Welcome to your funeral!
At first I enjoyed this dated, somewhat gritty crime drama. The haunting strains of "Bad to the Bone" complemented the throaty rumble of a beat-up hot rod pealing down the road. Neat cuts and camerawork added flashes of artistry. Peter Coyote was grim and capable, like Dean Keaton in The Usual Suspects. Perhaps this early '80s flick had graced our beloved DVD format because of its overlooked subtlety and brilliance.
Then I reached Chapter Six. They may as well have called it deep six, because the film plummeted into a predictable pastiché of previous potboilers. The remainder of the movie was disappointing, interspersed with enjoyable splashes of acting by Peter Coyote and a handful of thrills. Slayground is not a waste of celluloid…it's just that better options are plentiful.
Facts of the Case
Stone (Peter Coyote) hits an armored truck without his usual driver. The ensuing getaway leads to the death of an innocent.
The payback is swift and brutal. The wronged father hires a twisted, sociopathic assassin to avenge his loss. One by one the offenders are punished through grisly executions. Stone uses his wits to find a reclusive friend Terry (Mel Smith, the albino from The Princess Bride) just in time for a psychedelic funhouse showdown with his stalker.
Chalk it up to bias, but I don't appreciate action sequences that occur in amusement parks. It seems a perfect way to tap into garish surreality, what with clown statues appearing out of nowhere, spiral-y strobe-y psychedelia, random disjointed laughs, and my favorite, the weirdo mirrors. Such forced surrealism has the opposite effect, usually sending me into narcoleptic seizures. Another cinematic convention I despise is the "disembodied-omniscient-taunting voice in surround sound." (It must be the home theater enthusiast in me. If you've ever tried to wire a simple rectangular room for surround sound, you can appreciate my skepticism for the voice that follows the protagonist around an entire compound, commenting on his foolish attempts to cheat the all-seeing eye.) Finally, I don't buy into the "ultra-efficient psychotic killer who comes out of nowhere" stereotype. Slayground contains all three.
Slayground is like a house of cards. It presents a gritty and thrilling fascia, but when you peek around the side you see the sham. Little things pile up. Why is the armored car driving down a dirt road in the middle of a remote forest? How did the father know where to find a top-notch assassin? How did the assassin find his prey so quickly? And if the assassin is so damn smart, how does Stone escape time after time?
Those little things soon become big things. Once suspension of disbelief has been strained, it eventually cracks. I'm not sure what the last straw was, but here is a fine example. The assassin kills someone, whom we later see dressed up in full clown makeup. Did he seriously have time to put clown makeup on a dead guy while Stone was creeping around trying to kill him?
Perhaps I'm irked because Slayground borrows so heavily from the Bond films (The Man with the Golden Gun in particular). The Bond formula is all there, right down to the sacrificial lamb and the mysterious thugs who kidnap Stone and deposit him in a strange new place. If the last three chapters don't remind you of The Man with the Golden Gun, you probably fell victim to the narcoleptic seizure.
The audio is in mono. In restorations of classic films, mono is forgivable because that's all there was at the time. But surely there was some form of stereo recording available in 1984? The dialogue is sluggish. The sound effects work fine with the movie, but all in all it is an uninspired mono track. In addition, I've watched the DVD in three different players and the soundtrack jumps to French, even after you set it to English.
The image is detailed at points, indistinct at others. There weren't any pesky video artifacts, but there was one major issue. At Chapter 20 (ironically titled Slayground), the video image began freezing up badly. Eventually the player crashed. Investigating the problem revealed a circular protrusion on the disc surface (about the diameter of a coffee straw). This glitch occurred right at the climax, which totally took me out of the action. I was able to watch the rest of the movie by skipping ahead to chapter 21. Of course, the aforementioned French language bug thwarted me there, and I spent half of chapter 21 wondering why Stone was being taunted by a tinny French announcer.
After watching the second act and the finale, I wonder why they didn't stick to the trend established in the first five chapters. Up to that point, Slayground was a notch above most low-budget crime flicks.
If you follow our handy link, you'll see that Slayground gets a 3.9 out of 10 at the Internet Movie Database. I like to play the "peer group game," which goes like this: click "Power Search," type "R" in the Rating Certificate field, and filter by "must have DVD; exclude TV movies, shows and videos; at least 100 votes." Now display the results with a low of 3.5 and a high of 4.0. Violà, you now have a peer group for Slayground! As of this writing, the following movies also got 3.9 out of 10:
The Adventures of Pluto Nash
Now you may look at that list and say "But that movie was okay!" All I'm saying is this is Slayground's peer group.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It took awhile for the sham to manifest, and that period was enjoyable. There were also times where the movie exceeded its derivative roots and provided shudders of originality. Let's face it, this movie is all about the killings, and there are lots of creative ones.
Coyote and Smith have their moments. Neither overplays their role, which gives Slayground a heart.
There is a three-legged dog. Just for a second. I had to pause and laugh awhile. What a grim misé en scene we have here: a muffler-challenged hot rod, piles of debris, and a three legged junkyard dog. That dog had foreshadowing written all over it.
If you are looking for an enjoyable thriller outside of the mainstream, there are better options available. The denouement is simply not worth the previous hour's investment. If you are a Peter Coyote or Mel Smith fan, Slayground is worth a rental. Otherwise, rent one of the classics or rewatch The Matrix in preparation for the sequels.
Peter Coyote is free to go. He did everything he could to save this film. Mel smith is acquitted simply because it was hilarious thinking about The PIT…of Despair while watching Slayground. But one charge must be addressed. On the count of shamelessly plundering the climax of The Man with the Golden Gun, the creators are to be dropped into a stainless steel tank of ravenous sharks.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Theatrical Trailer
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