The Running Man

SubZero… now plain zero!!

I love bad Arnold movies. This is miles ahead of Raw Deal but behind Commando. In a prescient future, the government depends on reality shows to distract us from the horrible economy, and when chopper pilot Ben Richards refuses to fire upon a food riot, he is framed as the engineer of the massacre, and of course gets pulled in to the biggest game show on TV: The Running Man, where criminals run from maniacal stalkers with flamethrowers, chainsaws and operatic voices, to gain a chance at a jury trial. Arnie’s one-liners are at their worst, some of them barely make any sort of sense, but the TV satire with Richard Dawson from Family Feud is just too good to miss. It’s not a bad movie, but like most futuristic satires it has to wink at the camera instead of playing it straight like the original Rollerball (the James Caan one) or just going with it like Commando. It’s definitely worth seeing once, and bares little resemblance to the Stephen King story it’s based on, but this ain’t Arnie’s best. It’s also a lot far from his worst. This is probably the best example of an Arnie movie, come to think of it- it’s the median.
The movie has a lot to like. Arnie may be running around in yellow tights like Bruce Lee in Game of Death, but he gets to cut a guy’s nuts off with a chainsaw! Dweezil Zappa plays a leader of the revolution! Old grannies say they want to see him kick some ass! And best of all, Richard Dawson plays it completely straight, playing a real sonofabitch of a TV host and loving every minute of it. If you ever wanted him to say Survey Said… FUCK YOU! This is your chance.
It goes crazy to the camp side, with an opera-singing Hunter named Dynamo driving around in a dune buggy covered in Christmas lights. Even Arnold’s jokes on him make fun of how awful this concept is. “Aghgghg!! you big light bulb!” Jesse Ventura has a small role as a former gladiator, but we don’t get to see them really fight; that’s too bad, it would have been awesome. The Running Man remains a guilty pleasure in the Arnold compendium, but it shows that he can make a hit even out of a ridiculous, campy ’80s flick.

All the entries in The Arnold Project

IMPORTANT ADDENDUM: This movie came from Milky’s Netflix, and he watched it with me, and farted on my couch a lot, and did slap my belly with glee. There, now quit whining.

Southern Discomfort

I saw Southern Comfort on HBO in the early ’80s long before I knew who Walter Hill was; I liked The Warriors and Streets of Fire and 48 Hrs. (full review) but I hadn’t connected them as the work of one director yet. I remembered it as a cheap Deliverance knockoff, so I wanted to refresh my memory.
The story is a simple one. A squad of Louisiana National Guard are training in the bayou. They aren’t the best and brightest; their Sergeant is straight laced, but the boys have some whores lined up for fun after maneuvers, and they want to get done quick. Among them is a loaner from Texas named Hardin, played by Powers Boothe; Fred Ward as a crude loudmouth named Reece, Keith Carradine as a sarcastic self-deprecating smartass named Spencer, and T.K. “Nauls from The Thing” Carter. That gives us some solid character acting on board and a beloved cult director, so let’s see how much comfort it gives us for the next two hours.
During training, the lazy fellows are in Cajun country, and have no respect for the swamp folks; Reece calls them coon-asses. He cuts their nets as they wade through the bayou, completely unmindful of the snakes, gators, gar and other critters. They’re city boys, and some comparison to the culture clash between Americans and Vietnamese. The Cajuns speak their French patois, live off the land, and just want to be left alone. The Guard boys have blanks for training, and the guy with the M60 likes pranking people with it. When they come upon some pirogues (canoes) and decide to take borrow them as a shortcut, he fires at their rightful owners when they’re caught. Problem is, the hunters in the swamp have guns with real ammo, and they fire back.
The soldiers are green and panic, and end up lost in the bayou, with a few bullets each, surrounded by inhospitable territory and people who live in it, who they’ve made their enemies. Sound familiar? Not long after they regroup and go a little wild, they capture a Cajun trapper played by Brion James. He speaks only French, and his lines are especially funny if you understand a little. He’s stoic and laconic, and when they come upon a stringer of 8 dead rabbits- coincidentally the same number of soldiers- they think it’s a warning and are creeped out. They demand an answer from him, and he just says, “lapin!” Sonny “Billy from Predator” Landham plays another of the hunters, but doesn’t get any lines.
The rest plays out mostly as expected- some men cling to reason and military procedure, others want revenge and grasp for power in the confusion. When they realize they are being hunted, some lose it, and they never come to terms with how dangerous the land alone is, even when it is used against them. We do get to see a more pleasant face of backwoods Cajun life as two of the men come upon a small town and join in a crawfish boil, pig roast and celebration. Unfortunately the story structure is a bit muddled and the ending comes 20 minutes too late. It spends a little too much time whittling down the Guards with clever traps like a slasher film, when it should have stuck to the war film formula. It’s still an enjoyable film, in Walter Hill’s best pastiche of a Sam Fuller B-movie.
The very end slows as the rescue arrives, but comparing National Guardsmen taking it easy at home in ’73 to soldiers in Vietnam running for the medevac chopper is a bit much. I would have loved the festival scene to continue its creepy vibe, where they are unsure if the ropes being strung up are for slaughtering pigs for the feast, or for hanging interloping soldiers. I would have liked them to panic and turn on their hosts, but instead it continues the slasher vibe. Not a great movie, but a good one, and the bayou has never been bleaker. It was filmed on location and Hill’s crew suffered in the wet and cold. Ry Cooder’s excellent soundtrack, with some traditional Cajun music by Dewey Balfa, helps set the film’s excellent tone, which makes the foggy swamp one of the creepiest settings in a long time. Southern Comfort may not be one of Hill’s best, but it’s definitely an interesting take on the Vietnam metaphor.

