DIRECTED BY: Alex Cox
FEATURING: Sy Richardson, Joe Strummer, Dick Rude, Courtney Love
PLOT: Three gangsters, with a pregnant girlfriend in tow, blow an assignment, rob a bank, and hide out in a Central American village ruled by a band of coffee-addicted desperadoes.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This silly, violent and absurd attempt at a Western comedy made by non-comedians doesn’t really work, except as a curio.
COMMENTS: The story behind Straight to Hell is that filmmaker Alex Cox had assembled a number of punk bands for a concert in Nicaragua, which had to be canceled due to political turmoil. With his schedule involuntarily cleared and time on his hands, he sat down with a guy named Dick Rude (!) and scratched out a movie script in three days, using the musicians and whoever was available on short notice as actors. The result is a silly spoof, made on the spur of the moment, with punk rockers trying to be comedians. There’s a party vibe, and it’s clear that the cast and crew had a blast farting around in the desert. It’s equally clear that you will never have as much fun watching it as they did making it.
Sy Richardson (whom Cox had worked with before on Repo Man and Sid and Nancy) was one of the few actual actors available for the project on short notice, so the prolific character actor gets a rare featured role here, and makes the best of the opportunity. (Because he’s cool, black, and wears a suit and tie while brandishing a gun, he’s often pointed to as a precursor to Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules in Pulp Fiction). The Clash’s Joe Strummer is second-in-command, while Rude takes the role of the youngest and jumpiest of the gang. Courtney Love is Sy’s shrill, preggo girlfriend, who’s so effectively annoying that they effectively write her out of the script after the setup. Besides the main cast, Eighties underground culture aficionados can keep an eye out for cameos by the Pogues, Elvis Costello, Grace Jones, Jim Jarmusch, and even Dennis Hopper.
And yes, it is weird, although more in the vein of a spectacularly drunk Mel Brooks than of Alejandro Jodorowsky. The credits list a “sex and cruelty consultant” (a bit tongue-in-cheekly, since there’s not terribly much of either). What you do get it some attempted slapstick from musicians trying to be comics, scenes spoofing Once Upon the Time in the West and Cool Hand Luke, hard-to-understand accents (not only from the rotten-toothed Shane MacGowan), a Western hot dog vendor, a butler who serves coffee to desperate killers, a barrelhouse piano version of “Night on Bald Mountain,” a musical number (including “Danny Boy”) or two, and a long conclusory shootout to prune the cast (including a few extra bodies like Jarmusch who show up at the last minute to get mowed down). Perhaps the oddest touch of all are two brief shots of Ray Harryhausen-style animated skeletons: a wolf who howls at the moon and a human clutching a knife between its teeth. It’s like Cox bought a few seconds of unused footage from a Charles Band production and shoehorned them into his movie at random. Whatever charm Straight to Hell possesses comes from the fact that you seldom have any idea what will happen next.
The story is supposedly based on the Canonically Weird Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot!—Cox went so far as to secure the adaptation rights—but the similarities between the two films are completely superficial. Remastered with new digital gore effects and re-released in a director’s cut in 2010, Straight to Hell is obscure, but Kino-Lorber’s 2018 edition with director’s commentary is actually its third appearance on DVD (it was released by Anchor Bay in 2001, and by Microcinema DVD under the title Straight to Hell Returns in 2010). The film is also available on Blu-ray or streaming outlets.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s a very weird vibe, and it requires one to not only accept, but also embrace, boredom. If the movie has one theory, it’s this: if you stare long enough at a certain spot, something weird and cool is bound to happen.”–Jeffery M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid (DVD)