Lost and Found Series: Chapter 1 To Hell And Back
Welcome to the first instalment of the Lost and Found Series where I will discuss films that are not well known and whether they are worth a look or not. I will rummage through my extensive DVD collection and pick a film at random. Basically I have taken it upon myself to discuss those films on IMDB that have a questionable rating and outlandish storyline so you don't have to.
Film: Straight to Hell`
Cast: Syd Richardson, Dick Rude, Joe Strummer, Courtney Love and Elvis Costello
Director: Alex Cox
This week I present to you Alex Cox’s ‘Straight to Hell’. Let’s start with a little background to the film.
After surpassing the expectations from studios with his first feature ‘Repo Man’, British filmmaker Alex Cox decided to film Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello and various other ex-punk musicians on tour in Nicaragua. After that fell through, the musicians had some free time and decided it was easier to raise money for a small budget film than it was for a tour. Cox turned down the opportunity to direct ‘The Three Amigos’, a comedy Western starring three hotshot funny men Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short. Instead he decided to join forces with frequent collaborator/writer Dick Rude and whipped up a script in three days.
Sometimes the films that warrant our attention are the ones with a synopsis that even the most open-minded of studio executives wouldn't agree to green light or filmmaker to put their hands into their own pocket and fund it themselves. Don’t believe me; try explaining the premise of Alex Cox’s cult film ‘Straight to Hell’. It would probably play out like this, “have you seen straight to hell? Joe Strummer, Dick Rude and Syd Richardson play inept hitmen that botch a hit then flee from their deranged boss Jim Jarmusch only to lay low in a desert among outlaws with a coffee addiction. Oh and Elvis Costello appears shortly as a waiter”.
At the time of its release, Straight to Hell was considered a failure. Critically panned and not financially successful with an ill-fated premiere to boost, the film did not perform well at all. This would prove to be a very frustrating time for Cox. Earlier that year he made the successful ‘Sid and Nancy’ to high acclaim. Most critics did not recognise that ‘Straight to Hell’ was an intentional send up of the Western genre that Cox was so very fond of, even going as far to shoot it in Almeria, Spain where most of classics were based.
I watched ‘Straight to Hell’ some years ago, and remember enjoying it much more than expected. It seems to possess that strange wacky yet fun feeling that has been sucked away via CGI today where there is a nice sense of everybody involved going along for the ride that is all too rare to see in film today. The film is a great showcase of Cox’s unique talent to create well executed archetypal Western theme by turning them on their head and showing that breaking the rules can work. It helps that the cast understand this notion and highlight this aspect with their idiosyncratic performances. One should highlight the fact that several contemporary filmmakers have taken a leaf out of Cox’s pop-up book and inherited some styles and themes into their own work.
Back in 1986, audiences may not have been prepared to see black-suited hitmen rob banks and indulge in explicit Sam Peckinpah influenced violence accompanied by traits of Luis Bunuel-esque surrealism and Sergio Leone’s heightened overwhelming sense of tension. However, that very same description can be applied to Quentin Tarantino’s controversial debut ‘Reservoir Dogs’. It should also be pointed out that Syd Richardson’s Norwood character shares some very uncanny similarities with Samuel L Jackson’s Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction. This includes details such as the straight forward attire all the way down to slick hairstyle, direct dialogue and menacing long stares.
The humour helps to balance some of the abrupt and occasionally distracting violence with visual gags and slapstick humour that would be out of place in most other efforts dealing with similar subject matter. However, in the hands of a sporadic mind like Cox it is handled in a way that is aware of the genres own silliness and serves as a welcome treat. This includes Miguel Sandoval’s character possessing the voice of the persona of Clint Eastwood’s quintessential ‘Man with No Name’ character that appeared in Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars Trilogy’.
Cox is not one to shy away from his political beliefs either. The portrayal of the hitmen violently and suddenly ‘invading’ the quiet desert does seem to have some subtle Christopher Columbus overtones to it as each character tries to impose their ideological morals on what is civilised behaviour and if the townspeople do not cooperate it usually ends in chaos. Also the bizarre but fitting cameos from Grace Jones and Dennis Hopper as a married couple appearing to be house manufacturers, only to turn out to be an arms dealers, could be a subtle comment on America’s right to bear arms as it seems in this desert it is easier to get a gun than it is a cold beer.
Also it should be noted that the previously mentioned cameos by Grace Jones and Dennis Hopper is something for me to smile about. I feel about Jones and Hopper in film the same way the late great film critic Roger Ebert did about established character actors Harry Dean Stanton and E. Emmett Walsh. Ebert stated that any film that featured them in supporting roles cannot be that bad ultimately. Just the sheer courage to cast such impulsive oddities is something to be desired in itself. The fact that the two come across as quite sane compared to the rest outlandish cast really says something too.
I recommend ‘Straight to Hell’ for its midnight B-movie fun element. A twisted, unsettling surreal subversive entertaining take on the Western genre that I think can be enjoyed on some level as long as it is not taken too seriously.
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