4/4/09

Between Heaven and Hell: Week 1-Straight to Hell (1987)

Hello there folks, and welcome to Week 1 of April's Friday Feature, Between Heaven and Hell. Each week I'll be bringing you a film spotlighting the virtuous and the damned, and sometimes the two end up not being exclusive. 

At first it was a plan for a tour. A troupe of bands from the UK and Ireland traveling to Nicaragua to put on a series of shows in support of the Sandinista rebels and shoot a documentary. When the money for the tour fell though, the director wished everyone off to Spain instead. To the very location used for the Bronson western Chino, to shoot a hastily written script, to live 5 weeks on a set where you might find the odd Pogue sleeping in a ditch. To take a trip....
Straight To Hell (1987) starring Dick Rude, Sy Richardson, Courtney Love, Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Miguel Sandoval, Dennis Hopper, Jim Jarmusch, Biff Yeager, and The Pogues. Directed by Alex Cox. 

After a trio of tough guys, Willy, Norwood, and Sims (Rude, Richardson, and Strummer), botch an intended hit, they decide to skip town instead, but on the way out they take the time to knock over a bank. So accompanied by Norwood's pregnant girlfriend Velma (Love) they set out to escape across the desert, and when their car breaks down, they  start walking across the desert until they happen on a deserted looking town. More importantly, an empty bar to spend the night boozing. The next morning the local gang, the McMahons, ride into town, and they really don't cotton to strangers. After a tense standoff, Norwood happens to gun down one the McMahon's enemies, and the boss, Frank McMahon (Yeager) invites the men into the fold. In a town filled with dangerous woman and trigger happy men, it's not long before the double dealing gets going and everyone is looking to get away with a suitcase of cash. 

The Bugg Picture

Right off let me say that Alex Cox is one of my favorite directors already because of a trio of films; Walker (1987), Sid and Nancy (1986), and Repo Man (1984). Then you add in the presence of several of my favorite musicians, a film full of wry nods to the western genre, and one of the best displays of badassary ever put to film. It's probably needless to say, but I thoroughly enjoyed this film. Coming out in 1987, it might have been a bit too ahead of it's time with its noir world crossed with pop culture and meta film jokes. If it was made after 1994 and the release of Pulp Fiction, I'm sure it would have been relegated to the discard pile of Tarantino clones. 

Speaking of Tarantino clones, or rather, the other way around. one has to wonder if QT took some inspiration for the character of Jules in Pulp Fiction from Sy Richardson's unfortunately named badass, Norwood. Richardson is the linchpin of the film with his calm cool demeanor even while being berated by a faux-pregnant Courtney Love, and while his performance is basically limited to acting cool, Richardson pulls it off. Richardson, who has also appeared in Petey Wheatstraw and They Live, is also the focus of the scene of badassary I mentioned earlier. Trapped in a burning house, everyone thinks Norwood is surely dead, but as the fire dies down and the smoke clears, there standing in the ruins of the burnt out house is Norwood without a scratch on him. Now you have to be a real badass if fire is scared to touch you. 

The rest of the cast also acquit themselves quite well. In fact, I found it surprising how good The Clash's Joe Strummer was. I have, of course, seen him in Rude Boy, Mystery Train, and The King of Comedy, but never has Joe inhabited a role with such easy cool. Dick Rude and Miguel Sandoval  turn in good performances as Willy and George respectively, and seeing one of my favorite bands, The Pogues, as part of the coffee obsessed McMahons is incredibly entertaining. Elvis Costello turns up a couple of times as a flamenco guitar playing butler, and the cameos by Jarmusch and Hopper are absurd and wonderful. Lastly, there's Courtney Love. I'll make no bones about it. I dislike Love, and here as the whiny pregnant Velma, she makes herself easy to hate. It just wasn't a real stretch for me to accept her as a bitch who constantly henpecked her man, but did anyone ever tell her she's hasn't been filming that movie for the last 22 years?

What Straight to Hell really succeeds at is poking at genre movie conventions, specifically those of the western/tough guy film. As the gang and the McMahons are about to go for their guns, the soundtrack gives us a powerful harmonica stab which is reminiscent of Morricone's soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in the West. Both sides stop and  begin to look around suspiciously until the harmonica player is found. Sure I've seen the joke where the soundtrack turns out to be in the character's world, but here the reaction shots are just perfect and very funny. Then there is the funeral for the murdered McMahon patriarch. As the priest steps up to begin his invocation he intones, "Please let us get through this quickly, oh, Lord, and on to the revenge." There are also a ton of shots which mirror everyone from Leone to Ford to Peckinpah.

One last thing I have to mention before I wrap this up, and that is Karl the Weiner Boy. In one of the most bizarre touches in the film, the town has a vendor named Karl who is a little dweeb and sells all kind of processed meat product from his shoddy cart. He is constantly the target of abuse from the townsfolk, but at dinner one night Frank McMahon, requests that Karl sing his song. We are treated to "Salsa Y Ketchup" a song written by Xander Schloss, who played Karl, Joe Strummer, and Miguel Sandoval which quickly descends into the films other musical number. It's this kind of zany action which fills Straight to Hell, and most likely is the separation between people who love and hate this flick. 

So anyone into Tarantino's films, westerns, or the films of Jim Jarmusch will find much to like in this one. At a tight 86 minutes, the film does not take a whole lot of time getting going, and Cox filled each minute with interesting characters and visuals. Plus the film ends with a incredible Pogues song, "Rake at the Gates of Hell", which makes for the perfect capper for this film. Check it out folks. 

Bugg Rating

I could find no trailer, but here is a clip of Sy Richardson and his moment of Badass glory.

4 comments:

  1. I don't think there is a trailer for this movie because there wasn't one on the Anchor Bay DVD. Alex Cox is one of my favorite directors as well. Walker and Repo Man are two of my all time favorite films. I actually Straight to Hell is kind of awesome even though Courtney Love, as in real life, grates my nerves into shreds. The soundtracks for Cox's films always kick ass. Great review!

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  2. I really like Sid and Nancy and LOVE Repo Man. Walker - I have never seen.

    I remember seeing some parts of Straight to Hell when it was on cable, but after your review, I think I really MUST see it.

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  3. I gotta say, I straight up hated this film. I couldn't get into it at all. Saying that, Sy Richardson is definitely the highlight of the film. Repo Man kicks ass.

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  4. This is a flick that seems to have no middle ground, and it's interesting that out of the two of you who've seen it, we've got that division evident. Thanks for the comments, folks.

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