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Short Cuts - Guilty Pleasures: The Junkman (1982)

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Saturday, Dec 9, 2006


Harlan Hollis is known world wide as The Junkman, a humble business bloke turned fabulously wealthy multi-media mogul on the back of his scrap auto business. He makes movies, owns diamond mines and oil wells, and lives a jet setting eccentric lifestyle. A widower whose wife was killed by a drunk driver, he divides his time between his mega-buck empire and his teenage daughter. While readying his latest stunt filled film, he makes time to celebrate his child’s birthday, attend a James Dean festival that he has sponsored, and arrange the world premiere of his near completed masterwork. But gathering forces outside his insular life want Hollis dead, and they send a band of highly trained assassins out in cars and planes to kill the trash heap Trump once and for all. Will our high living, fast driving hero make it to the festival on time? Will he ever get to see his child again? More importantly, will his latest cinematic experiment have a boffo box office weekend? Or is it possible that this will be the time that The Junkman joins the rest of the metal in his yard?


Taken at face value, all one can say is - WOW! Junkman is one weird mamma-jamma of a movie. This möbius film strip motion picture functions like an Escher print come to life, cross and direct referencing itself and its makers so many times, and skittering in and out of reality so often it threatens to turn into Ouroboros and consume itself. It’s a true story told as fiction with most of the real people playing themselves. It’s a car crash fiesta formulated as a Citizen Kane style send-up of filmmaker and stuntman H.B. Halicki. The reference to Welles 1941 classic is not co-incidental. Halicki, here as Hollis, uses the same multi-media style (stills, news reports, flashbacks, and interviews) to tell the pseudo story of his life, except in this case, Rosebud is a tricked out Cadillac Eldorado running a supped up V-8 engine under its shiny hood. And unlike W.R. Hearst’s worst nightmare, the future salesman for Paul Mason wines didn’t load his narrative with an extended 45 minute car chase.


That’s right, forty-five minutes of automobile anarchy: chases, crashes, stunts, and impossible moments. Basically divided into four separate sections, kind of like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons except with larger insurance premiums, we get ten or fifteen minutes of fact filled narrative and set-up and then the pedal and the bumpers start hitting the metal as elaborate vehicular feats are hurled relentlessly at the camera for the sake of excitement. This movie is reportedly listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the most destroyed modes of transportation (planes, trucks, and cars) than any other movie in history. And while it seems hard to believe it in light of past (The Blues Brothers) and present (Speed) examples of the genre, one thing is for sure—The Junkman sure does have a lot of Detroit’s finest ramming into each other over and over again.


In some ways, Junkman reminds the viewer of Richard Rush’s exercise in inversion, the classic black Hollywood come-tramedy The Stunt Man. Similar in structure (with the “is it a movie or is it real?” ideal in full flower), it differs in that there are no performers the like of Peter O’Toole or Steve Railsback to sell the satire. Instead, Halicki casts himself in the lead, and then wisely as both director and writer, gives most of the dialogue and emoting to the one or two professionals (Hoyt Axton, Christopher Stone) in the cast. Still, there is nothing wrong with the amateur acting antics of the mostly playing themselves persons. Indeed, the natural charm and realistic line readings create an aura of authenticity that helps save The Junkman from sinking under the weight of its lofty ambitions. Sure, Halicki is interested in featuring metal on engine block action, but he also wants to work myth, murder and intrigue into the mix. Frankly, from what we see of Halicki/Hollis real life, a biopic of the eccentric entrepreneur would be an equally intriguing cinematic prospect. In love with all cars, he owned a huge warehouse “office” (the size of a football field) where he housed his mad collection. He also loved toys and had hundreds of thousands of rare and vintage examples.


He was also responsible for the drive-in cult classic, the original 1974 Gone in Sixty Seconds. And he truly started life in the junk business. And yet all of this takes a colorful backseat to the non-stop, no special effects stunt driving and crashing that makes up the vast majority of this movie. And while said action footage is first rate in a kind of late ‘70s early ‘80s shot as it happened fashion, adding more of the bizarre business life of Halicki/Hollis would have moved the entire movie beyond its B-movie roots into something a little more special. But as it stands, The Junkman is unlike any car crash movie you’ve ever experienced. It has to be seen to be believed.

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