Anchor Bay // 1987 // 86 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // May 30th, 2001
"Can I please go now? This is really boring for me!" -- Velma (Courtney Love)
This movie has one of the most appropriate titles ever attached to a motion picture.
A team of hitmen (Sy Richardson, Joe Strummer, and Dick Rude) sleeps in on the day of their big job, only to find their target has already fled town. The job bungled, the team jumps in a car with the leader's pregnant girlfriend (a bloated and shrill Courtney Love), barely manages to rob a bank, and escapes into the desert. The car stalls, so the foursome buries their loot and wanders into a collapsing ruin of a town.
In the town, they find the McMahons (Biff Yeager and members of the Pogues), a family of gun-crazy coffee junkies. Wacky hijinks ensue.
Following the critical and financial success of Sid and Nancy, Alex Cox looked for a way to yoke his punk sensibilities to a more political cause. He turned down an offer to direct the high-profile Hollywood comedy, The Three Amigos, deciding that its premise smacked of cultural imperialism. Instead, he tried to round up friends and money for a concert tour of Nicaragua (where he would later shoot the underrated satire Walker), but when the project fell through, everyone decided to pack up and shoot a movie in Spain. Cox and Dick Rude whipped up a screenplay in three days and gathered together a cast of musicians and other non-actors. The result is Straight to Hell, a sort of Three Amigos turned sour in the hot sun.
A vanity project masquerading as a parody of spaghetti westerns, Straight to Hell is a painful failure on many levels. As homage, it fails to generate nostalgia for its source material, the surreal westerns of Sergio Leone and company. The focus on three modern day hitmen (looking like they just walked out of a Tarantino film, before Tarantino was even making films) makes the parody seem too indirect.
As a comedy, the film fails to generate any laughs. Not a minute goes by without some stiff attempt at humor, pounded flat by bad timing, muddled dialogue, weak acting, budget limitations, or some other miscalculation. For example, the recurring character of Karl the Weiner Guy (Zander Schloss) is easily the worst pushcart clown since Arnold Stang chewed scenery as "Pretzie," the wacky pretzel salesman in Hercules in New York. Karl's big musical number, the "Disco Weiner" song (almost as much a non-sequitur as the later full cast a capella rendition of "Danny Boy") comes across as more tragic than funny. Such gags are not even funny by accident, like an Ed Wood film. They simply drag.
As a political satire, the film's targets (mainly corporate capitalism, represented by Dennis Hopper as the insidious oil baron I.G. Farben, a reference to the German conglomerate that aided the Nazis) are too diffuse. The film spends so much time on needless business -- cruel visual gags, aimless plot points -- that when the surprise payoff comes at the end of the story, the audience is hard-pressed to remember where the clues were that led up to it.
The performances certainly do not help any. Stunt casting prevails for nearly every part. In addition to the major parts (Joe Strummer of the Clash, various Pogues), Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, and even director Jim Jarmusch turn up -- and no one bothers to try acting (except maybe Hopper, and he is emoting up a storm to make up for everyone else). Even Sy Richardson, who is the only actor in the film who manages not to completely embarrass himself, has one scene where he wears a pink showercap for no explainable reason.
Anchor Bay presents Straight to Hell in a package that only heightens the sense of failure. Although the package states that the film is presented in anamorphic widescreen, a glitch on the disc forces it to default to a distorted full-frame. This may be a compatibility problem with some players: my DVD-ROM played the film in its correct aspect ratio, and no other Anchor Bay disc (or any other disc) has this problem. But for some reason, this film insisted on inflating to an almost unwatchable full-screen presentation on my player. But technical glitches aside, the image looks clean and free of defects. The same cannot be said of the tinny mono audio track. For a film with so many musicians, the audio is thin and badly mixed. Yes, I know the original spaghetti westerns frequently suffered from cheap sound, but they were always saved by skillful use of silences and great musical scores. Straight to Hell suffers from constant babbling by a parade of inane characters and idiotic musical numbers like Karl's wiener song.
Speaking of music, the Pogues provide a brief instrumental "dance mix" homage to Morricone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly theme in a music video sewn like a Frankenstein monster from film clips and badly transferred outtakes. Anchor Bay also includes a twenty-minute documentary called "Back to Hell," in which Alex Cox interviews the principal cast and crew about their memories of the film and what they are doing now. The documentary has some cute moments that convey the punk camaraderie of the group (often teasing one another). Here and on the commentary track discussed below, the participants mention a number of cut scenes, none of which are included on the DVD.
Courtney Love is conspicuous by her absence from the documentary (Miguel Sandoval's daughter Olivia "plays" Love as a sort of joke). In fact, Alex Cox and Dick Rude make a few sarcastic comments at Love's expense on the commentary track. This amiable track is easily the best thing about this bad disc. The two men chat about the making of the film, explain some of the in-jokes, and seem quite aware that most audiences find the film confusing and difficult. They seem mildly apologetic, treating the film as it is: a vanity project whose real audience was its own cast and crew. Listening to the banter, we might wonder what better film might have come out of this project, if only things had gone another way. Cox certainly knows his spaghetti westerns, having written a thesis on the genre while at UCLA. And perhaps a parallel might have been developed between the dying gasps of punk culture in 1987 and the dying west of Leone's cinema. Or a more coherent surrealist satire in a Bunuel vein (Cox is clearly a fan of Bunuel, even naming his production company "Exterminating Angel"), rather than the scattershot effort made here.
Ah, what might have been...
Did I mention that the menus are hideously ugly as well, with misplaced, blurry highlighting and cheap graphics? And no subtitles?
Straight to Hell is unwatchable. It is not even unintentionally funny. If anyone forces you to watch it (actual gunpoint might be the only way), insist on watching the film only with the commentary track on, so you will not have to endure the dialogue or the musical numbers alone. Of course, the serious technical glitch with the video may make the film unwatchable on your player anyway.
Everyone involved in the making of this film is sentenced to hard labor. Anchor Bay is fined severely by this court for submitting technically inferior product to compound the movie's inferior content.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary track with Alex Cox and Dick Rude
* "Back to Hell" documentary
* Pogues video: "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"