, The Clash (shortly before they disbanded), and The Pogues with the intention of filming a documentary before the political tumult in the country led to everyone involved concluding that it wasn't a good idea. Still wishing to work with the musicians in some capacity, Cox came up with STRAIGHT TO HELL, which ultimately plays less like a real film and more like a self-indulgent home movie with Cox and a bunch of cult rocker buddies dicking off in Almeria, Spain.

A textbook example of a film where it's obvious everyone had a blast during filming but the end result leaves the audience feeling like they're deliberately being excluded from the joke, STRAIGHT TO HELL opens with a quartet of incompetent bank robbers barely getting away with a suitcase full of cash in Spain: irate leader Norwood (Sy Richardson), cynical Simms (Clash frontman Joe Strummer), hyper Willy (Rude), and Norwood's abrasive, screeching girlfriend Velma (22-year-old Courtney Love, during her brief early acting career prior to fronting Hole and meeting Kurt Cobain). Their car dies after Simms stupidly fills the gas tank with diesel, stranding them in a middle of nowhere desert. They bury the money and happen upon a small town straight out of an old western, run by the large, coffee-addicted McMahon family, led by Frank (Biff Yeager), with most of the others, excluding Preacher McMahon (Xander Berkeley) and Stupid McMahon (Martin Turner, who's also credited as "sex and cruelty consultant," which is maybe the film's only funny joke), played by members of The Pogues. After intervening in a conflict between two McMahons and deranged rival Rusty Zimmerman (Edward Tudor-Pole) that sees Norwood, Simms, and Willy blowing away Rusty, the outsiders earn the trust of Frank McMahon. All that goes straight to hell when Frank's doddering old father (Jem Finer) is killed by his niece (Kathy Burke), a murder that's pinned on Whitey (Graham Fletcher-Cook), a flunky sent to search for Norwood and his cohorts by their employer, feared crime boss Amos Dade (Jim Jarmusch). This sets in motion a chain of double crosses and unholy alliances, complicated by the arrival of obscenely wealthy American gas station/convenience store magnate I.G. Farben (Dennis Hopper) and his wife Sonya (Grace Jones), who supply Norwood, Simms, and Willy with a Gatling gun and other weapons to start a war with the McMahons, the clan standing in Farben's way of redeveloping the desert town into an expensive housing development.

Cox having Hopper's Farben supply the fugitive bank robbers with weapons draws obvious parallels to the soon-to-explode Iran-Contra scandal, which the director would explore with more muddled results in 1987's WALKER, released six months after STRAIGHT TO HELL. An intentionally anachronistic, revisionist "biography" of William Walker (played in the film by Ed Harris), an American mercenary who declared himself president of Nicaragua in 1856 (Marlon Brando played Walker in Gillo Pontecorvo's BURN! in 1969), WALKER was Cox's most ambitious film to date, a bonkers left-wing polemic with helicopters and cars in 1856 Nicaragua and featuring a good chunk of STRAIGHT TO HELL's cast along with Marlee Matlin in her first role after winning an Oscar for CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD. Barely released at the height of the holiday awards season as if it had a chance of winning anything, WALKER was somehow bankrolled by Universal, who had no idea what to do with it, and it grossed only slightly more than STRAIGHT TO HELL, effectively ending Cox's career in Hollywood. Like any terrible bomb that loses a lot of money, it's developed a cult following over the years, most notably from the Criterion Collection, who have taken it upon themselves to serve as WALKER's chief apologists.

Despite Criterion's insistence that it's a misunderstood masterpiece of gonzo cinema, WALKER is all kinds of terrible, as is STRAIGHT TO HELL, which is in some ways a more freewheeling, improvisatory test run for WALKER, both in terms of Hopper's weapons-selling Farben as well as the borderline slapstick antics of the three stars. The underrated Richardson, who provided REPO MAN with some of its funniest moments, displays some comedic chops both physically and in his facial expressions and tough guy act, but almost nothing in STRAIGHT TO HELL is even remotely amusing. It's laborious, slowly-paced, filled with obnoxious characters and a diverse cast that's just goofing off while Cox gets enough footage to piece a movie together. Why do the rough-and-tumble McMahons have a perpetually befuddled, properly-attired butler named Hives, and why is he played by Elvis Costello? Costello seems to be patterning his performance on both Rowan Atkinson and Donald Sutherland's "clumsy waiter" in THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, but like everything else, there's no rhyme or reason to it. Cox and Rude made this up as they went along and got Costello, Strummer, the Pogues, and pals like Richardson, Del Zamora, Fox Harris, and Miguel Sandoval, and called in some favors from Hopper (then in the midst of a major career resurgence following BLUE VELVET and HOOSIERS) and Jarmusch and just hoped the eclectic ensemble could somehow make something happen. It doesn't really work as a spaghetti western satire or spoof because Cox has nothing to say about the genre and only creates some sense of purpose once he introduces the heavy-handed Iran-Contra parallels. Even then, with the potential of some topical political commentary along the lines of the late '60s "Zapata" westerns, Cox can't get his shit together because he's too busy buying his own hype. It's an aimless mess where no one's in charge and there's no endgame. The Nicaragua concert got cancelled but everyone still wanted to hang out. That's the only reason STRAIGHT TO HELL exists.

Cox revisited STRAIGHT TO HELL in 2010, adding a five minutes of cut scenes and sprucing other shots up with visual effects and CGI splatter (including the obligatory "blood hitting the camera lens" schtick) and it got a brief release on the arthouse circuit as STRAIGHT TO HELL RETURNS. That's the version on Kino's new Blu-ray, now rechristened STRAIGHT TO HELL: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT. In any incarnation, it represents the beginning of the end for Cox, who has almost completely regressed like a directorial Benjamin Button in the decades since, helming a series of increasingly amateurish projects with decreasing budgets and very little exposure. His last behind-the-scenes association with anything resembling a real movie was when he scored a co-writing credit on Terry Gilliam's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. He's also acted in several films, most notably Alex de la Iglesia's PERDITA DURANGO (aka DANCE WITH THE DEVIL). Cox has long believed that WALKER got him blackballed in Hollywood, but as his standing as a filmmaker has cratered in the last 30 years, he has become a reputable spaghetti western historian, appearing on several DVD commentaries and writing a book about the subject titled 10,000 Ways to Die. He's also written other non-fiction books on a variety of topics--including a memoir, a book about JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald, and an analysis of the cult TV series THE PRISONER--and he's directed TV documentaries on Akira Kurosawa and the 1970s EMMANUELLE films. As a narrative filmmaker, Cox's place in movie history is secure thanks to REPO MAN and SID AND NANCY, but the combined, quick-succession tanking of STRAIGHT TO HELL and WALKER proved too toxic to overcome, with Cox imploding hard and hitting his nadir with 2011's ill-advised, desperate, and all-greenscreen semi-sequel REPO CHICK. Cox's most recent film is a crowd-funded time travel western with unknown actors called TOMBSTONE RASHOMON, which was screened as a work in progress at some film festivals in 2017 but has yet to be officially released. You'll likely never see it, and that's probably for the best.

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