Twilight Time // 1985 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 1st, 2013
Alamo Bay. A place where everyone risked everything for a piece of the American dream.
"Get out of here!"
Dinh (Hoy Nguyen) is a Vietnamese immigrant who has just moved to a small Texas bay town in order to start a new life working on a fishing boat. Unfortunately, many in the town have grown angry about the recent influx of Vietnamese immigrants, and racial tensions seem to grow thicker every day. One of the men leading the charge is Shang (Ed Harris, The Rock), a Vietnam veteran who's fallen on hard times financially. Shang's girlfriend Glory (Amy Madigan, Carnivale) does her best to appeal to his good side, but it isn't long before the angry redneck allies with the local branch of the KKK. Can a peaceful resolution be found, or will this tale end in tragedy?
Over the course of his lengthy career, Louis Malle made quite a few excellent films -- Elevator to the Gallows, Atlantic City and Au Revoir Les Enfants are among his many achievements -- but when he's off his game, the results can be disastrous. Alamo Bay isn't quite as unwatchable as the director's pretentious Black Moon, but it comes pretty close. Malle attempts to deliver an authentic portrait of racial tensions in post-Vietnam Texas, but he paints the characters in such cartoonish strokes that the whole thing ends up feeling like an insufferable exercise in phony self-importance.
The conflict between the Vietnamese immigrants and the rednecks who populate the title town is presented as an incredibly simplistic, black-and-white affair. Look, I know that small-town racists aren't exactly known for their subtlety, but the characters in this film often make J.W. Pepper seem like a restrained, nuanced individual. In one scene, a Vietnamese woman has difficulty figuring out the check-out process at the grocery store due to her difficulty speaking English. This somehow leads to the American store employee freaking out and screaming about how the Vietnamese are liars and thieves. In another scene, some dopey teenage boys harass two Vietnamese girls, shouting sexual and racial obscenities as the young women walk down the street. Sure, such things happen all the time, but did Malle really feel a need to have the leader of the pack wearing a "WHITE POWER" shirt? That's the kind of overkill the film indulges in on a regular basis: taking all sorts of believably nasty racial behavior and pushing it further until it manages to feel contrived.
It would be one thing if the film's villains were the only ones lacking complexity, but the same applies to the victims. For the most part, the Vietnamese are treated as window dressing. Then there's Dinh, who is presented as the world's most innocent human being in order to further remind us of how outrageous it is that he's being mistreated. In his early scenes, Dinh smiles, laughs, tries on goofy hats and talks happily about how grateful he is for his new life in America. He seems like the world's most likable guy on the surface, but the problem is that there's absolutely nothing beneath the surface. He's just there so we can get angry when the local townsfolk treat him like crap. Does the film have any interest in examining Dinh's feelings on the matter or his confusion over why he's receiving such relentless abuse? Nope. This fact is further enhanced by the film's climax, which once again uses Dinh as a prop in the conflict between characters the movie has more interest in.
Thank God for the husband-and-wife team of Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, who do their level best to make the film engaging. Their dialogue has no more complexity or credibility than anyone else's, but both actors bring such reckless energy to the film. They supplement what's missing on the page with facial expressions and body language that suggest that there's more to both of them than meets the eye. Harris' character may be thoroughly despicable, but the actor permits us to see that it's anguish rather than cruelty that drives him to behave the way his does. Madigan compensates for underwritten moments by playing them with steely resolve, lighting up the screen each time she appears. If Alamo Bay were half as good as its two American leads, it might have been a film worth remembering.
Alamo Bay (Blu-ray) has received a solid 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that does a nice job of highlighting the film's impressive location shooting. Things certainly look authentic, it's just that all of that is undone when the characters open their mouths. Detail is strong and depth is terrific. There's a pleasing layer of natural grain left intact; the whole thing has a very filmic look. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track is a simple one that gets the job done nicely, though Ry Cooder's twangy score feels like a pretty thin reworking of his earlier work on Paris, Texas. Supplements are limited to an isolated score track, a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Julie Kirgo. Like most Twilight Time releases, this one is limited to 3000 copies, so hurry up and grab it if you're interested.
Louis Malle's hamfisted, irritatingly overwrought examination of racial tension is one of his least interesting efforts. Despite fine performances from Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, the film just doesn't work.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Twilight Time
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Isolated Score