Mini Review: Hell Ride (2008)
by Steve Habrat
In 1966, Roger Corman’s American Internation Pictures (AIP) released The Wild Angels, an outlaw biker gang movie that gave birth to a brand new exploitation subgenre. With The Wild Angels a hit and biker culture breaking through into the media, AIP quickly started churning out more of these rough-and-tough biker films that featured up-and-coming stars like Peter Fonda, John Cassavete, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, and Larry Bishop. While Bishop never quite achieved the A-list status as some of the other actors that made appearances in these films, he remained a cult icon that obviously caught the eye of exploitation mega-fan Quentin Tarantino. In 2008, Tarantino encouraged Bishop to write, star, and direct a throwback to the outlaw biker films of the 60s and 70s, even offering to executive producer the picture if Bishop would agree to make it. The result of this collaboration is Hell Ride, a jumbled and awkward nod to the exploitation genre that gave Bishop his start. The only thing that keeps Hell Ride from being tossed into the junkyard is the presence of fellow genre stars Michael Madsen, David Carradine, and Dennis Hopper, who try their damndest to make sense of the script and add some extra slicked-back masculinity to all the blood, sex, and violence. It also slightly helps that the film boasts a fairly authentic late 60s/early 70s visual style and a gritty Ennio Morricone-esque score.
Hell Ride introduces us to Pistolero (played by Larry Bishop), the grizzled president of the motorcycle gang called the Victors. We learn that in 1976, Pistolero’s beautiful girlfriend, Cherokee Kisum (played by Julia Jones), was brutally murdered by the Deuce (played by David Carradine) and Billy Wings (played by Vinnie Jones), two high-ranking members of a rival motorcycle gang called the Six-Six-Six’ers. Many years pass and the Six-Six-Six’ers gang falls apart, but Pistolero still craves revenge. After a veteran member of the Victors is murdered in the same manner as Cherokee Kisum, Pistolero begins to suspect that the Six-Six-Six’ers are reforming and attempting to make a comeback. Seeing his chance to exact his revenge on the Six-Six-Six’ers, Pistolero rounds up the Gent (played by Michael Madsen) and Commanche (played by Eric Balfour), two fellow members of the Victors and close friends of the heartbroken president, to help him wipe the rival gang out once and for all. With several members of the Victors either switching sides or turning up dead, Pistolero races to track down the Decue and Bill Wings before they can reach him. In the process, Pistolero learns that Cherokee Kisum had some secrets of her own, and that one of his new gang members may have a connection to the slain woman.
If you’ve seen the trailer or glanced at the poster for Hell Ride, you’ve noticed that Tarantino’s name shows up in big bold text on both, making it seem like he played a major part in the film’s production. About five minutes into the actual film, you’ll realize that is far from the truth. Where Tarantino is capable of delivering a casual cool that seems effortless, Bishop’s tough-guy style just seems forced and uninspired—amazing considering that this guy’s career began in these types of macho outings. Visually, Bishop understands how to make the film feel like a forgotten exploitation film from the 70s. It switches from gritty black and white shots of leather-clad bad-asses rocketing down dusty highways to vibrant LSD trips out in the rocky deserts. Strewn throughout the retro visual style is a plethora of sex, drugs, roaring steel, and violence, all set to a Morricone-esque score that gives the film a slight spaghetti western feel. The orgies, beheadings, ambushes, and motorcycle porn all seem appropriate, especially since Bishop is trying to pay tribute to a hardened exploitation subgenre. But where he really looses his grip on the project is with the characters, convoluted plot, and the cringe-worthy dialogue. It’s especially painful because these guys are veterans of the B-movie circuit.
In addition to writing and directing Hell Ride, Bishop also leads a legendary cast deep into the sizzling desert. A good majority of Bishop’s performance finds him mumbling his dialogue, staring down his opponents over his slouching sunglasses, or squeezing girl’s butts in a lame attempt to show he’s a real lady-killer. Madsen brings his Elvis-like cool to the role of the Gent, but he struggles with flimsy dialogue and a lack of anything substantial to do aside from standing around. Balfour does a surprisingly decent job at trying to hang with these grizzled beefcakes, as his character is the only one with anything resembling depth. The legendary David Carradine’s is reduced to being strapped to a chair and carefully growling bland dialogue at Bishop. Dennis Hopper seems to be having a grand old time back on his hog, but weirdly, Bishop seems like he is constantly restraining him when he should be letting him go full crazy. Rounding out the cast is Vinnie Jones as the wildly profane Billy Wings, a ruthless villain that is largely absent until the final stretch. Overall, for all the talent involved with Hell Ride, the entire project comes off as cheap and amateurish, which is perplexing because it should have been a rock-solid, testosterone-fueled thrill ride. To make it worse, the plot is like a tangled ball of yarn that Bishop can’t even sort out. This rusty clunker would have been better suited as a brief three-minute faux trailer in Grindhouse. It would have been a hell of a lot more fun.
