Grindhouse Sundays - American Muscle and Bounty Killer

I am not sure if this will become a regular spot on the review site or not but as I took it upon myself to watch two modern, Grindhouse style, B-movies this afternoon I thought, why not.

First up is American Muscle. It was released September 30th in the States and is available on DVD, Blu Ray and On Demand. It is the directorial debut of editor Ravi Dahr and is the fifth produced feature length script of Canadian screenwriter, actor, director, producer and friend of The Diner, John Fallon.
In typical, stripped down, b-movie fashion the plot is simple enough. John Falcon played by Nick Principe (named, coincidentally enough before John Fallon was hired to write the screenplay) has done 10 years in prison after being double crossed and left for dead at the scene of a crime. A crime organised by his dealer brother Sam Falcon, played by Todd Farmer, that he was only participating in to grab some fast cash and escape the life with his wife Darling, played by Robin Sydney.
The story starts on his last day in prison and tells of his hunting down and annihilating, in typical brutal fashion, any and all people even remotely, tangentially involved in his incarceration. We see the events that lead to him being banged up in various flashbacks scattered throughout the film.
There are desert roads, fast cars, beautiful, often naked women, shotguns, fist fights, bloodshed, deaths, swearing and tattoos. In its bones it's a Roger Corman, low grade 70s revenge, road movie dragged kicking and screaming into 2014 with all the exploitive permissiveness we now enjoy.
Where it gets interesting is the way Ravi Dahr chooses to film and edit it. A lot of it reminded me of Oliver Stone's more excessive, kinetic and stylised work in films such as Natural Born Killers and U Turn. The slick, hyper real photography and the montage, jump cut editing style is unusual, more beautiful than you'd expect from the subject matter and mostly successful, in as much as it never gets 'music video' annoying.
While John Fallon's script does have some good one liners and there is obviously some truly ludicrous, exploitation moments in it, the film, at times, comes off as serious as a heart attack. It may be the way it was shot, it may be the way it was acted or it could be that the script dares to make the audience genuinely sympathise and empathise with the lead character. Despite John Falcon being a muscular, tattooed, porn tash wearing giant of a man who dispatches people with monosyllabic, gruff whimsy and thinks casual adultery is fine as long as it's 'from behind', his mission, at its heart, is one of saving the women he dearly loves, who is also less than faithful or pleasant, and getting the fuck out of dodge. It's almost Shakespearean in its unabashed romanticism isn't it?
Overall I enjoyed it. I thought it was an interestingly shot, perfectly well acted, low budget, exploitation, revenge road movie.
The criticisms I would have would be that, on occasion the editing goes a little too manic, that the film maybe took itself a little seriously and that CGI bullet hits and blood spurts, while cheaper and safer than the old traditional squibs, should be used sparingly and preferably not up close. The decision to have several of them hit the camera lens seemed one layer of 'style' too much. Although there is one scene, right at the end, where it is effective, overall it's a silly, 'seemed cool in the edit suite' idea that adds little to the film.
Anyone though, as I have seen online, criticising this film's misogyny, violence, acting or plot points needs to realise what the exploitation/B-Movie/Grindhouse genre is and shut up. I have also heard that this film is 'trying too hard' and on that front I would also disagree. You can tell when a film is trying too hard because it keeps winking at the audience to get validation that everything they are doing, while gross, is all fine and in the spirit of the thing, whereas American Muscle doesn't bother with that for one second. It simply doesn't give a shit what you think. It sets up its situation and plays it out to its logical, tragic and gruesome conclusion.
3 out of 5

Bounty Killer is far more cartoony and over the top than American Muscle and it's hardly surprising as it is based on a graphic novel, directed by Henry Saine, a graphic artist and written by his cousin Jason Dodson. In fact it may be its 'sense of humour' or 'goofiness' that could be its weakest point but more of that later.
The film is set in a future where government has been destroyed by the corporations. The corporations fought a war against each other, decimating most heavily urban environments to rubble. Slowly regular folk have fought back across the wastelands, forming a panel of nine judges who despatch celebrity 'Bounty Killers' to scour the land looking for white collars (corporate types, in this world all indicated by wearing yellow ties) to kill horribly. Then there's the gypsies who, seemingly, don't care about anyone.
Two such bounty killers are The Drifter played by Brit Matthew Marsden (Rambo, DOA) and Mary Death played by relative newcomer Christian Pitre, who oddly acts Marsden off the screen and back again. Then there's the gun caddy Jake LeMans played by Barak Hardley who, more so even than Marsden, made me question his casting several times.
Once we are sufficiently introduced to our main players a more intricate plot emerges that basically serves to make our protagonists race through gypsy camps and radiated badlands to the hidden city where the judges live to figure the whole sorry thing out.
The film has a very nicely realised, desolate, fairly Mad Maxian, slightly stereotypical post-apocalyptic world design to it which, along with the violence and bloodletting, is pleasingly done for real as and where it can be. When there are CGI landscapes or cities they have the intelligence to keep it in the background, the dark or the distance.
It is this design, the plot and the anti-corporate, social commentary (or should that be catharsis) that elevate this film above just a generic, meandering, post apocalyptic, graphic novel inspired case of style over substance.
Sadly where it falls down is in its acting and its attitude. There is a much better film to be made with these elements that isn't so loose, attempting to be humorous and so knowingly a silly grindhouse film. The ideas and plot are almost too good for a throw away B Movie. Their, self confessed, inspiration being the original Death Race 2000 makes sense as it's also a film that doesn't quite work despite the best intentions. However that Bounty Killer got made at all is excellent and please don't think I am disparaging it too much, just that there's always a desire for a film with this cool a backbone to, overall, be bit stronger.
The only other let down is, sadly, the acting. Apart from some delightful cameos from folks as diverse as Kevin McNally, Gary Busey, Beverly D'Angelo and Abraham Benrubi, the main pairing of Marsden and Hardley, that we are meant to be rooting for, is uninspiring at best. Marsden isn't Mad Max, tough guy material at all and no amount of stubble, dusty leathers and guns will convince me otherwise and as for Hardley well his inept, speechifying, panicky sidekick schtick is irritating from the get go and doesn't let up. His one humorous scene was with a mug of moonshine and apart from that he was mostly awful. It's sad that he's the audience surrogate and that so much of the questioning and resolving dialogue is delivered through him.
Christian Pitre though is an absolute wonder and I don't just mean drop dead gorgeous, which she is but I mean in conveying her character. She is the most stylised and superhero like of all the characters and yet you believe her and love to watch her slay the bad guys, over power and dominate the good guys and ride off into the sunset.
The action, stunts, weapon work and explosions are pleasing enough. To be really awesome you would need some actual action guys in there like a Scott Adkins or at least a decent choreographer but working with what they have and a few camera tricks, they pull of some pretty enjoyable and gory, bullet flying, set pieces. There's one in particular at the end of the film which is both unexpected, very very cool and pretty damn funny.
It's definitely worth a watch and I would recommend it if you are an action fan, a post apocalyptic road trip fan or a comic book fan.
3.5 out of 5

All in all as a double bill it was pretty strong. It had similar themes of revenge, fast cars and bloodshed in the desert but two completely different tones. It definitely worked watching the serious movie first and the silly movie second. If you can find them streaming or, indeed, if you want to pick up some copies, I can definitely recommend this as a Sunday afternoon's grindhouse viewing.
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