Friday the 13th…

A few years ago Milky & I visited Blairstown, where Friday the 13th was filmed. In the beginning, you see the girls walking through the arches of The Old Mill, and we took some photos there. It’s still a nice rural town that doesn’t feel like your typical Jersey suburb, and much of the area is farmland. The Appalachian trail goes through this part of the state as well.

Blairstown today

Crystal Lake is on the property of the Boy Scouts and they are vigilant for trespassers for obvious reasons, so we didn’t sneak in to take photos of the lake or the cabins used in filming. I’m told most of them have been rebuilt, anyway.

Creepily enough this nearby house has gravestones in their front yard, too. You can click any of the photos for bigger versions. Blairstown is nearby Mt. Hope, site of some old iron mine pits and ruins, a cool place to go hiking. Also home to the Double D Ranch (heh, heh) a nice place to go horseback riding. There’s a decent diner in town, this being Jersey. So you can make a decent day trip out of it.

A jealous redhead with a big set of headlights

Christine, Carpenter and King’s disturbing tribute to the American mystique with the automobile, came out in the perfect year. In the late 70’s, EPA regulations and piss poor engineering coupled to bring us the most emasculated cars from Detroit, but by ’83 the Mustang and Camaro were nearing 200 horsepower again; there was no official Corvette that year, but in ’84 it came back with a vengeance. The Fury was long gone by then and Plymouth was mostly re-badging other cars, but the 1958 Fury was perhaps their most iconic model, other than the Road Runner Superbird. The early ’80s was also the beginning of ’50s nostalgia, culminating with Michael Mann’s excellent Crime Story TV series. The car was the perfect choice, with its massive shark fins. Only the ’57 Chrysler 300C and the ’59 Cadillacs were more impressive. The chugging hemi engine that rumbles over the credits and serves as the monster’s roar before it crushes its victims is the throaty song of the American muscle car. The car of Christine’s enemy Dennis is a 1968 Dodge Charger, the most memorable of the Dodge-Chrysler-Plymouth muscle cars at the time.
They did an excellent job in making a horror movie about a killer car, with effects that still stand up today, and a classic tale of a nerd who finds brief glory with a devil’s bargain, before it destroys him. Set in 1978, the last production year of the Plymouth Fury, we meet nerdy Arnie as he leaves his domineering parents for a ride to school with football jock and good guy Dennis, his only friend. Everything gets set up in the first few minutes as we meet the New Girl, Leigh, and the Douche Trio of switchblade bully Buddy, and his toadies Fat Fuck and The Pompadour Guy (or Pompadouche for short). Dennis, and later Arnie, have eyes for Leigh while Buddy and crew torment Arnie in auto shop. Dennis comes to the rescue but it’s three on one, and Fat Fuck grabs his nuts in a particularly brutal scene. The shop teacher catches them, and they get expelled… vowing revenge.
Dennis is played by John Stockwell, who’d show up in the underrated ’80s flick My Science Project; he’s kind of a low rent Kevin Bacon, but he’s very likeable. Just a bit bland. Leigh is future “Baywatch” beauty Alexandra Paul, and Keith Gordon, who plays Arnie, would go on to direct Mother Night, A Midnight Clear, and many episodes of the TV series “Dexter.” The real standout is Robert Prosky, who plays Darnell the junkyard owner. In a role completely different from his excellent mobster in Michael Mann’s Thief, he’s a cigar-chewing slobbish force of nature here who practically steals the show.
When Arnie and Dennis are driving home from school, nerdy boy sees a wreck parked in a field with a For Sale sign, and is immediately captivated. It turns out to be a faded red 1958 Plymouth, banged up and in need of serious repair. A scrawny, hunched-over old man like a troll from a fairy tale sits on the porch, staring into the big nothing, as Arnie starts drooling over the car. Dennis tries to talk him out of buying it, but he insists. The man says the car was his brother’s, who bought it new. He tells him the car’s name is Christine, and Arnie takes it home.

