Dead End Drive-In (1986)

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered director Brian Trenchard-Smith – he made the super-ordinary car-chase thriller “Drive Hard”, and two of the “Leprechaun” sequels; but he’s best known for his early career in Australia and the weird exploitation movies he made, such as “Blood Camp Thatcher” (aka “Turkey Shoot”). This little oddity is from the end of his time in Australia, before he moved to the USA and started making…well, Leprechaun sequels.

Dystopia happens before the movie even begins, but it’s not so much environmental as it is explicitly political – banks collapse, extreme authoritarian parties take over government, crime runs rampant, etc. Australia, to compare it to the most famous dystopian movie filmed there, is like “Mad Max” drenched in neon and covered in graffiti, and the man we meet navigating this place is Jimmy, aka Crabs, a naïve “youngster” (the actor who played him, Aussie TV stalwart Ned Manning, told the director he was 24 to get the part, but was actually 36 and looked it), who lives with his mum and older brother Frank, who’s carved out a niche for himself with a tow-truck which he uses to tow wrecks from fatal accidents and keep all the stuff.

There’s quite a lot of world-building here, as “Dead End Drive-In” unfolds at a leisurely pace. Jimmy, after fighting off a gang of near-feral “carboys”, borrows his brother’s beautiful Chevy and takes girlfriend Carmen to the drive-in. Even though he has a job, he makes perhaps the worst decision of his life and buys an extra-cheap “unemployed” ticket from drive-in manager Thompson. During the movie, as he and Carmen are in flagrante, two of the car’s tires are stolen, but it’s cool as he can just stay the night there and get them replaced in the morning.

Only no. It’s here that the movie’s other main inspiration – Trenchard-Smith called it half “Mad Max” and half “The Avenging Angel” – comes into focus. Jimmy and Carmen are trapped there, as are thousands of others, mostly disaffected youths, plus lots of “carboys”, and no matter what Jimmy tries, he can’t escape. It was the cops that stole his tires, and despite Thompson being a pretty friendly fella, it’s made very clear that he’s there to stay. They’re provided with food tokens, free drugs, and cheesy exploitation movies every night (most of which are Trenchard-Smith’s old releases, such as the classic “Blood Camp Thatcher”, and it’s not a coincidence that the name in that title is the same as the former British Prime Minister).

“Dead End Drive-In” is one of the most explicitly political movies I can remember watching. It’s obvious from the beginning that the drive-in represents the modern world, where we’re trained to be happy with our prison, in fact trained to not even see the bars. It’s an extremely clever movie, as the jailer is seen as a friendly figure, but when it comes down to it, he’s on the side of the authorities, no doubt at all.

Its take on capitalism is extremely acute, but when racism is brought into it, in the form of several truckfulls of Asian immigrants, imprisoned alongside them but treated as far worse enemies than the cops by the vast majority of the original members of the camp, is when it feels a little crude. Carmen starts claiming that the Asians might rape her, and when the people who Jimmy has half-befriended form a white defence organisation, Jimmy knows he has to step up his escape plans. He has the best line of the movie when confronted with his girlfriend’s latent bigotry – “they’re not the enemy, they’re prisoners just like us”, a variation of which has been said by every good forward-thinking person when confronting these sort of views among their friends or workmates.

But as every good exploitation filmmaker knows, you have to give us a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. There’s the briefest nudity, but most of it is action, in the form of a couple of pretty brutal fight scenes and a fantastic car chase at the end, as Jimmy steals a tow-truck and attempts to force his way out.

The acting is pretty awful, if we’re being honest. Peter Whitford as Thompson is the best thing in it, almost making you believe he was a human being after all and not just a lacky of a brutal regime. Manning is fairly weak in the central role, Natalie McCurry is great in a thankless role as Carmen, and there’s an occasional standout from the main cast, but most of them feel like amateurs, which is a disappointment. But the set is great, and when you’ve got such a convincing dystopia it does a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

Trenchard-Smith uses the popularity of new-wave music and dystopias to tell an extremely political story, one which I’ve got no problems whatsoever recommending – it’s also Quentin Tarantino’s favourite of his movies, if you’re interested in his opinion. If I had one more criticism to make of the plot, it would be that Jimmy is the only person who sees through the facade; perhaps I have more faith in humanity than the filmmakers did, or perhaps it would have been a less immediate story to tell. Imagine Jimmy standing in for all the people who fight back against this cruel system on a daily basis, and it becomes a lot more enjoyable.

The intervening 30 years since its release have only made it more prescient, as we’re given useful idiots to rail against on Twitter and the gentlest of centrist parody of the system, all the while our wages and working conditions are being cut, women getting worse and worse treatment, LGBT+ victories are being rolled back, and so on. I imagine if these camps were opened today a sizeable number of people would line up to support them, after a hefty amount of propaganda of course, and that’s both sad and energising. I know this is a weird thing to say about a movie where punks get trapped in a drive-in theater and fed drugs by a genial middle-aged man, but it’s true nontheless.

