There’s a turn of phrase that I like to avoid in where a writer compares any eclectic crime film they can find to the work of Quentin Tarantino by labelling it a ‘Tarantino knockoff’, or any variation in vocabulary. I renounce this lazy, unimaginative jab as it’s based in the worst form of criticism, that of negative comparison and ignorance of a film’s original qualities. However, in the case of American Strays, even I have to concede that it’s a blatant, unapologetic ripoff of QT’s style that makes no efforts to mask the plagiarism or do it’s own thing. He should sue. Not to mention the fact that on it’s own terms it’s just a horrible, boring, awkward fuckin piece of shit movie. It’s set up in the same anthology sequence except none of them are even connected, let alone make sense. Two nimrod hit men (James Russo and Joe Viterelli) drive through the desert engaging in strained extended dialogue that’s neither funny nor stimulating. A psychotic vacuum salesman (the great John Savage) goes door to door harassing people until he meets his match in a femme fatale housewife (Jennifer Tilly). A stressed out family man (Eric Roberts, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else) drives his dysfunctional brood through the desert. Elsewhere, Luke Perry plays a depressed, suicidal weirdo who sits around in a shack with a guy he’s paid to literally beat the shit out of him. The worst is a cutesy pie, insufferable Bonnie and Clyde style couple that are so obviously emulating Clarence and Alabama from Tarantino’s True Romance that you begin to wonder if they gave up and just set the script on autopilot like one of those knowingly ridiculous knockoffs you see on Netflix that are simply there to decoy you out into clicking a title that looks *almost* like what you want to watch (TransMorphers, anyone?). None of these vignettes are remotely engaging, it’s like a parade of shitty, awkward, misguided SNL skits from a dimension where humour and wit don’t exist. Every actor just looks tired, every line lands with a hollow thud. Just. Don’t. Bother.
In the vein of highway set psycho thrillers, stuff like Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher and Steven Spielberg’s Duel paved and pioneered the way, fertilizing the ground for countless other similar efforts, some terrific and others not so much. Freeway falls into the former category, an atmospheric little B movie that delivers more clammy thrills than it frankly has any right to. It’s not to be confused with the classic Reese Witherspoon trash-terpiece of the same name though, this is a different animal altogether. There’s a serial killer terrorizing the nocturnal arteries of the L.A. highway system in this, an unhinged whacko in a Lincoln of or some such automobile of equally austerity, firing off love rounds into people’s faces whilst bellowing out bible verses extremely out of context all over the overpass in the wee hours. He’s mostly heard and unseen, but he’s played by none other than Billy Drago when he does show that leering visage, and the man let’s it rip in a performance that should be legendary. He’s hunted by another cool-as-ice character actor, tough guy James Russo as a Detective of few words and tons of action, namely shooting anyone that won’t give answers or spur his leads. There’s a dark, dreamy nocturnal aura to this, love and care put into atmosphere, showing is that the filmmakers, despite working with a low budget, actually give a darn about quality in their work as opposed to a throwaway second tier genre mad dash where the lack of passion is evident. A low rent classic in the realm of homicidal vehicular themed exploitation.
Phil Joanou’s State Of Grace had the unfortunate luck of being released in 1990, the same year that also saw Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the third Godfather film. It’s hard to gain your footing when that kind of momentum is surging about, but this film is as good as the others, and deserves recognition or at least some kind of re-release. Set in the blistering inferno of Hell’s Kitchen, NYC, it’s a violent tale of Irish Mobsters, undercover cops, betrayal and murder, set to a smoky, mournful Ennio Morricone score that lingers in the air like smog. Sean Penn is Terry Noonan, a deep cover operative who returns to his childhood neighbourhood to reconnect with old friends, and dig up buried grudges. Ed Harris is Frankie Flannery, ruthless gangster and former ally, while Gary Oldman plays his hotheaded brother Jackie with a tank full of nitrous and the kind of unpredictable, dynamite fuse
potency one expects to see from a David Lynch character. The three of them are on a collision course set in the grimy streets of New York, bound by old loyalties yet destined to clash and draw new blood. Penn shares the screen with his once wife Robin Wright here, looking lovely as ever. There’s also supporting turns from John Turturro, John C. Reilly, R.D. Call, a geriatric Burgess Meredith and an unbilled cameo from James Russo. Penn, Harris and especially Oldman are like flint sparks, a trio that won’t be stopped and light up the screen for a spellbinding, visceral two hours until their eventual confrontation, hauntingly shot by cinematographer ” in the midst of a bustling St. Patrick’s Day parade. This one has been somewhat lost to the ages, like a number of other stellar crime dramas I can think of from the nineties. The cast, score and Joanou’s thoughtful direction make it an unforgettable piece of work.
