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“The more beautiful, free-spirited women you can get into a low-budget film, the easier it is for the audience to forgive your script.”–Frankie Latina
DIRECTED BY: Frankie Latina
FEATURING: Randy Russell, Danny Trejo, Mark Borchardt, Barry Poltermann, Nikki Johnson, Michael Sottile
PLOT: CIA agent Stanley Cashay—the best in the business—is dragged out of retirement to recover a pair of stolen briefcases in exchange for the name of the operative who murdered his wife. A network of spies around the world assist him in his quest, while the cases repeatedly change hands in a bloodthirsty quest. When he discovers that they contain videos of sadistic ritual murders, Cashay is spurred to action.
- Latina has described the movie as his attempt to make his own version of his favorite movie, Apocalypse Now.
- The film is credited as being “presented by” adult film star Sasha Grey. Lending her name appears to be the extent of her involvement in the film.
- Danny Trejo filmed all his scenes in a single eight-hour stint before he had to catch a plane back to Los Angeles. These were the only scenes in the movie that Latina shot with on-set sound.
- Latina accomplished the Tokyo scenes by using the proceeds from his job at a casino to send actress Johnson and a cameraman to Japan to capture the footage.
- Most of the film was shot in Latina’s hometown of Milwaukee, and he takes advantage of some of the region’s architectural wonders to serve as the backdrop for his globetrotting hero. Among the locations featured in the opening credits are the dramatic angles of Santiago Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum, the Domes of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, and the Infinity Room at the notorious House on the Rock.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: It feels like half of Modus Operandi consists of people sitting around receiving phone calls. They’re just minding their own business, drinking cocktails or hanging out in a hot tub or drinking cocktails while hanging out in a hot tub, and then a phone call comes. This tic reaches its apotheosis when a man takes such a call while he is grooming himself and while his female companion is casually shaving her pubic region. She’s totally nude, her crotch is completely covered in shaving cream, and she’s right up in the guy’s face with it. It’s the most perfect example of this film’s unique blend of overt sex with zero sexiness.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Casey Thunderbird requests the pleasure of Black Licorice’s participation in a spy venture; you got your porn audition tapes in my spy movie
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Modus Operandi feels like the movie you would get if aliens were asked to make a James Bond movie and did all their research by asking a drunk at a bar. With its intense focus on crowd-pleasing violence and nudity (of both the male and female varieties), it’s the cinematic equivalent of all dessert/no veggies, except the desserts were created on Nailed It! The infectious joy of making the movie is paired with an extraordinarily high level of amateurism, making for a movie that knows it’s ridiculous and yet somehow manages to become even more ridiculous in the process.
Original trailer for Modus Operandi
COMMENTS: Frankie Latina sets the tone before a moment of Modus Operandi has passed. In the opening studio logo, the fabled Hollywood sign is destroyed by bombardment of missiles, and a pair of attack helicopters swoop in with a replacement: “FRANKIE LATINA MOTION PICTURES.” Aside from the staggering level of self confidence on display, this vanity card is practically a mission statement: no pussyfooting around with characterization or plot development here. We will upend the system by getting right to the good stuff.
And once Modus Operandi gets going, it makes good on this promise immediately. After a scene-setting prologue narrated by Agent Stanley Cashay’s dead wife, we see the theft of the film’s MacGuffin and find it in the hands of a rogue agent known only as The Cowboy. He will sell the cases to another agent (who has just parachuted in), then promptly shoot her. Clearly a bad, bad man, but don’t get used to him. He’ll be tricked and murdered in a very similar way just a few scenes from now. The saga of the stolen briefcases weaves through the rest of the film, begetting only betrayal and blood. In between, we’ll see how a surprisingly diverse collection of powerful people enlist Cashay, who has drunk himself into a nearly comatose frontally nude stupor, to get them back.
There’s also a very strange premise about how you’re watching this movie in the first place. At random moments, the film cuts out as though the worn-out VHS you’ve been viewing accidentally got taped over by someone conducting casting-couch porn interviews. This gimmick becomes something else entirely when the smut turns into snuff films, and when combined with the revelation of the contents in those mysterious briefcases, there arises a whole meta-narrative that co-exists uneasily alongside the overall bare-skin-is-fun vibe. This is probably Modus Operandi’s least successful element.