Hell Ride is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
True Romance (1993)
by Steve Habrat
Even though Quentin Tarantino did not direct the 1993 romantic thriller True Romance, one would swear that it was made by the vigorous film buff. Directed by the late Tony Scott and written by Mr. Tarantino, True Romance is a fast, funny, gory, and sexy tale about gangsters, drugs, pimps, comic books, Sonny Chiba, Elvis, and some of the strangest characters you are ever likely to see in a motion picture. Hot of the success of 1992’s indie Reservoir Dogs and made just before 1994’s star-studded Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s script is a fiery blast of nerdy dialogue and fizzy romance matched up with an all-star cast (Christian Slater! Patricia Arquette! Samuel L. Jackson! Dennis Hopper! Brad Pitt! Christopher Walken! Val Kilmer! Gary Oldman!), who all give insanely memorable performances. You can feel Tarantino’s energy humming through the entire project but it’s Scott’s edgy and flashy directorial style that makes this nearly two hour film seem like it is only about a half-hour long. Seriously, I couldn’t believe how quickly this film moves and how short it actually felt. While True Romance is always fun and exciting, the film sadly looses a little steam near the climax. Maybe I was just fatigued from the Scott’s hyperactive style and Tarantino’s fast paced film-referencing conversations that led up to the final confrontation. I mean, did you ever think there would be a film that references both The Streefighter and Terrence Malick’s Badlands?
True Romance introduces us to comic book store clerk Clarence (Played by Christian Slater), a nerdy loner who attends a kung fu triple feature on his birth. While at the movies, he crosses paths with a beautiful blonde named Alabama (Played by Patricia Arquette). The two hit it off instantly over pie and conversations about Elvis, comic books, and kung fu. After a night of steamy passion, Alabama reveals that she was a call girl hired by Clarence’s boss as a birthday present but that she has fallen madly in love with him. The two marry and Clarence decides that he is going to seek out Alabama’s pimp, Drexel (Played by Gary Oldman), and let him know that his blonde bombshell is quitting. This meeting between Clarence and Drexel doesn’t go according to plan and Clarance ends up killing Drexel and accidentally leaving with a bag of stolen cocaine. Unsure what to do, Clarance seeks out the help of his estranged father, Clifford (Played by Dennis Hopper), and plans to flee to California. Hot on Clarence and Alabama’s trail is a gangster Vincenzo Coccoti (Played by Christopher Walken) and his sadistic enforcer Virgil (Played by James Gandolfini). Once they arrive in California and hook up with Clarence’s buddies Dick Ritchie (Played by Michael Rapaport) and Floyd (Played by Brad Pitt), things really get dangerous.
True Romance is loaded with juicy Tarantino moments, the ones where characters sit down to have a completely quotable conversation. You will be fighting off a grin during a diner conversation between Slater’s Clarence and Arquette’s Alabama. Comic geeks will swoon when Clarence takes Alabama to the comic shop where he works and they share a kiss over the first issue of Spider-Man. Fear not, folks, the great chatty moments don’t stop there. There is a hilarious scene where Hopper and Walken fire up cigarettes and have a war of words before one of them is staring down the barrel of a gun. And we can’t forget any dazed zinger that comes from Pitt’s Floyd. For as talky as True Romance gets, Tarantino and Scott deliver some seriously nasty moments of violence. The showdown between Drexel and Clarence will get the blood pumping something fierce with all its claustrophobic brutality while Alabama receives a vicious beating from Virgil, as he demands to know where the big bag of cocaine is hidden. And then there is the strangely beautiful gunfight at the end that has three groups going toe to toe as feathers and cocaine fly through the air.