Dario Argento’s Trauma is simultaneously one of the most loopy and coherent efforts from the maestro. Most of his earlier work is pure sensory and atmospheric bliss, detached from things like logic and story. While this one does in fact have a discernable narrative to go along with its giallo splendor, it’s still as whacked out as anything else in his ouvre. This was the first of many times he would cast his exotic beauty of a daughter Asia in a lead role, here playing troubled Romanian teenager Aura Petrescu, on the run from dark forces that seem to plague her family. Her lunatic mother (a terrifying Piper Laurie) has her commited and examined by a freaky Doctor (Fredric Forrest in a glorious train wreck of a performance), meanwhile a mysterious serial killer called the headhunter is out there somewhere, decapitating people with a piano wire. It all gets a bit overwhelming for poor Aura, and she runs off, straight into the protective arms of an ex drug addict (Christopher Rydell) who becomes her guardian and eventual lover. Argento is terrific in the role, exuding dark beauty and burnished resilience in the face of many terrors. Brad Dourif has an intense extended cameo as a doctor with icky ties to the origin of the headhunter as well, adding a welcome bonus horror flavor. Also watch for another intense actor, James Russo, playing a police detective determined to nab the killer for good. As far as Dario’s stuff goes, this is about as complete and cohesive a narrative as you will find. Granted it’s not the garish psychedelia of classics like Suspiria, Phenomena and Inferno, but a little more subdued and clinical, a dark fairy tale that gets geniunly scary in several excellently staged scenes and provides loads of uneasy atmosphere.
The Box is a moody little crime drama thriller starring James Russo, whose appropriately brooding persona lends itself to grim neo noir films such as these. He’s an actor who has almost entirely worked in B movies for a long time, and while you have to watch out for most as they are usually geniune piles of dog shit, this one is a jewel amongst the rubbish. Russo plays Frank Miles here, an ex con trying to go straight, sticking with the dead end job his P.O. has given him to stay out of trouble. Soon he meets beautiful waitress Dora (Theresa Russell) who falls in love with. The two of them try to start a new life together, but as we all know sometimes it’s very hard to run from your past, and soon enough trouble comes looking for them. Frank tries to get some money owing to him from his sleazebag of an ex-associate Michael Dickerson (a detestable Jon Polito) and things go wrong. Violence ensues, and Frank finds himself in the possession of a mysterious box which he can’t open and hasn’t a clue about. Dora has a scumbag boyfriend in club owner Jake Ragna (a terrifying Steve Railsbac) who I’d dangerous, volatile and obsessive about her. Soon, an evil corrupt Police Detective named Stafford (Michael Rooker) makes their lives hell as he searches for the box. Frank and Dora take refuge at the home of Stan (Brad Dourif, excellent), Frank’s former cell mate, friend who is now a weed dealer. Even this may not be enough to keep them safe, as the long arm of the crooked law probes, and Stafford gets closer and closer. It’s a depressing situation forged by bad decision and the perhaps inescapable knack for trouble that some people tend to have, whether it’s coincidence or a measurable character flaw is eternally up for debate. The pair try so hard to fix their lives and still seem to be headed for a tragic dead end. Russo has sadness in his eyes in every role, as well as a boiling anger to match it, he fills out his protagonist very well. Rooker and Railsback make scary work of the two villains, especially Rooker who uses the kind of blatant brutality and abuse of power that are essential ingrediants in very dangerous men. Dourif is Dourif, which is never not mesmerizing, and Russell does the wounded angel thing down to the bone. A sad story, with a dream cast (for me, at least), a downbeat reflection on lives gone down the wrong path, a diamond in the rough noir thriller of the best kind.