The film has been described as a callback to–or even a parody of–70s grindhouse movies. That makes sense. Modus Operandi features a lot of grindhouse hallmarks: grainy film stock, wild fashion, colorful titles echoing the opening of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and many barely clad (or not at all clad) women. Repeatedly, the low-budget, no-access nature of the production turns into an asset. If you can’t shoot connecting scenes on the same day, then you might as well make them as different as possible. Why shouldn’t a man run into a grove of trees that clearly wasn’t there before? That’s just solid bad-movie logic.
And Latina & Co. take great pains to make it clear they know they’re up to something silly. How else to explain the letter to hire a spy that sounds like an overwrought mash note. Or the exploding Mercedes with special effects that look like they were produced on a video toaster from 1985. And look at this murderer’s row of character names: Black Licorice. Casey Thunderbird. Dallas Deacon. Copper Gore. Marcello Maserati. Ayesha Ayesha (who appears in a trailer for what looks like an Indian version of Alias, and should absolutely get her own film). Agent Xanadu. And of course the malevolent Squire Alexander Parks III. On one level, Modus Operandi is undoubtedly in on the joke.
On the other hand, there are plenty of times when it seems clear that the filmmakers don’t realize that what they might be trying to pass off as satire is really just straightforward ineptitude. It’s one of the film’s amusing conceits that Cashay, who is supposedly the best there is, does absolutely nothing to demonstrate that reputation. But the fact that the screenplay never even puts him in position to have an impact damages the joke. The ostensible protagonist of the film doesn’t have a single meaningful interaction with anyone. And that’s not any kind of comedic pretense. That’s very intentional, because if he did, then he’d have to become an actual character, and Modus Operandi wants no part of that.
That’s because the film exists as a trope delivery system. You know that scene in the movies where a hitman gets the call to leave a room of hot babes and go do some dastardly business? Latina sure does, because he plays it out more than a dozen times throughout the course of the film. You know the scene where a spy realizes too late that he’s been double-crossed? It happens time and time again here. You know the scene where a character moseys around an exotic locale so you can appreciate how foreign it all is? Well, drink in Black Licorice’s tour of greater Tokyo (hilariously intercut with shots that probably take place in a Milwaukee ramen shop and someone’s spare bedroom made up to look like a massage parlor). Even the copious nudity isn’t presented to any particular effect. They’re just boobs and schlongs, possessing no sensuality or eroticism at all, included because a movie like this is supposed to have them. (At one point, a woman helpfully unties her colleague’s bikini top so she can dive into the water unencumbered—a completely straightforward, practical gesture.) And that is how parody transforms into Modus Operandi’s actual modus operandi: trope upon trope, rinse and repeat until you have to admit to yourself, “My God, this really is the whole movie.”
It’s to the film’s credit that even as it gets incredibly repetitious, it never manages to get dull, and nothing exemplifies the way it navigates this minefield better than the utterly astounding sequence that unfolds at the 57-minute mark during yet another transaction for the briefcases. Let me walk you through this jaw-dropping chain of events, all of which happen in exactly this order, with no prologue, no overlap, and no internal hesitation. It’s like a La Ronde of assassination:
- A pole dancer shoots a poker player while suspended upside-down.
- A man in an all-vermillion outfit shoots the pole dancer.
- A man with a terrible goatee pulls a knife from his boot.
- Before he can take action, another yellow-shirted man runs over, does a backflip off the wall, and shoots the would-be knife-thrower.
- Everyone at the bar takes up arms, including a woman who produces a long pipe and promptly shoots Yellow Shirt in the neck with a blow dart, generating a gusher of blood.
- Back at the poker table, a man in a hipster fedora throws a pile of cards into the air, deftly snatching one of them and swiftly flicking it at the blow dart assassin, hitting her directly in the forehead with a piercing blow.
