MicroCinema // 1987 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // January 7th, 2011
A story of blood, money, guns, coffee, and sexual tension.
To most, the name Alex Cox is synonymous with his 1984 cult classic, Repo Man. To others, like myself, the name Alex Cox is more likely to bring forth memories of his brilliant series Moviedrome, which aired on the BBC in the 80s/90s and was a showcase for cult cinema. Each episode would see Cox dissect a particular cult favorite in his own unique way, before the feature itself played. The range of films was immense, with the likes of Two-Lane Blacktop, Les Diaboliques, and Darkman playing (often as part of a double feature). Of all Cox's output as a director, it is Straight to Hell that would most suit Moviedrome's aim of bringing little known films to a wider audience. Released in 1987, Straight to Hell is the least known of Cox's already reasonably forgotten filmography, and certainly the most fateful in terms of his career; as Cox turned down the chance to direct comedy hit Three Amigos! to pursue his own vision.
A trio of hitmen, Simms (Joe Strummer), Norwood (Sy Richardson, Pushing Daisies), and Willy (Dick Rude), blow their latest job when they sleep in. Wanting to escape the wrath of their boss, they rob a bank and speed off to a deserted town with a suitcase full of money.
The local townsfolk -- a bunch of coffee drinking hillbillies -- don't take too kindly to the new arrivals; and neither do the McMahons, the violent gang that run the town.
Following his one-two punch of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, writer/director Alex Cox planned for his next feature to be a rock 'n' roll tour of Nicaragua; featuring The Clash, The Pogues, and Elvis Costello; which Cox would document. Unfortunately, a combination of politics and a lack of funding nixed the project. Still, with the musicians committed to working with Cox, the director was able to find funding for his humorous homage to the Spaghetti Western, Straight to Hell. Released in 1987, Straight to Hell was panned by critics, but, like much of Cox's work, gained a cult following. Now, some 23 years later; Cox has returned to his most reviled work, added missing footage, added a few digital effects, and re-released it as Straight to Hell Returns.
In many ways, Straight to Hell Returns is the quintessential cult movie: the plot lacks direction and never seems too sure of what genre it is dabbling in, the screenplay is full of remarkable (though not necessarily good) dialogue, and the characters are prone to bouts of bizarre behavior (the entire cast singing along to Salsa y Ketchup being a prime example). The film also -- partly thanks to its cast full of rock stars and genre actors -- possesses a certain level of cool. And yet, despite all these key ingredients being in place, Straight to Hell Returns never quite reaches the heights one would hope for a Cox movie.
Both the film's successes and failures must be placed firmly at writer/director Cox's door; with his writing, along with co-writer Dick Rude's, being the main reason for the film's failings. It's too easy to see the film as being a vanity project for Cox, with the director riding a little too high on the acclaim of his previous two films. Instead the film's failure is simply the result of an insanely short gestation period. It is rumored the script was cobbled together in 3 days, which is most evident in a final act that dissolves everything by way of an all-encompassing gunfight. Unlike Repo Man, which Straight to Hell Returns feels most related to, Cox is often found wanting in regard to both ideas and characters, even if the execution with which they are brought to the screen is hard to fault. Scenes, and their accompanying dialogue, are often guilty of being clunky, and there's never anything really driving the story; as Homer Simpson once said: it's just a bunch of stuff that happens.
Regardless of the shortcomings of his writing this time around, Cox remains as potent a force as ever in the director's chair. His strong visual style -- which is strengthened here by Tom Richmond's cinematography, making great use of the striking locales -- weaves the works of Leone through a gritty, almost apocalyptic, aesthetic. There's rarely an uninteresting shot, with each giving the impression of being meticulously planned out in advance. Despite the characters being not much more than rough sketches, Cox was able to get enough across to his cast that they are able to flesh out their parts to the degree that, while they're hardly memorable, they are tolerable for the duration of the picture with the likes of Sy Richardson, Dennis Hopper and Joe Strummer in particular bringing a healthy dose of charisma to the screen.
Indeed, it is the passion, and freedom, displayed by all involved in this bizarre picture that ultimately wins out. This isn't a film to be taken seriously. Cox ensures his movie is teeming with cool, which while not enough to make for a great (or even particularly good) film, when coupled with the chaotic structure and surreal tone, makes for a fun Friday night movie. Fans of Cox should certainly give the disc a spin, particularly those not already swayed by the overwhelmingly negative critical reaction to the film, as, flaws and all, there is fun to be had here.
As previously stated, this new cut of Straight to Hell includes both reinstated and newly added footage. This not only increases the film's running time slightly, but also adds to the weird going on -- most notably in the final moments when a digitally added skeleton is reanimated. On top of that there's also a commentary track courtesy of Alex Cox and co-writer (and star) Dick Rude. Both funny and informative, the track is essential for both fans and non-fans alike; non-fans in particular may just gain a better understanding of the film having listened to it. The audio track is ably backed up by "Back to Hell," which reunites various members of the cast and crew to discuss their experiences on the film. Finally, and perhaps of most interest to Cox devotees is the inclusion of Black Hills, a short feature made by Cox in his student days.
The remastered 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer contains a moderately good level of detail, while grain is evident in most shots. The sepia-tinged transfer also means colors are muted. The 5.1 soundtrack does little to make use of rear speakers, but nonetheless is pretty much free of any serious issues.
Straight to Hell Returns is not the total misfire you may have heard, but neither is it a lost cult classic. Instead, rather frustratingly, what we have here is something of a curio; an oddity that, depending on your disposition, should either be embraced or avoided at all costs.
Full credit should also be given to Microcinema for putting together a decent package for this reviled and little known film.
Not something you'll see often, but Straight to Hell Returns is not
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R