Monday, March 31, 2008

American Strays (1996, USA)

(Trailer) Somewhere out there on the world wide web, some website described this film fairly accurately as "bargain basement Quentin Tarantino." But though the influence of Tarantino drips from every characterization, every line spoken and all action in general, the description "bargain basement" is a bit too negative. American Strays, as derivative as it is, is still very entertaining, and at times is better than some of Tarantino's own excesses, such as Four Rooms (1995) and most films he has had the pleasure of producing. Likewise, seeing how much Tarantino likes to borrow from other films, it seems a bit hypocritical to hold it against director Michael Covert that he let his influences hang out so obviously in his own directorial debut.
Okay, so virtually every character is an eccentric or oddball—but then, isn't that the way it really is in the USA? (Leave the country a year and then come back and you too will think everyone you meet has walked out of a Tarantino film.) And like most Americans, both in real life and in the films of Tarantino, Covert's characters like to gab a bit too much, forever holding prolonged discourses on such subjects as 8 tracks verses CDs, Francis Scott Key and the national anthem, old Aerosmith vs. New Aerosmith, or the similarities between moms and their daughters. These monologues and discussions are the biggest flaws in American Strays, often as overly drawn out and uninteresting and exhausting as the verbal excesses continually expostulated in Tarantino's films. That aside, for a first film, Michael Covert does a pretty entertaining job. Perhaps Covert is a bit too enamored by his own quirkiness and perhaps he does try too hard to make a cult film, but the movie is still much better than the average crap that gets released nowadays.
Of course, ignore the DVD cover, which features Luke Perry, Eric Roberts and Jennifer Tilly sporting guns like some bank robbing trio, for though all but Roberts do hold a gun at one point or another in the movie, the closest their paths ever cross throughout the film is perhaps when they drive by each other. And a lot of people drive by each other in this movie. Covert takes 6 or 7 different story lines of about 10 minutes in length and inter-cuts them, with all but two of the threads resolving in a climactic shoot out at Red's Desert Oasis, a grimy roadside restaurant where all the weary driver's accidentally meet up. The three sets of characters that continue their travels afterwards do so with a new found sense of peace and love, their future suddenly much rosier than before. But before the lunch that leaves everyone else worse off than just suffering indigestion, the viewer is introduced to – amongst others – a duet of horny crooks on the road, two hit men who never stop arguing with each other, a wimpy & freshly unemployed corporate employee and his family from hell, a serial-killing traveling vacuum cleaner salesman and his various "customers" and a Gen-X would be suicide masochist.
Like most ensemble films, American Strays features some amazingly eclectic casting, with familiar faces sometimes appearing for merely a minute or two (as with Michael Horse, whose biggest success since debuting as Tonto in The Legend of the Lone Ranger in 1981 was his regular roll as a deputy in television's legendary Twin Peaks). Luke Perry looks good but lacks virtually any facial expression as the oft pissed upon would-be suicide, his would-be murderer The Exterminator being the much less recognizable Sam J. Jones, who only the most trivia minded might possibly remember as the Playgirl centerfold of June 1975 (as "Andrew Cooper III") or the chunky star of the misfired remake of Flash Gordon (1980). Eric Roberts is surprisingly effective as the wimpy family man, an example of how well casting against type can sometimes work. (But then, if one ignores most of the B-films and straight to video fodder Roberts has specialized in during the last years and goes instead to his earlier projects like King of the Gypsies (1978), Star 80 (1983) or Runaway Train (1985), one would be less surprised to see that the man is actually a good actor.) Likewise, John Savage does well as Dwayne, the serial-killing vacuum salesman. Dressed like Johnny Cash, his wimpy demeanor plays well against his actions, and he gets a good laugh when he dances on and vacuums the graves of his freshly buried dead. Of course, no film like this would be complete without at least a couple of jive talking homeboys, played by Vonte Sweet and Anthony Lee, though they tend to be the least delineated characters of the whole film. (Lee's career as a character actor ended in October 2000 when a couple of Rodney-King-hating cops blew him away through a window at a Halloween party where he was toting a toy gun that was part of his costume.)
Derivative but fun, stylish and violent, American Strays is nothing new or exciting, but its 1½ hour playing time sure flies by quickly and painlessly.

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