“My asshole brother bought her back in September ’57. That’s when you got your new model year, in September. Brand-new, she was. She had the smell of a brand-new car. That’s just about the finest smell in the world, ‘cept maybe for pussy.”

His parents aren’t too happy with his decision, as they make all the decisions for him; but Arnie has finally grown a pair of balls, and drives it to a local junkyard and self repair auto shop, run by Mr. Darnell. In his grimy suit and perpetual scowl, Darnell gets most of the good lines; as Arnie begins work on restoring the banged-up road monster, he mutters, “You can’t polish a turd.” Slowly the restoration project takes all of Arnie’s time; Dennis tries for a date with Leigh and is rebuffed, and spends his time playing football. One night we see Arnie go off in a blue ’76 Eldorado. Who’s driving the blue Cadillac? Does he sell his soul to the Devil? In the novel, he’s smuggling cigarettes with Darnell the auto shop owner. This subplot was left out of the film and for good reason. It’s left a mystery how Arnie first repairs Christine, which would cost a fortune, because when the car first repairs itself after the vandalism, it’s a surprise to him. We later find out it’s Darnell’s Caddy, but it’s mysterious and makes us wonder what’s happening to Arnie as much as Dennis does. I like to think Christine was slowly repairing herself as Arnie bungled his way through the job, until he was fully under her spell.
Arnie talks to the car much like many of us do when confronted with a piece of machinery that’s not working. Whether it’s Han Solo whispering to the Millennium Falcon, or Michael Bolton cursing out the printer in Office Space, we personify machines. He loses his glasses and gains confidence, and attitude. His Mom asks Dennis for help, because he’s obsessed with the car, and he senses something is off. He visits the old man who sold them the car, and finds out that the previous owner had the same obsession.

Probably the only thing my brother ever loved in his whole rotten life was that car. No shitter ever came between him and Christine, if they did… watch out! He had a five-year-old daughter choke to death in her… he wouldn’t get rid of her. He just rode around with the radio blaring, not a care in the world except for Christine.” Even Darnell remembers, “I knew a guy had a car like that once. Fuckin’ bastard killed himself in it. Son of a bitch was so mean, you could’ve poured boiling water down his throat and he would’ve pissed ice cubes!