True Romance may be a whirlwind of geeky chats and stomach churning violence, but it would be nothing without the oddball performances from its all-star cast. Slater is a knockout as Clarence, a comic and B-movie geek who finally gets the girl. His opening moments with Arquette are out of this world as they get to know each other over popcorn, pie, and Sonny Chiba. Arquette as a ray of sunshine with a violent streak, moved to tears when Clarence kills someone for her. Oldman gives a jaw-dropping performance as Drexel, the dread-locked pimp who chows down of Chinese while taking in The Mack. He taunts Clarence by calling him a “regular Charlie Bronson!” Walken gets a fine cameo as a soft-spoken gangster who cackles when Hooper insults him for his Sicilian background. It’s a small role, borderline cameo, but Walken nails it like he is the star of the show. Hooper leaves crazy on the shelf as Clarence’s father, a washed up ex cop who seems to be living a lonely existence with his dog in a rundown trailer. Pitt is absolutely hilarious as Floyd, a stoner rooted to the living room couch. He’s hysterical when he asks a handful of gangsters if they want to get high. Rapaport is his usual restless self as Dick Ritchie, an aspiring actor who is consistently exasperated with Floyd. And then there is Val Kilmer as Elvis, an apparition that appears and whispers words of encouragement to Clarence.
If you’re a cinema buff or a comic book fan, True Romance should be essential viewing for you. It’s consistently clever, retro, funny, pulpy, and heart pounding all while bopping along to Hans Zimmer’s score that pays tribute to Malick’s Badlands. When the film swaps the snowy streets of Detroit for the sun-kissed streets of California, the film looses some of the momentum it had gathered early on. The end showdown is visually thrilling and certainly a bloody, gory show, but the viewer is suffering burn out from the white-knuckle pace of the rest of the film to really appreciate it. Still, its worth catching True Romance simply to see this cast really let their crazy sides fly and it’s the true definition of entertaining. It’s also worth it to catch Pitt in a hilarious haze of marijuana smoke and lukewarm beers. Overall, its hard not to wonder what Tarantino would have done with the film had he directed it but Scott shapes all the action into a banshee of a thrill ride. Just make sure you keep a B-movie history book close by and you brush up on your comic knowledge. It will lead to a deeper appreciation of the film.
True Romance is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Land of the Dead (2005)
by Steve Habrat
It only took twenty years and a lot of coaxing by fans to lure George Romero back to the genre that he created. Twenty long years for him to whip out his camera and take a snapshot of an era. With 2005’s Land of the Dead, he certainly takes an ugly picture. He also apparently does not like George W. Bush, which comes as no surprise really considering his creeping liberalism in his previous work. In comparison to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead is much more pulpy than it’s predecessors. Many were disgusted by the film, both by its violence and the fact that the film seems too silly for the Dead series. Romero claimed that Dawn of the Dead was his comic book film, but Land of the Dead seems to be the true embodiment of that claim. Armed with a budget this time around, Romero makes his grandest zombie oeuvre and boy does it look pretty. He also sprays the audience with his most ornate death sequences of his career. Even as the runt of the original Dead litter, I still have a soft spot for this film despite the negative views from many I have showed it to. I hoped for several years that Romero would return to the zombie genre and he kept threatening he would. I was delighted when I saw the gallant trailer for this movie. I wanted to burst into applause in the theater. The master was FINALLY back.
In the opening moments of Land, the geek in me was sold on the movie. It wasn’t even fifteen minutes in. The opening credits establish that this is a direct sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Shot in black in white, the sputtering footage set against radio broadcasts that come through on an old Zenith radio are macabre and will give any Dead fan the excited chills. Strung through the credits, Romero keeps showing us autopsy like footage of a zombie rotting away, establishing that it has probably been years since the events of Night. These credits stick with you just like the ones from Zach Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. They flaunt themselves as real news footage and boy is it an effective start to what is somewhat of a disappointing film. I have really tried to put my fanboy tendencies to the side for this review, mostly because I want to give an honest evaluation of the film. The original three Dead films are masterpieces in their own right, legendary in horror history. Land is well known, but I feel that many weren’t hip to what Romero brings to the table. You really have to know the man and understand that he isn’t just blood-and-guts spectacle. There is quite a bit more going on to this film, mainly the idea that the middle class was fading under the Bush administration and that capitalism was king. Romero came back to unleash his zombie hoards on the issue. All it took for the fan in me, however, was to see those credits.
