Sunday, November 12, 2017

B-Movie Review: 'Stand Alone' (1985)

Quite possibly the greatest vigilante-action movie ever - and I'm not even kidding.

By: JimboX

I've reviewed quite a few flicks for these "B-Movie Review" installments and the truth is that most of them are pretty forgettable. They're certainly not good movies by any metric, but you can't really say they are transcendentally terrible, either. So while you do periodically wind up with an all time stinker like Going Bananas, for the most part you're stuck with extremely indistinct, below average but not THAT below average stuff like Carnosaur, The Pope Must Diet and Million Dollar Mystery.

Of course, sometimes you luck out and wind up with a movie that was much better than you expected (or, at least so fucked up that it kept you entertained longer than you anticipated), like Mikey or International Guerrillas. And on very, very rare occasions, you sometimes land a bona fide jewel in the dumpster with genre movies that are so good that they ALMOST crossover the threshold of being good exploitation movies into the realm of being legitimately great movies regardless. Here, we're talking stuff like Prayer of the Rollerboys, The Curse and even House II: The Second Story ... all movies that can rightly be considered some of the greatest mini-triumphs of trash cinema ever.

But with Stand Alone, I find myself in uncharted territory. For the first time in six years, I've stumbled across a B-movie that isn't just an outstanding, cheesy, sleazy or trashy genre offering, but one I'd firmly argue DOES cross that aforementioned threshold to become a GENUINELY great movie no matter which fuckin' letter you want to affix to it. Indeed, I'd consider Stand Alone to be an exemplar "vigilante action" movie on par with Dirty Harry and Death Wish - if not even BETTER, considering the budget limitations and the "there's no fuckin' way it should be this good in a movie like this" acting.

Before the movie even starts you know you're in store for something special. Just take a look at this box art. I'm not even joking - next to the box art for StarTropics and this Shasta ad tie-in for Jaws: The Revenge, that's probably the greatest piece of consumer class junk art I've ever seen. One day I'm going to have a home office, and you better believe this film's poster is going to be predominantly displayed.

The opening synth intro is ominous yet patriotic - so yeah, it's the quintessence of the 1980s as a whole. The film begins with a flashback to our main character Louis Thibadeau in the South Pacific back in 1943. He sees some Japs in a cave, whispers "I am death, come with me" and then one of 'em sticks him with a bayonet. Flash forward to 1985, where Louis is now an old, fat dude played by Charles Durning showing his grandson how to work his remote control toy tank. He's built a pretty elaborate toy maze in his backyard and the tank even fires real projectiles and the kid shoots out a nosy neighbor's window but nobody gives a fuck - even the yelling old woman who was barkin' at 'em earlier (eventually, she does come out to confront 'em about the broken window, but Louis says he'll repair it and because he's such a respected pillar of the community, she knows his word is good and that's that.)

Durning walks around the neighborhood and tells his grandson that bayonets are made out of reinforced steel, not ivory. Then he goes to the local cafe to talk to his old war buddy and this young dude walks in and tries to steal a doughnut. Then he REALLY fucks up and calls Louis "fat" when he tells him to put it back. But before Durning can give him the old what-for, these two Meskins walk in with fucking AK-47s and blow him away, and then coolly and casually hop back into their rape wagon and drive off. Apparently, Lou had a heart attack during the ordeal and wakes up in a hospital. These detectives show up and ask him some questions about the shooting, then he goes back home and reads a report about the shooting in the newspaper. His grandson asks him how he feels about the gangs taking over the streets and he tells him he watches too much TV.

And if you think that's slow, the scene is actually sped up by a factor of five.

Back at the police station, Lou flips through a book of mugshots. None of the gunmen are in there. The cops get mad at him for not picking somebody and accuse him of pussing out. Before he leaves the station, though, he runs into Pam Grier (yep, Foxy Brown her damn self) who apparently is an old friend who takes him on a ride in her convertible. By the way, in case you're wondering, the movie takes place in Los Angeles, even though it was obviously filmed in Texas.