Before Dennis can do anything, we see him at a football game. Buddy and his crew are in the bleachers, booing the home team. Dennis is running long for a pass when he sees Arnie pull up in a fully restored Christine, with the hot new girl Leigh coming out of the passenger side… and while he’s distracted, he’s slammed by a tackle and put in the hospital. Nearly paralyzed, he’s taken out of commission while Christine cements her hold on Arnie. Buddy and crew decide to get revenge on Arnie by trashing the car, and we see them sneak into Darnell’s that night to smash up Arnie’s baby. Now I’m a car enthusiast, and I tell you it hurt more watching them smash that car than any of the death scenes in this movie; and that’s what King and Carpenter are getting at with this movie. Either you’re a car person or you’re not. If you drive a Toyota, you’re probably not. Though Prius drivers get enthused in their own way. If a car’s just transportation, you won’t ever understand.
When Arnie finds his car vandalized beyond belief- it is mentioned that someone shit on the dashboard- he is of course devastated. All that work, lost. But it’s more than that. He identifies himself through his car, like many young men; it is a personal injury. A car becomes sort of a home on wheels, and invasion of it is unsettling, even if only a thin sheen of safety glass separates the inside from the rest of the world. Keith Gordon’s portrayal in this scene is perhaps the best, as the new hard-ass Arnie crumbles back to his apoplectic geek self. And his soul becomes irrevocably sold later that evening, when he looks at the wreckage with knowing eyes and murmurs, “Show me.” To the haunting sax of “Harlem Nocturne,” Christine rebuilds herself. Fenders reform, the tires inflate, crushed metal pops back to shape. Other than the incredible scenes of the car repairing itself, which were performed with plastic replicas and hydraulic pumps- the most memorable visual has to be the demonic marauding vehicle ablaze at the gas station.
Vengeance is first delivered on Fatty, who runs into a repair bay where the car can’t fit. The windshield is dark, so we don’t know if Arnie is behind the wheel, or if Christine is prowling on her own. Amazingly, the car pushes itself into the narrow alleyway, fenders crumpling as the tires squeal with demonic fury. Later, a detective tells Arnie, “they have to scrape his legs off the wall with a shovel.” But Arnie only replies, “Isn’t that what you do with shit? Scrape it up with a little shovel?” Detective Junkins drives the last year of Fury, the 1978 cop model, a nice touch. He’s played by the always dependable Harry Dean Stanton, but his cop skills aren’t all that great. I know it’s the ’70s, but you could match the paint from Christine’s fender to the corpse. Let’s just assume that possessed demon cars don’t leave forensic evidence.
The best scene is when Christine kills off the last of the two shitters- this time literally, they shit on her dash- by playing a night time game of chicken. Buddy’s driving in his ’67 Camaro when a tailgater is blinding him. He stomps on the brakes, goes in reverse, but can’t touch the car. So he races them to a gas station, pulls over and takes out his tire iron… only to see Christine plow into his ride and T-bone it into scrap metal. Before he can react, the cars, now locked together, are smashing through the service station and crushing his pals. Soon the whole place is ablaze, Christine has real flames on her fenders and is coursing after him like a living inferno.
After Leigh dumps Arnie because she nearly chokes to death in the car at a drive-in (on a sandwich, ya perv), she teams up with Dennis to try to free him from Christine’s clutches. But Arnie’s obsession is complete. As they drive the highway, he plays chicken for no reason, throws beer cans out the window, and has become the mean sonofabitch who can eat lava and piss ice cubes. Dennis lures him to Darnell’s by carving a challenge into Christine’s hood, and going there to hot wire a bulldozer. And the final duel between a demonic land yacht and a Tonka toy is something to behold, with Christine able to repair herself between clashes.
With an absolutely fantastic soundtrack that varies from whimsical to macabre, including the now famous “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers, “Pledging my Love” by Johnny Ace, “Keep a Knockin'” by Little Richard, and especially “Boney Maroni” playing while Christine crushes one of her victims, the movie manages to wink at us just enough so we’ll swallow a killer car from the ’50s. Things to notice. Arnie’s clothes slowly revert to ’50s era, including a red jacket like James Dean wore in Rebel Without a Cause. His hair and manner resemble a “greaser.” And Christine’s mileage counter goes backward through the film, as if it’s sucking the life out of Arnie. It finally rolls over to zeroes during the final battle.

I love this shot which makes it seem like the car is watching this guy.

Is Christine a horror film? Of course, but a different one. I’m eager to read the book. The movie shows the car being “born” on the assembly line, a lone custom Ford Red among the other beige models. She kills a worker who gets cigar ashes on her seats, and chomps her hood closed on someone’s hand, too. I like this addition, because it lends an urban legend feel to it, and makes us wonder if we’ll get one of these “bad luck” or worse, evil cars. Well, perhaps back in the ’80s, when cars were less electronic, and seemed possessed by gremlins. But as the final shot warns, Christine may still be out there, prowling the roads, looking for a new driver.

What’s a Boogen?

My childhood friend Ruben had a knack for making any movie sound like the most awesome thing ever. He’s the reason I watched Halloween III: Season of the Witch against all my better judgment, and his review of The Boogens, a cheesy B-movie monster flick with voracious critters released from a mine explosion, is why I watched this oddly named bit of drive-in fodder. He’s never let me down.
The Boogens lures you in with its stupid title; what the hell is a boogen? Is it a snot monster? Or something like a boogeyman? You only hear it once, when the crazy old miner trying to warn everybody- by scowling creepily from afar- finally says his piece. Decades ago, a mine collapse killed dozens in the sleep mountain town of Silver Something. (I’m not going back to look it up.) Now, a new company wants to re-open the mine, and two young guys named Mark (the nice guy) and Roger (the horndog) sign up to work it. All Roger talks about is boning his girlfriend Jessica, who’s driving up in a Beetle with her sensible friend Trish, and her annoying as hell poodle, Tiger.