Land of the Dead establishes a world where the last living humans are residing in a walled-off city. It bears a strange resemblance to Pittsburgh, Romero’s beloved birthplace. The city is controlled by Kaufman (Played by the late by always awesome Dennis Hopper), who runs a high-rise apartment complex for the wealthy called Fiddler’s Green. It features fine dinning, luxury apartments, high-end shopping, and impenetrable protection for the zombie army lurking just beyond the city. The rest of the survivors are reduced to the slummy streets, where gambling, prostitution, and organized crime reign. The wealthy inhabitants of Fiddler’s Green turn their backs on the decay, hoping it will all disappear. Kaufman sends out special teams of scavengers, whose jobs require that they bring back supplies for the city. They venture into the suburban areas where they murder and maim their way around. The scavengers are lead by soft-spoken Riley (Played by Simon Baker) and his two partners, conniving Cholo (Played by John Leguizamo) and disfigured Charlie (Played by Robert Joy). Cholo believes that Kaufman is going to let him move into one of the spiffy apartments he controls, but when he is set-up and humiliated by Kaufman, he steals the cities most valuable weapon, the tank-like Dead Reackoning, and threatens to bomb the city if he is not given what he wants. Kaufman enlists Riley and Charlie to find Cholo and take back the weapon. Riley and Charlie team up with a tough-as-nails prostitute Slack (Played by horror film icon Dario Argento’s daughter Asia Argento) and soon they discover that the zombie army outside is evolving in the deadliest possible way.
Land of the Dead begins with the vintage Universal Pictures logo, the one used before such films as the Bella Lugosi Dracula and Boris Karloff Frankenstein. Romero is blatantly telling us that this is an old-fashioned monster movie at its heart. I think it also explains Romero’s approach to the film, which does have a dated feel. The zombies are the most monster-like, abandoning the monsters-are-us mentality that was applied to Night, Dawn, and Day. It also goes with the idea that in the original monster pictures, the movies almost always made us sympathize with the monsters. Romero applies this idea every time the zombies lurch onto the screen. It’s a nifty device and it will no doubt appeal to the fans of classic horror. The acting in the film is also a bit extreme and silly. It should be expected, mostly because this was toted as the final installment to the original trilogy. In this regard, it works as a Romero zombie film.
The aspect of Land that I think upset many viewers were the guileless politics that were usually discreet in a Romero zombie film. This film takes direct aim and it never flinches. Dennis Hopper’s Kaufman is a direct allusion to George W. Bush and his administration. Kaufman is presented as a buffoon that is involved with things that are way over his head. He doesn’t “negotiate with terrorists” and he comes across as crass and careless. The lack of a “middle class” within the film is also prevalent, as the ones with money flourish while the ones with nothing live in squalor. He even makes hints at an administration looking for a fight, or slaughter for that matter. While Kaufman’s troops raid the suburbs, they go on a needless and pathetic killing spree in which hundreds of zombies are riddled with bullets. The zombies do not have the number to be dangerous and due to their decay, they have been slowed down even more than they already are. In one scene, a soldier unloads a machine gun clip on a zombie that has already been electrocuted. Eliminate the enemy that seeks to destroy us at all costs, says Romero. Once the zombies make their way into Fiddler’s Green, the tables are turned and the wealthy citizens are shredded with machetes, arms ripped in half, bellybutton rings torn out, and blown up to meaty bits. Overkill is king.
Despite your political stance, Land of the Dead can still be enjoyed even if you don’t agree with Romero’s left wing commentary. He can still make a meaner horror movie than the new class of directors who are now in the driver’s seat and he appears to be out to prove he’s still “got it”. But what is “it”? Bite is what “it” is and there are still some moments that will leave your spine tingling. The film does suffer from some CGI overreliance, which seems out of place with the previous three films. The death scenes are more elaborate and at times, the film can seem a bit too cheeky. When he actually goes for an executed gag versus computerized trick, the results are like night and day. There are still the trademark feeding scenes that will please die-hard fans like myself, which was something that was very important to me when I first plunked down the money to see it in theaters. Land ultimately feels incomplete, left hanging with a rushed tone. It’s not properly paced and this flaw is distracting. It seems like Romero ran out of money so he had to quickly wrap things us as fast as he could in order to produce a film on budget. He does build upon his evolved zombie premise nicely, a plotline I will not divulge here in case you haven’t seen the film. Furthermore, some of the characters here are a bore and are just dangling zombie chow. Land of the Dead is a good, scrappy horror film, but is just inches from greatness. It’s not an ultimate masterpiece like it was promised it would be, but it finishes things off messy enough, and when I say messy, I mean entrails strewn everywhere you look. At least Romero has the good sense to display them into something substantial rather than just for effect. Grade: B+