Anyhoo, she tells him to be careful if he's going to testify against the gang members, since they have a bad habit of retaliating against witnesses. Then she goes back to the hospital and tries to get some info on Lou's medical visit. Interestingly, she provides two competing hypotheses for her relationship to Lou; first, she tells the nurse that Lou is her uncle, then she says she is his attorney. Hell maybe she's both, not like it really matters, I suppose. Then Lou goes back to the cafe, and he and his old pal shoot the shit some more. Back at the station, the three gangbangers get brought in on car theft charges. Pam (her canonical name is Cathryn, if you were wondering) is apparently a public defender, too. She notices the guy's gold tooth and tattoo as described to her earlier by Lou and gets freaked the fuck out. The guys complain in broken English about "having rights in the USA" and then they start calling her a "puta." She goes back to the detectives and asks them to not bring Lou in because she's afraid of what the "cocaine cowboys" might do to him. Then she dials up the D.A. to dig up more dirt on the three guys from earlier. One guy has no papers and is about to get deported and the other two have Florida driver's license. And since the guy whose car was stolen ain't pressing charges, the two Floridians go free tomorrow. So Pam visits the car theft victim herself and, in broken Spanish, tries to get the victim to press charges but he ain't budging.

So she visits Lou and his grandkid and Lou says if he works hard he can be just as successful as Pam one day and then the little bastard says he doesn't want to be a woman and we all have a hearty chuckle because back then people weren't such stuck-up P.C. pussies. Then Pam - ah, fuck it, I might as well start calling her Cathryn 'cause I'm calling Durning's character Lou - tells him what he saw was a professional hit job - the handiwork of illegal aliens working out of a drug smuggling ring. Cathryn tells him they're dangerous as fuck, but he ain't buying it. "I didn't do anything to them and they're not going to do anything to me," Louis says

So, sure enough, in the very next scene Lou's just driving around in the barrios and he sees the same van from the cafe shooting. He runs to the payphone - and since he's about 300 pounds, this part takes a while - and calls up the detective. Then this Mexican dude starts tapping on the glass booth while he's talking to the cops and makes a "gun" gesture with his hand and then Lou starts running for his goddamn life and it's hilariously pathetic. Of course, a whole bunch of Meskins start chasing after him, too, so he hops in this random woman's car and asks her to get him the hell out of there. Which, I think is technically carjacking, but come on - people in 1985 were a lot more chill about that kinda' shit than we are today. "I know I should've meditated today," Lou's impromptu chauffeur says. The van starts following them and she drops Lou off at an old chemical plant and the Meskins continue their pursuit and they play an extended game of hide and seek with all of these giant metal tanks everywhere. Lou's shirt is sopping wet with fat person sweat, and I know you're prolly thinkin' "why doesn't he just run back to his car?" but remember, the motherfucker parked his car right outside the official MS-13 gin joint, so that shit is just out of the question. So he sneaks through a hole in a wall and conveniently enough, the local cafe is right across the street. So his old war buddy hides him under the counter as the three Meskins case the place. They leave after eyeing the place for a bit, and then Lou stops turtling up and tells his pal to NOT call the police. The next day, he opens up his old combat trunk and pulls out a handgun ... surely, just out of nostalgia, right?

So Lou's daughter goes down to the detective's office and says look, "these guys are going to kill my paw if he testifies" and the police say they'll do everything in their power to protect him. Then the janitor IDs the dude in the clink with the skull tattoo and the detectives start mulling their options. Then the guy whose car was stolen calls up Cathryn and says "alright, I'll talk." Then Lou goes down to the station and is asked to identify the perps in a line-up. Immediately after fingering the Meskins, Cathryn rushes into the office and tells Lou to NOT sign any police paperwork, then he goes to bed and wakes up to his grandkid bugling and oh shit, the Mexican rape van just pulled up! Whoops, it's actually just a roofing van and gramps is being paranoid that a bunch of Latin Kings might be out to murder his family. LOL. So Lou does what any red-blooded American would to soothe his jangled nerves - he pulls out his revolver and starts shooting shit in his garage (which, naturally, draws the ire of that nosy broad next door, who tells him to pipe it down before the property values start declinin'.)

Watch it, Pedro - Archie Bunker here is about to fuck your shit up, royally.