Hi, I’ll be your Steve Guttenberg equivalent for the evening.

It is rare when you root for the dog to be killed in a horror movie, but I rooted for Tiger to be eaten. And I got my wish. The miners blast open the collapsed tunnel and find piles of human skulls and bones. If The Boogens had a little more budget, it might have been a precursor to The Descent, but no such luck. It’s really not scary, but might have been worth seeing at a drive-in, when your date would clutch you whenever the monster roared or flung one of its bizarre clawed appendages (complete with whip sound effect)!

Gonna put on my Boogen shoes! Disco inferno!

As it goes in the horror genre, the horniest people die first. Even though Mark’s sweet bozo demeanor will eventually get him into Trish’s down jacket, they’re wholesome and become our heroes. Come to think of it, I don’t think Roger ever gets to be “Hormone Man,” and leap over tall women with a single bound, as he hopes. So you got a nice reversal there. But soon, dogs and people start disappearing, and claws start gouging their way through the floor heater grate to come getcha. The monster’s arms resemble the critters from It’s Alive 3: Island of the Alive a bit, and you never get a full look at what a boogen really looks like. It’s sort of like a snapping turtle with really long limbs and a whiplike tail that grabs you and pulls you into the water, or through the door, or wherever the partial monster puppet is sticking out of.

Don’t do this:
or you get this:

And that’s cool. It’s certainly a unique monster, pulled out of the writer’s ass, and it sure likes to hook people and drag them back to the mine for feasting. So besides killer turtles, The Boogens also has a crazy old miner with dynamite going for it:

Git off mah land!

And as was expected in any horror film in 1981, we get some boobage but it’s nothing to write home about. Trish is cute and has a nice pair that she demurely bares, but Jessica manages to get nearly yanked through a heating vent, chased all around the cabin throwing tea kettles and boxes of bric-a-brac at the boogen interloper without losing her towel. I bet if she threw the towel over the monster’s head, she could have run naked into the snow, and then run up to a store window and cut the glass open with her nipples, and survived. And I would have loved to see it.
The Boogens is best visited as an early 80’s creature feature that manages to keep your interest with some amusing victims and a unique, if somewhat silly monster. I would have liked to hear the crazy miner- the modern equivalent of a grizzled prospector I suppose- tell more tales of how he survived the boogens, but he barely lasts five minutes before falling victim to his age old nemesis. Sucks how that happens. Even Quint got to stick a knife in the shark’s face. Poor old Crazy Guy throws some ineffectual sticks of dynamite that should have made some turtle soup.
According to IMDb, In his Twilight Zone Magazine review, author Stephen King called The Boogens… “A wildly energetic monster movie!” For this movie to be called “energetic,” Steve would have had to have been beard deep in a mine shaft full of cocaine.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 3
Could it be remade today? Oh please, oh please…
Quotability Rating: enh… hormone man?
Cheese Factor: Limboogen
High Points: weird critters, crazy miner
Low Point: Amazing krazy glued on towel!
Gratuitous Boobies: One close-up, one side boob:

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Trick or Treat, smell my feet, give me some heavy metal to eat!

