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.