January 2, 2015

Straight To Hell

Straight To Hell (88 minutes) 1987/Rated R – starring Joe Strummer, Sy Richardson, Dick Rude, Courtney Love, Biff Yeager, Zander Schloss, Miguel Sandoval, Jim Jarmusch, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, Shane McGowan, Spider Stacy, and Elvis Costello. Co-written and directed by Alex Cox. Originally released through Alliance Home Video.

Let’s all meet up in Spain and film a movie for a few days. Don’t worry about the lines, we’ll make it up as we go. That must have been director Alex Cox’s pitch to his friends when he had the brainstorm to create this scattershot Western parody. The punk auteur who created the wonderfully unique “Repo Man” and the sly, poignant “Sid and Nancy” was on cruise control when he rolled camera for “Straight To Hell.” The punk spirit is definitely in place. But attitude is vapid when there’s no substance to back it up in the material.

It’s not completely off the mark to suggest writer/director Quentin Tarantino was inspired by elements of this film. A hasty bank heist involving three bumbling robbers (in dark suits and skinny black ties) results in their having to hole up in a frontier border town somewhere in the desert. One of the robbers, (Sy Richardson), is a jeri-curled, brooding African-American (can someone say, Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction?”) The ramshackle berg they stumble into is filled with a menagerie of bungling villains, all under the command of gruff outlaw, Frank MacMahon (Biff Yeager). The loopy dialogue is keyed to be “out of character,” meaning some villains spew poetry, others sing at chow time in a bent sort of dinner theatre atmosphere. This kind of out-of-context dialogue is pure Tarantino, with a twist of Mel Brooks thrown in for good measure.

What Mr. Tarantino surely didn’t lift from “Straight To Hell” was its characterizations and story. There really isn’t any. Cox has fashioned a long sketch, a punk homage to spaghetti-western guru Sergio Leone, but without the attention to any narrative or emotional nuance. Like the screeching sound of Courtney Love’s voice, it’s a harsh guffaw with a little spittle mixed in, hurling off the screen in the form of a black, overplayed comedy. As throwaway bits, the effect of the nonchalant brutality is at first jarringly amusing (again, much in the way Tarantino has fashioned his violent comedy moments). When one of the town’s more gentle souls, a hot dog vendor (Zandor Schloss), pledges his allegiance to the robbers in their standoff with the town’s villains, the robbers consider his offer for a second and then just shoot him dead. This striking humor is straight out of the cynical Saturday Night Live spin-cycle and can elicit a chuckle, but after awhile, the mindless bloodshed and hollow camp antics wears thin.

There isn’t one individual in the film that figures prominently beyond a cartoon character. The Clash’s Joe Strummer plays one of the bank robbers with the squinty countenance of a young Clint Eastwood. His minimal performance is adequate but so threadbare he hardly could be called the “lead” in this movie. Courtney Love plays the pregnant girlfriend of Richardson, and while she is established as a whining nag at the start of the picture, she virtually disappears around 30 minutes into the film. Singer Grace Jones shows up in the company of Dennis Hopper, a real estate broker wanting to turn the place into an upscale development (shades of his character’s motivations in the equally-disconnected mess “The Last Movie”). Hopper leaves the robbers a guitar case filled with guns to use in their plight against the town’s thugs. (Tarantino’s fellow auteur-whiz Robert Rodriguez perhaps lifted this idea for his breakthrough “El Mariachi” film). Members of the band The Pogues (who also contribute to the soundtrack) play various goons in the McMahon clan, but all of them are interchangeable and forgettable. And a barely-recognizable Elvis Costello appears briefly throughout the hour and a half as a butler who serves coffee to the jittery hooligans. Needless to say, he didn’t make much of an impression.

Director Cox has at least assembled a crack camera team. The photography is graciously colorful and keenly composed. The soundtrack music made me want to check E-bay for an old CD copy. But the movie is a misfire. For better results with the same tone in mind, make a double feature out of “Blazing Saddles” and “Reservoir Dogs.”

© 2000 Ned Truslow

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