Recently released on blu-ray, it joins “Society” among other movies that use the trappings of genre cinema to stick the boot into the capitalist system, and ought to enjoyed by many more people.

Rating: thumbs up

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Leprechaun 3 (1995)

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In what may be the lowest bar to clear in movie history, this is the best Leprechaun movie so far. It has a couple of sections I quite liked, a few decent performances and some funny lines. Now, this is a very long way from saying it was good, but at least we’ve got something to work with this time and I don’t just want to cry myself to sleep.

 

The leprechaun is what I can only assume is yet another different character played by the same actor, as he was blown up at the end of the last one. Or melted, I honestly don’t remember. Anyway, when we meet him, he’s been turned to stone by a magic medallion and sold to a pawn shop in Las Vegas, and of course the pawn shop owner removes the medallion and hijinks ensue. Luckily, the Indian pawn shop owner has a CD-rom about “Legends And Folklore”, so via the wonders of mid-90s flash animation we’re treated to yet another entirely different backstory for our Irish friends – this time, it’s destroying their gold that will kill them, not four-leaf clovers or wrought iron. Ho hum.

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The main couple don’t so much have a meet-cute as a meet-stupid. He’s a hayseed who’s driving through Vegas on his way to college in California, and she’s a magician’s assistant whose car broke down at the side of the road. He offers her a ride and asks her to sneak him into the casino where she works – he’s apparently under 21, although looks 30. They’re both shockingly bad actors – John Gatins is “Scott McCoy” and Lee Armstrong is “Tammy Larsen”, and the nowhere their careers went would bear this out (Armstrong wouldn’t work again after 1995, and Gatins has hung around the bottom rung of Hollywood – he does have a good self-awareness of how terrible he is, though).

 

So, he loses his college tuition money, and then goes to pawn his watch across the road, and discovers the near-dead pawn shop owner, the pot of gold and the leprechaun, who tears his arm open and…maybe?…infects him with “leprechaun-ism”? I’m really not sure, that scene was weirdly edited. So, the action switches from the shop to the casino, with a decent cast of supporting characters – the owner of the casino, who owes a couple of gangsters some money; and the crappy stage magician; the middle-aged croupier who wishes her boobs were more pert. The gangsters in particular are very well-judged comic relief, and the magic, when we see it, is also funny in its badness.

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What director Brian Trenchard-Smith (last seen by us in “Drive Hard”, but most famous as director of “Turkey Shoot” and “Dead-End Drive In”) has done is made Las Vegas look like the most miserable place on Earth. No-one seems to like being there, and everyone treats everyone else like scum (with the exception of our central couple). Much like “Jason Takes Manhattan”, the actual amount of footage filmed in Vegas itself is tiny, a few scenes of the Leprechaun cackling and running around the streets, and most of it is indoors, in a grimy casino or a pawn shop. By the way, I reckon a Las Vegas pawn shop would be probably the most depressing place ever to work. So the characters run between these locations, trying to find the missing coin that grants wishes (although, it seems each character only gets about half an hour to enjoy their wish before they get brutally murdered – I can’t help but think if that was part of the legend, no-one would dare touch one of his coins).

 

What it does have is lots and lots of really bad rhyming puns, same as the previous two films; but there are some good moments astonishingly. The Leprechaun takes over a TV at one point and broadcasts fake adverts starring himself, and when confronting Scott near the end, he says “come over to the green side”. The scene where he does the chainsaw “trick” with the magician is funny too…it felt rather peculiar to laugh at, not with, a “Leprechaun” movie.

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Just so we don’t do anything stupid like give this a thumbs-up, there are some very odd moments. The obsession with potatoes has its origin with jokes about the Irish potato famine and certainly could be seen as offensive to Irish people (as is the modern depiction of the leprechaun, if we’re being honest). And the two main actors really drag every scene they’re in down, with Armstrong particularly looking and acting like a very poor man’s Elizabeth Shue. It’s a film of two halves – when the leprechaun’s not on screen, everything is great.

 

If literally the only movies you have access to are the first three in this series, pick this one. Otherwise, just avoid.
Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Drive Hard (2014)

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I think John Cusack and Thomas Jane are both great. Jane has a flair for comedy, as well as being cinema’s best Punisher; and Cusack has been untouchable in my eyes since the late 80s. So any film that puts them together is already most of the way to being decent. Add in director Brian Trenchard-Smith, Ozploitation master and one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourites, and you almost can’t fail.