- For good measure, he then pulls out a gun and shoots another woman in the head.
- This inspires an Arab sheik sitting at the table to pull out a dagger and quickly slit the latest assassin’s throat.
- Another woman steps forward brandishing a pair of nunchucks which she uses to clock the sheik on the head.
- For her trouble, yet another man at the poker table pulls out a gun and shoots her.
- A dapper, British-looking gentleman throws a knife into the skull of this assassin.
- The bartender has his own gun to shoot the Brit in the belly, with entrails immediately pouring out.
- Red Guy, who has avoided getting shot himself, shoots the bartender, who inadvertently shoots another woman as he goes down.
45 seconds, 12 bodies, gallons of blood spurting like a backyard fountain, and not a bit of story told, all while the title song blares over the soundtrack (part of the film’s surprisingly strong score). The John Wick movies aspire to this level of economy. Nothing could better sum up the whole spirit of Modus Operandi: A scene done twelve times is twelve times as great as a scene done once.
The finale is just as absurd as you’d hope, giving ringer Trejo the showcase everyone involved has been awaiting: the straight-up murder of the President of the United States with a corkscrew and a Looney Tunes-style stick of dynamite. A parting shot of Cashay on a yacht leaving this sordid business behind him (he’s clearly on Lake Michigan, so he’s heading off to, I don’t know, Muskegon?), and we’re out. It’s a fitting end to a wonderfully terrible, terribly wonderful journey. Stanley Cashay can finally rest, and so can we.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s not enough to like such films because they’re ‘so bad they’re good.’ You need to specialize, and like the films because they’re so good about being so bad they’re good. ‘Modus Operandi,’ a film by Frankie Latina that has won praise on the midnight movie festival circuit, is such a film… Do you understand why I enjoyed ‘Modus Operandi?’ You don’t. Millions agree with you. The film is touring the nation in search of those like Quentin Tarantino and John Waters who would stay planted in their seats and watch it a second time.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
“Sure there is plenty of cartoon violence and a fair amount of nudity, but with its grainy look, surreal imagery, and surprisingly slow pace, Operandi often feels more closely akin to experimental film than a tongue-in-cheek gore fest… In every way an odd film…” – Joe Bendel, J.B. Spins [contemporaneous]
Modus Operandi – FRANKIE LATINA – Latina’s homepage celebrates the film with the trailer and a reprint of Roger Ebert’s moderately positive review
IMDB LINK: Modus Operandi (2009)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Talkhouse – Frankie Latina (Modus Operandi) Talks Making No-Budget Arthouse Genre Movies in Milwaukee – Latina’s first-person account of how he sidestepped the Hollywood system and got his movie made.
Independent Film Quarterly – Frankie Latina: Modus Operandi – Another interview with the director in which he tells stories from the making of the movie.
Loving the Bad: An Interview with Frankie Latina and Sasha Grey About Modus Operandi – Although Latina gave many interviews, Bright Lights Film Journal also interviewed Grey
On Milwaukee – Wheels in motion for Milwaukee’s “Modus Operandi” – This mid-production report details the array of local talent participating in the project.
“I Heart Milwaukee!” – Behind-the-scenes footage from Danny Trejo’s Facebook account capturing the making of the climactic confrontation between Director Holiday and the evil President of the United States
LIST CANDIDATE: MODUS OPERANDI (2009) – Gregory J. Smalley’s original review.
HOME VIDEO INFO:
Modus Operandi is available on DVD (buy), but not Blu-ray. The disc includes a short introduction by Sasha Grey; numerous interviews with minor members of the cast and crew (remember that everyone’s contributions, besides Latina’s, are minor); behind-the-scenes footage; a deleted scene with a nude girl painted green, and other small snippets of unused footage; and audio commentary by Mark Borchardt and someone named Dave Monroe (whose connection to the production is never explained—this mystery seems entirely in the spirit of Modus Operandi). Those are a lot of goodies for such a small film.
Modus Operandi goes on and off free streaming services. At the time this review was written, it was available streaming on Tubi and Kanopy. If none of those are available, you can always rent or buy it on-demand.