Thursday, March 26, 2009

Straight to Hell

Straight to Hell posterStraight to Hell (1987) is the brainchild of Alex Cox, a British director who was shunned by Hollywood after the production of his unconventional and politically-loaded film, Walker (1987). Straight to Hell, a homage to Spaghetti Westerns with offbeat humour and a punk rock cast, scandalized and bewildered critics, but attained minor cult status and can at least coax a smile from Sergio Leone fans.

Straight to Hell has a tagline promising “A story of blood, money, guns, coffee and sexual tension,” and though not having a plot to speak of, delivers generously on all accounts. The film opens with hitmen Willy (played by Dick Rude), Norwood (Sy Richardson) and Simms (Joe Strummer) botching a job and taking off with Norwood’s pregnant girlfriend Velma (Courtney Love) to avoid the wrath of their boss. As they are refueling their getaway car, they casually rob a bank then speed off into the desert. After night falls they spot a small town; they bury their suitcase of cash on the outskirts and decide to lie low. In the morning do they discover the strange nature of their hideout; Velma is accosted by a boy with apish expressions and a London accent who warns her that “bad men” are coming. Suddenly two pick-up trucks carrying a whooping band of marauders clad in mariachi suits descend upon the town. They have been out pillaging and plundering, but their loot unexpectedly consists of coffee beans and espresso-making paraphernalia. It turns out that the town is by-and-large populated by the gunslinging, incestuous, coffee-addicted McMahon clan, lead by the white-suited Frank McMahon.

The xenophobic McMahons quickly have Willy, Norwood and Simms in a gun-toting standoff. However, in a fluke the trio kills an American gangster who was threatening Bruno McMahon and Angel Eyes McMahon, earning Frank’s gratitude. Cox introduces the “sexual tension” promised in the tagline when Simms bursts into the hardware store, owned by a bizarrely French-accented couple named George and Fabienne, and sparks instantly fly between Simms and Fabienne. Simms uses a pretext to get George out of the room then the couple pounces on each other, neck-biting furiously enough to draw blood. The four newcomers are invited to the McMahon’s nightly ritual of coffee binging and singing around a banquet table. In the following days, the sexual tension mounts as the three men watch a scantily-clad Fabienne seductively soap-up her husband’s motorbike, Simms fools around with Frank’s wife, and Willy has a futile crush on Louise, one of Frank’s female miscreants. We are reminded that the trio are criminals at large when two Mexican police officers arrive to look for them. Another man shows up claiming to represent their boss, is scapegoated for the recent murder of Grandpa McMahon and hung in the town square. The audience can anticipate the final shootout scene when an American real-estate entrepreneur appears out of nowhere and bestows a suitcase of machine guns upon the three men.

On the final day, George shoots Angel Eyes who was trying to coax Fabienne into having sex. Thinking that one of the outsiders shot Angel Eyes, the McMahon clan mobilizes for a wild shootout against Willy, Norwood and Simms. The chaotic shootout, throughout which the McMahons keep slurping coffee from their little white mugs, continues until almost no one is left standing. The trio turns unexpectedly treacherous as a badly-wounded Willy and Simms hobble off to where the money is buried, leaving Norwood trapped in the cross-fire, and then Simms shoots Willy. Simms is then shot by Velma who has eloped with Frank, but their life as millionaires is cut short when they discover that their getaway car has no breaks and they careen off a cliff. The final scene shows the remaining characters departing from the town, Norwood and Fabienne in a truck of female McMahons and the boy with the London accent with a truck full of corpses, as the town is claimed the property of Farben Oil with a large new billboard.

In copying the Spaghetti Western convention of filming movies in Spain that are set in Mexico, Cox parodies how directors often use foreign places interchangeably with no regard for their geographic and cultural differences. For example, Cox makes it clear that Straight to Hell is set in Spain; the robbed bank is called Banco Central de Almeria and standing outside the town is the iconic Spanish statue of the bull silhouette. At the same time, the hardware store is full of Mexican knickknacks and the police officers look and sound stereotypically Mexican. Cox methodically manipulates and spoofs a number of the expectations cinemagoers may have about Latin America or Latin Americans. For example, the McMahons are clothed in Mexican mariachi suits, which is something American villains in old Westerns have been known to do, prompting the question of why this cultural garb should be associated with criminality. Whereas in many Westerns set in Latin America, the sought after resource is gold, in Straight to Hell it is coffee. This seemingly absurd twist prompts the audience to envision the modern coffee trade in the form of Old Western gold thieves.

Furthermore, Cox embeds a critical message about the violent underbelly of American corporations abroad. We notice that the American real-estate tycoon, after appraising that the town could be “just like America” once they build a 7-11, out-sources his dirty work to the protagonists by giving them suitcase of machine guns. We see no more of this character, but once the two factions have annihilated each other, his clean-up crews arrive and his company billboard is erected. Cox is famous for his condemnation of the American-funded Contra War in Nicaragua, another out-sourcing of violence by American foreign policy. For a film that some critics accused as one big “in-joke” for its cast and crew, Straight to Hell has a great deal of under-the-surface complexity.

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