What the trailer doesn’t make much of a fuss about is that this film is Australian – I only realised Trenchard-Smith’s involvement when the film had started. If you were no good with accents, the only real clue is that the cars are all right-hand drive – the unique Australian countryside and feel is really never brought up. Is it a film that was ready to roll, the funders pulled out and an Australian company stepped in at the last minute? Or is it an Australian company trying to get into the US market? Doesn’t really matter, I suppose, and me expecting something uniquely “Australian” is more to do with my perception than it is any obligation on the part of the filmmaker.

Jane is Peter, a former race-car driver who retired when his new wife decided the sport was too dangerous for a man with a new baby (the wedding was of the shotgun variety). He’s now a sad-sack driving instructor, his wife basically ignores him and his kid thinks he’s an embarrassment, until one day Simon Keller (Cusack) asks for a driving lesson, ropes him into a bank robbery, then kidnaps him and forces him to drive to a far-distant dock where a getaway boat is waiting. A couple of FBI agents – referred to as such many times, despite Australia not having an FBI – give chase; as do representatives of the robbed bank, which it turns out is a front for an international crime cartel, which Keller used to work for before being stiffed on a job and left to rot in prison.

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That’s about it for the plot, really. The film hinges on Peter and Keller’s relationship as they spend so much time in the same car, and it’s…okay. You know they’re going to be “friends” by the end of things, one of them will help the other escape, and so on, and that’s exactly what they do. But it’s the nuts and bolts of the film I really wanted to talk about – the way it’s edited, the use of locations, the order of the scenes, and so on. It’s a pretty good lesson in how not to make a movie, really. This will, of necessity, involve some minor spoilers, but have you ever noticed how I don’t spoil good movies?

Editing. We see bits of Cusack stealing some bonds from a safe inside a “bank” (like an investment place, really) near the beginning. I think there’s two ways you can do this sort of scene. One, have someone walking in, then immediately cut to them running out, arms full of cash. Two, show how they get past all the security. This is a weird halfway house, not giving us enough of either to be satisfying or funny. This is the main thing, but there’s little bits later on, like how the scenery behind them is turning (due to the truck they’re filming on turning a corner, presumably) but Peter never bothers steering the car. Just avoid shots of his hands!

Locations. I’ve already mentioned the lack of use of anything specifically Australian, but this ties in to the rhythm of the movie. The very first time our two heroes pull over, they’re on the news and the guy there starts to shoot them. At this point, I’d probably avoid taking any more breaks, but about every 20 minutes for the rest of the movie, they stop off somewhere else for a lame non-reason, someone spots them and starts shooting. The smart move would have been to just stay on the damn road, maybe steal a car that gets good petrol mileage or something? I have to assume that the film is operating as some sort of tourist video for the Gold Coast area of Australia, and the places they stop contributed funding to them. Because otherwise it makes no sense.

The A & B stories are weirdly laid out too – again, bear in mind, spoilers. There’s a couple of crooked cops on the criminals’ payroll, and they’re following the car chase, along with the two feds. They never catch up to Peter and Keller, but right at the end there’s a confrontation between the two sets of police, and all four of them end up shooting each other, getting shot and dying. I don’t see the reason for the two stories not to meet, and it leads to all sorts of conspiracy theories; like they filmed the Cusack / Jane sequences, waved goodbye to them both, then realised they were half an hour short. It’s not like there’s flashbacks or anything, they’re all in roughly the same area at roughly the same time.

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It all feels a bit half-finished. John Cusack clearly enjoys improvising dialogue – watching his films, you’ll often spot little exchanges that don’t have that “normal” movie cadence to them, and in this one he’s clearly been given free rein. I don’t think it really works here – it could do with a few snappier exchanges between two great actors, rather than the sort of conversation I could have any time (with less talk of murder, admittedly). I just hope he didn’t turn down “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” in order to film this.

Talking of “Hot Tub Time Machine”, a main storyline in that movie involved one of the characters claiming “power” back from an overbearing wife by doing something entirely unrelated to that relationship, and this one has a very similar thing. I don’t like the idea of women being prizes to be rewarded for good behaviour, or heroism, rather than relationship compatibility or working out their differences or whatever. It feels backward, from a less enlightened era.

It’s got funny moments, certainly, and I would watch pretty much anything with John Cusack in it, but perhaps Brian Trenchard-Smith should have stayed in obscurity if this is all he can manage nowadays. For a film called “Drive Hard”, there’s not a lot of hard driving in it! Aside from the decent (if low-rent) getaway at the beginning of the film, Thomas Jane’s character wasn’t really needed for the rest of the film at all. Heck, Cusack could have got a taxi from the scene of the crime to his final getaway point, and never had a single problem. Why the two main cast members are American in Australia is also never mentioned, which would have been quite nice to get a bit of information on. Ah well.

Rating: thumbs down