Then the cafe owner walks home at night. He goes to his apartment and SOMEBODY grabs him. That's our cue to quick cut to Lou's place. The seriously injured cafe owner calls Louis, then the Meskins do a drive-by on the Thibideau residence. His daughter and grandson, of course, leave the residence shortly thereafter. Lous stays, though, because this is his home, damn it. His grandson asks him if he's afraid and he says - stoically but awesomely - "I don't think so." Lou visits the cafe owner in the hospital - he's beaten pretty bad, but he's far from dead. " He tells Lou "I'm just goddamn sorry"  for coughing up his name and address to the Meskins. Then Cathryn shows up and says she's going to stay at Lou's place until he leaves, too. Then Lou does a monologue about being given a medal by Douglas MacArthur when he was 19. Then he goes down to the Meskins' hangout place with a pistol tucked in his underwear. Oh, you know what it's time for - it's time to FINALLY clean the fuckin' streets.

This Meskin fella spits on Lou so he responds by sticking his gun under his left nostril and saying "I am death, come with me" just like he did to those Japs at the beginning of the movie, and then he slowly walks backwards out of the pool hall. And then, he goes home and raises Old Glory over his front porch, and waves them colors PROUD. Then he stares in the bathroom mirror, has another flashback to Okinawa, puts on a black sweatshirt and cuts off the electricity to his own house - then he starts building Home Alone-esque guerrilla warfare bobby traps and breaks out his old rifle, and you better believe that old bayonet's getting polished up while he's at it.

Cathryn calls Lou's daughter and she tells her he ain't with her and then she knows what's about to go down. Night falls and sure enough, them pesky Meskins decide to do a little after hours visit to the Thibideau residence (which is contrasted with shots of Lou in the WWII tunnels.) The first dude goes to turn on the breaker and gets his frijoles refried, but the rest of the Meskins avoid the trip wire trap entering the kitchen, and one of them says "despacito" when he hands the wooden-nail trap thingy to the other one and we all chortle. And yes, in case you haven't figured it out, they're trying to contrast the Mexicans here with the Japanese barbarians back in Dub Dub Dos. And they don't give subtitles to either of 'em, because in this movie only English is deemed worthy of on-screen text and that's just the way it ought to be, by golly.

Here comes the Meskins' backup. We've got two more guys showing up and they're armed to the teeth and doing the Colombian sugar booger in the driveway. Lou sneaks up behind the getaway driver while he's snorting disco powder and slits his throat. Cathryn shows up with a handgun en tow and finds the body of that one electrocuted Meskin. She elbows one of the Mexicans unconscious, then Lou blows a hole through the spleen of this other Meskin who's about to shoot Cathryn. And holy shit, HERE COMES THE TOY TANK from earlier. The Meskins just hop over it after it fires a mini-rocket, then Lou gets shot and falls through a window, but he rolls out of harm's way before those quesa-dildos can open fire on him.

So Lou goes back into the house and Cathryn guns down another Meskin. The SWAT team arrives and it's down to Lou and one last Mexican - one with a fucking Uzi. Lou tosses sand into his eyes and hits him with the world's fattest Bill Goldberg tackle, and then the police clear the rest of the house and his daughter and grandson show up. He walks to the ambulance under his own free will and the detective tells him everything's going to be fine and Lou just looks at him like he's full of shit and the end credits roll, as that triumphant - yet somewhat eerie - synth music returns.

There are two things this man wants served - justice and a second helping of appetizers.

Alright, I'm going to have to pace myself before this thing turns into a way overblown thesis, but here's a couple of quick hit points I wanna' get outta' the way early. 

First off, every screenwriter in the WGA ought to see this movie to see how you structure a story in three parts. The first 30 minutes of the movie is dedicated to establishing the characters and the setting, the next 30 minutes skillfully builds up the conflict and the final 30 minutes are dedicated to starting and satisfyingly reaching a resolution. I can't tell you how many fucking movies nowadays either fall apart before they can even reach the third act or the staggering number of films that don't even have a beginning or an ending - essentially, all those Marvel movies are just one long second act that never gets a proper conclusion until the NEXT MCU offering. This movie, however, does the three-act narrative subtly, it does it effortlessly and it does it fucking' perfectly - in fact, it's put together so well, it probably could work as a stage play.