Trick or Treat is the king of the Heavy Metal Horror movies of the ’80s. It’s not the scariest, nor does it have the best music, or the best monster make-up, but it has Ozzy and Gene Simmons, so it wins by default.
I’ve wanted to see this movie for years. Like the infamous Black Roses, where Vincent Pastorelli gets eaten by a wall speaker, Trick or Treat was infamous for Ozzy, Gene, and a scene where a girl gets raped by a demon in a car parked on lover’s lane. That scene turned out to be sillier than scary. I mean, after the tree rape from The Evil Dead, the bar is set pretty high on the disturb-o-meter for this sort of thing. But nothing brings back the mid-late ’80s like reminiscing about when Al Gore’s wife colluded with the religious right to protect children from “porn rock,” leading to some of the most hilarious Senate hearings ever recorded.
But the movies took a different tack; they went for the idea that maybe our heavy metal bands were demons sent to possess and kill us. Trick or Treat does even better. It begins with loser metal kid Eddie Weinbauer getting teased and bullied in school by the jocks, for well, being the only metal head. They prank him into running naked into the gym while the girls are playing volleyball, and for a moment I thought the story was going to be good and disturbing in a Stephen King sort of way, because he looks really pitiful as he squirms belly first back into the locker room. But no, it quickly reverts to exactly what you’d expect from this kind of picture.
And that’s not bad. Movies are all about expectations; sometimes we’re joyfully surprised. This isn’t one of those times, but if you want to see a demonic heavy metal singer return from the dead, it certainly delivers. Weinbauer’s idol is Sammi Curr, a hair metal douche who testifies before congress that if they try to censor him, “we will take you down!!!” It was a cute nod to the PMRC circus that Tipper created, which eventually led to those “Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics” stickers on certain CDs. Shortly thereafter, Sammi dies in a hotel fire, and Eddie is crushed. He thinks about suicide, but instead visits his one metal buddy, the DJ named Nuke- played by Gene Simmons. Nuke gives him a tape that has Sammi’s latest song on it.
At home, Eddie plays Sammi’s new record over and over, until the backmasked track summons his evil spirit back from the grave! First it seems like nothing much. When the jocks try to get revenge for Eddie leading them on a wild chase through school that ends with them spraying the faculty lunch room with a fire extinguisher, the metal shop comes alive (heh, get it? METAL shop?) and threatens to drive a spike through Lead Jock Douche’s eyeball. But Eddie’s a pussy, and calls off his metal minions. But soon, Sammi’s spirit has a mind of its own, and wants to get his evil mix tape played on the radio, so he can… I dunno, come out of your radio and look like the undead member of Motley Crue? Sammi doesn’t really do much when he manifests his power except zap a few people into dust and ’80s clothing.
The one girl who takes pity on Eddie gets demon raped into a coma by Sammi, after he lends her that tape before knowing its power. Sinister stink lines ooze out of the stereo and seduce her, taking off her clothes for our amusement, and then solidify into a Satanic Sammi slug monster that slips her the supernatural salami. It wouldn’t be a heavy metal horror movie without the boobies, and it manages to jam every ’80s fear about the music- suicide, porn lyrics, backwards tracks, and Satanism- into one package. So while the story flops all over the place, unsure whether Eddie Weinbauer should be a villain bent on revenge or a sympathetic dork turned hero, it is a lot of fun for fans.
Part of it is worth it just to see Ozzy with his hair neatly parted, playing the part of a smarmy religious figure attacking his own music, and Gene Simmons playing a DJ. They have small roles, however, and evil Sammy gets defeated by a toilet at one point. He’s not really that scary, doesn’t have any cheesy lines like in latter-day Freddy Krueger movies that might make him better company if he’s not going to be frightening. No such luck. It also doesn’t help that our hero is Marc Price, “Skippy” from Family Ties. He’s decent enough, but he’s no Steven Dorff in The Gate!
Trick or Treat is decent fun for metal fans, with music by Fast Eddie from Motorhead and Dave King of Flogging Molly. It’s sadly lacking in gore, as the demonic singer’s power mostly consists of zapping people with electricity and making them turn to dust. Nowadays it’s most worth watching for the cameos, which also includes Glen Morgan- director of Final Destination– as Eddie’s nerdy pal and only friend. It’s pretty obvious why he went into directing, but he’s better than most of the cast!

Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today? only if hair metal returns…
Quotability Rating: low
Cheese Factor: Motorheadcheese
High Points: Cameos
Low Point: lame villain
Gratuitous Boobies: one scene, but they are nice 

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Friedkin vs. Mann in the 80’s

It looks like William Friedkin and Michael Mann had a little tiff in the ’80s. After the gritty crime thriller The French Connection, Friedkin made an aimless remake of Wages of Fear called Sorcerer, the daring but squirm-inducing flick Cruising, where Pacino goes undercover in the gay BDSM scene, and then the disastrous arms dealer comedy The Deal of the Century. He needed something to get him back in his element, and ex-Secret Service agent Gerard Petievich’s thrilling novel Money Men was just the ticket. Retitled as To Live and Die in L.A., which would be incredibly apt once viewed, he made an ’80s crime classic that may not top the tale of Popeye Doyle, but it comes close, and gives us one of cinema’s unforgettable car chases.
Michael Mann was elbow deep in “Miami Vice” while this was made, and actually tried to sue Friedkin for plagiarism over this film; the script differs greatly from the novel and the colorful style is certainly influenced by the popular TV series. He lost, but he got his revenge by beating Friedkin out for the right to direct Thomas Harris’s excellent serial killer novel Red Dragon, which became Manhunter. William Petersen would get his start as a bartender in Mann’s debut, Thief (full review) and then as Chance in To Live and Die in L.A.; Mann got him back for Will Graham in Manhunter, which is perhaps his best role. Now he’s a star of “CSI,” but he had a great start with a pair of the best crime thrillers of the ’80s.

