Short Ends and Leader

Cox-sure: 'Straight to Hell Returns'

Straight to Hell Returns was and is a dirty, grungy, goofy, spirited, sprawling, unhinged, unsane, and uncompromising work, the vision of a man playing by his own demented dirty pool rules.


Straight to Hell

Director: Alex Cox
Cast: Dick Rude, Sy Richardson, Courtney Love, Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Jim Jarmusch, The Pogues
Rated: R
Studio: Screen Gems (Sony)
Year: 1987
US date: 2010-12-14
Website

No director rose as quickly, and fell quite so hard, as Alex Cox. Only Michael Cimino, who went from Oscar winning darling (The Deer Hunter) to mega-budget flop pariah (Heaven's Gate) can claim such a career kinship. By 1987, the mind behind such cult hits as Repo Man and Sid and Nancy was preparing his next punk rock aesthetic assault. Hoping to highlight the then tense politics of South America, he saw the story of William Walker, an American filibuster who invaded Mexico in the 1850s (later to name himself President of Nicaragua) as a novel way of shining a light on current conflicts. He also collected a group of likeminded musicians (The Clash, The Pogues, etc.) hoping to organize a concert tour of the troubled region.

As with many best-laid plans, the live performances never came to pass. Too much red tape. Stifled by the struggle and desperate to get away, Cox called up his musician buddies, suggested a holiday in Spain, and knocked off a quickie spaghetti Western homage with pal Dick Rude. When the resulting entertainment free-for-all, otherwise known as Straight to Hell, hit theaters, it was resoundingly dismissed as the arrogant tomfoolery of an arguably very talented man. When Walker further clouded and confused the issue, the once up and coming artist became Tinseltown persona non grata. By the mid '90s he was out of mainstream all together, eventually using a "micro-budget" ideal to craft titles such as Revengers Tragedy and Searchers 2.0.

Thanks to the Internet, and its "what goes around is re-embraced around" cult conceits, Straight to Hell has gained a solid 'FU' footing. Thanks in part to the classic company of DIY rockers that make up the majority of the cast, it's become the cinematic embodiment of Sid Vicious' "fabulous disaster" persona. It was and is a dirty, grungy, goofy, spirited, sprawling, unhinged, unsane, and uncompromising work, the vision of a man playing by his own demented dirty pool rules. While certainly unusual, and in some ways indicative of the "let's make a movie" ideal that found the filmmaker in the Spanish desert to begin with, some 23 years later (and one digital remaster and polish later) it has the aura like a lost masterpiece...or a lost cry for help.

The story centers on a gang of slapstick hitmen - Willy (Rude), Norwood (Sy Richardson) and Simms (Joe Strummer) - who botch an important job. With whiny, loudmouthed gal pal Velma (Courtney Love) tagging along, they rob a bank a head to Mexico to flee the law. After agreeing to bury the money among the arid dunes and badlands of the region, they soon find themselves in a sinister Spawn Ranch set-up run by a group of coffee-addicted outlaws. As gangs of marauders face off with the bumbling cafe banditos, two outside forces hope to foil our trio's tentative plans. One is their mob boss leader Mr. Dade (Jim Jarmusch). The other is businessman and entrepreneur I.G. Farben (Dennis Hopper) who hopes to kick the killers out of the area and build yet another new strip mall on the site.

As with any last minute knock-off, Straight to Hell (now given the updated addition of "Returns" to its title in order to indicate Cox's pre-digital format diddling) is the best kind of happy accident, a pure piece of tossed off talent that argues to the imagination and invention of all involved. Along with Repo and the sensational Sex Pistol's biopic, it's rock and roller filmmaking at its most entertaining. Cox clearly doesn't care about normal motion picture elements like script structure, continuity, acting prowess, narrative logic, or symbolic subtext. Instead, he runs headlong into a surrealistic strategy that would leave Dali stroking his signature moustache. The results might not always make sense, but they are endlessly engaging and entertaining.

As his even more stunted three stooges, Cox gets Rude, Richardson, and Strummer to exemplify both fools and foils. With Love constantly barking out bitchy orders and showing off her pregnant pot belly, we've got a quartet of missteps just waiting to spark a riot. Free associating on Leone and Corbucci, as well as the last dying remnants of Britain's "No Future" '70s, he crafts a comedy that's both dumb and deliberate, a tongue in cheek travesty that can't help but split your sides and scratch your head. Sure, sometimes the humor is so insular that you have to be on the right wavelength to get the jokes and there is no doubting the catch as catch can elements to the storytelling, but that's the beauty of Straight to Hell Returns. Not only do you get to see some crackpot performances from a legion of musical legends, but you get to be part of their confusing clubhouse production as well.

Thanks to much needed post-millennial reassessment, Cox was also allowed to go in and 'tweak' Straight to Hell, washing away some but not all of its on-the-fly facets. Digital blood has been added in to up the violence factor, while previously deleted and incomplete scenes have been gussied up and reinserted. As part of the DVD package, the director is present to go over the movie's mythos, the truths and the half-lies, the fun and the frustrations. He also collects some of the cast for a hilarious documentary reminiscence. Unlike many in his cranky outsider position, Cox is less angry and more approachable out his "failures". He knows he's made something difficult and unique. Like fellow Brit Ken Russell, he's merely been waiting around for the fanbase to catch up with his bizzaro-world investments.

And Straight to Hell Returns is indeed one untamed, weird ride. It constantly fights with itself, avoiding conformity to the needs of the medium as much as it wants to look back and accept them. Of course, many in the cast can't act - they weren't put on this planet to play Method, but they are far better than the slew of rappers who've undermined the urban crime drama/comedy over the last two decades. Even better, Cox is cast in the role of creative Svengali, waving his wand of wonky magic all over its disjointed charms. If you're looking for a real reinterpretation of the classic Italian oater, stick with something like The Legend of God's Gun or Sukiyaki Western Django. If, on the other hand, you want walk into the West wilder than anything Jodorowsky or Miike ever envisioned, you'll love Straight to Hell Returns. Cox didn't merit exile for his flights of fancy. As this enigmatic movie confirms, he deserved praise.

8

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Multi-tasking on your smart phone consumes too many resources, including memory, and can cause the system to "choke". Imagine what it does to your brain.

In the simplest of terms, Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen's The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World is a book about technology and the distractions that often accompany it. This may not sound like anything earth shattering. A lot of people have written about this subject. Still, this book feels a little different. It's a unique combination of research, data, and observation. Equally important, it doesn't just talk about the problem—it suggests solutions.

Keep reading... Show less
8

The husband and wife duo DEGA center their latest slick synthpop soundscape around the concept of love in all of its stages.

Kalen and Aslyn Nash are an indie pop super-couple if there ever were such a thing. Before becoming as a musical duo themselves, the husband and wife duo put their best feet forward with other projects that saw them acclaim. Kalen previously provided his chops as a singer-songwriter to the Georgia Americana band, Ponderosa. Meanwhile, Aslyn was signed as a solo artist to Capitol while also providing background vocals for Ke$ha. Now, they're blending all of those individual experiences together in their latest project, DEGA.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image