You've really gotta' give writer Roy Carlson all the credit in the world here. At a time when EVERYBODY was doing Chuck Bronson ripoffs, he had the good sense to craft a character who isn't physically imposing, who doesn't initially want to whup anybody's ass and who tries desperately to avoid causing any violence until it's positively a do-or-die, me-or-them scenario. And the addition of Cathryn as the public defender gives the story an additional layer of nuance that most of these subgenre flicks from the era never had. Yes, there's an overarching theme that the public safety bureaucracies are inept and inefficient, but Stand Alone is one of the few Reagan-era "vigilante" movies that tries to get the message across that there ARE some people part of the system who still give a fuck. And the pacing is just superb. In a way, the first hour of the movie is practically an excellent procedural drama, which offramps with naru a bump in the road to its outstanding, paint-the-walls-burrito-brown home invasion grand finale. 

Of course, the movie wouldn't have worked without Charles Durning. The problem with most vigilante action movies is that, from the get-go, you KNOW guys like Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood can't wait to blow away the scumbags, but here, you really do feel like Durning is just a sweet, harmless old man who is driven homicidally vengeful by movie's end. It gives it an air of tragedy and sadness that something like, oh say, Exterminator 2 or Invasion U.S.A. never exhibited; and that sense of humanity is what pushes this one over the top into the realm of not just superlative B-movie sleaze, but excellent independent filmmaking, regardless.

Naturally, some of you fucks are going to read into the movie's "subtext" that it's furtively racist or xenophobic or some other nonsense. But Durning's character doesn't raise the American flag before his home is besieged by Mexican drug runners because he don't like Hispanics, but because he's fighting for a specific way of life ... most notably, the kind of life where he doesn't have to worry about his grandson getting shot to death by illegal immigrant gangbangers. It always makes me laugh (that is, until the sadness of the situation sinks in) when people try to say the depiction of Mexicans in movies like this are hurtful. Well fuck, there's decent, honest, clean-living (and presumably illegal immigrant) Mexicans depicted in the same fuckin' movie, and the flick draws a CLEAR line between Hispanic people just trying to make an honest buck and not step on anybody else's toes and the piece of shit kind that lug machine guns into Denny's and try to hack up senior citizens with machetes. I mean, for fuck's sake, it's not like violent illegal Mexican immigrant gangs DON'T exist in America; indeed, you pantywaist liberal "defenders" are the ones choosing to promote an unrealistic vision of existence by pretending that ALL illegal immigrant Mexicans are just plain dandy people who don't hurt nobody. If anything, Stand Alone CLEARLY posits Durning's antipathy of the Meskins as the byproduct of witnessing (and experiencing) their immoral and violent behavior; and last time I checked, there's immoral and violent people of ALL shades and hues of the rainbow, and being afraid of certain individuals who more than fit the police sketch isn't just logical, I'd say it's downright essential to insure existential safety. Besides, the movie paints Pam Grier's character as every bit the laudable hero that Durning is, and she fosters the exact same sense of moral consternation of the violent Hispanics as old Chuck. So does that make Pam Grier a xenophobic, hate-filled bigot or simply a member of a social system that expects civil behavior and abhors criminally antisocial antics? Sorry, libs, but "white rage" or "racism" was never what made this kinds of movies popular - rather, it was the unifying cultural realization that our systems aren't doing shit to protect us from the wolves at the door, and if the government isn't going to do its part to ensure our safety, then by golly we'll have to do it our damn selves.

By the way, the flick was directed by a guy named Alan Beattie, who was nominated for an Oscar for a short film he did back in 1975. This was the last of two feature films he ever directed, and after that he did a lot of TV war documentary production work. Judging from his IMDb resume, he's been retired since 2004. That, or he died - I don't feel like checking the obituaries. But in case he did kick the bucket 15 years ago, at least he went to the grave knowing full well he crafted one of the greatest "taking back the streets and sweeping el garbage-o down the drains" action flicks in the history of the motion picture, and for that, his whole lineage ought to be mighty proud of him

So, all that to say Stand Alone is a fuckin' incredible movie and you need to see it. Indeed, it's so good it's inspired me to plan the first ever Charles Durning Film Festival, tentatively set for next spring at the Starlight Six in Atlanta. Of course, this movie's going to open the festivities, but I'm still mulling options for the rest of the line-up. I guess The Sting and Dog Day Afternoon are givens, but do I leave that final slot open for Solarbabies or Meatballs III? Eh - suggestions here would be much appreciated.


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