L.A. begins much like Thief, showing us the details of counterfeiting as a paper man named Masters (Willem Dafoe) makes counterfeit plates and then bills from them. He’s working out in the desert and before he can destroy all his evidence, he finds a Secret Service man digging through his dumpster and executes him brutally. Shotguns to the face. Later when the man’s partner- Chance- follows his leads, they find the body in the dumpster. He wants revenge, of course; Masters has evaded the law for years, operates boldly in plain sight, and is a high profile target. Drives a black Ferrari and flaunts his money and flouts the law. He’s a walking middle finger to the Secret Service. Willem Dafoe has always played an excellent villain and this is no exception. Chance gets partnered with the more straight-laced Vukovich (John Pankow), and as the saying goes, all it takes is one bad apple.

“Let me tell you something, amigo. I’m gonna bag Masters, and I don’t give a shit how I do it.”
Chance, however, is a man who’ll do anything for his job. He’s sleeping with an informant; he takes an informer (John Turturro) out of prison to lean on him, and loses him.When his boss won’t get them $30,000 in front money to put a sting on Masters, he decides to rob another crook to get it. And when he does, all hell breaks loose- leading to a chase that begins in a truck and warehouse district full of forklifts, goes alongside a diesel train, into the concrete culverts of the L.A. River, and finally, and infamously, the wrong way down a freeway. They get their money. And the next day, they find out they hit an undercover FBI Agent. Oops.
Friedkin took a lot of pages from Mann’s playbook for this movie. He used contemporary rock band Wang Chung for the soundtrack, which suits the film and era well. The song “Dance Hall Days” originates here. He used real counterfeiters as consultants, and the actors were concerned they’d be arrested once the opening scene was made public. Author Gerry Petievich has a cameo as an agent, and the film lusts over the mechanics of the criminal enterprise. Willem Dafoe’s characterization of Masters resembles a Mann protagonist like James Caan in Thief, or Neil Cauley in Heat; a man driven by perfection of his work, with rigid codes. Except Friedkin leaves things too vague with his characters. Perhaps as residue from Cruising, people are owned by other people; Masters gifts a girl named Serena to his consort, Bianca; Chance may be sleeping with his informant Ruthie, but there is no love. The relationship is purely one of power; she informs, sleeps with him, and can operate without interference from the law. When Vukovich assumes the role of Chance, he tells her that he’s essentially her new owner. “You’re working for me, now.”
John Pankow’s performance as Vukovich is oft overlooked, but I found it more interesting than Petersen’s emotional live wire as Chance. Oh, he’s well played and very memorable, it’s just a character type we’ve seen before- in both Friedkin and Mann’s films. He brings great energy to it, and we never know just how far he’ll go. For example, Vincent Hanna (Pacino) in Heat is bombastic, but we know he won’t break the law to get Cauley. Bend it, sure. Ignore his family, definitely. Chance, on the other hand, is capable of anything, and they don’t try to sugar coat it or make him likeable. Vukovich is what grounds us. He freaks out. He’s panicking in the back seat as Chance barrels the wrong way down the freeway, looking like a jonesing cokehead racing toward his man. We get to see him worn down both by the invincibility of the criminal targets and Chance’s disregard for the rules, as he slowly sees what made his new partner that way.

Pankow has an innocence to him, but by the end, he’s had it burned out of him. And we know why. We’ve gone through hell with him, and can accept how he’s changed. That’s something I haven’t seen in a Mann film. His men are unwavering, and often die for it. I’ve always felt that Mann’s world was a noir fantasy. As much as I love his films, they are essentially Westerns modernized and given a biting film noir edge. We have the lone killer, the hero with his code, which can be his salvation or his undoing. Friedkin, on the other hand, makes tragic heroes out of his driven men. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, instead of behind cold eyes. Friedkin’s films have a dirty reality behind them that makes them interesting vicarious interludes, but you wouldn’t want to live there; Mann brings such style and glamour to his tales that we like to think we could swim along his sharks, when we’d be cut to pieces. They are quite alike and quite different, and two of my favorite film makers.
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