Wednesday, July 4, 2007

"God Forgives. The Brotherhood doesn't."

Well, it took nearly a decade, but the powers that be, somewhere in the offices of MGM, have finally realized the Craig Baxley's 1991 magnum opus STONE COLD is worthy of release on DVD.

Bar none, this film, which launched the DTV career of ex-Seattle Seahawk Brian "Boz" Bosworth, is the most underrated action movie of the 1990's. Maybe even of all time. Seriously. American movies designed around sports or martial arts stars all too often make the fatal mistake of getting mired in "messages" or, worse, pandering to the pre-teen set. In a sense, both are what effectively killed Jeff Speakman's big-screen career around the same time STONE COLD was in wide release. Speakman, a real-life ken-po boogie master ("I got the pow-uhh"), had roughly the same acting ability as The Boz, but his debut film, THE PERFECT WEAPON (1991), was a dull slog through Buddhist-y believe-in-yourself-as-you-kick-ass righteousness, and his followup, STREET KNIGHT (1993), which Cannon ultimately sent straight to video despite high production values and a solid supporting cast, was really just another after-school special about the perils of street gangs. By the time Speakman tried to go "dark," with veteran stunt-coordinator Rick Avery's directorial debut, 1993's THE EXPERT, the damage was done, though Speakman has remained a quality also-ran of the DTV market ever since.

And so has The Boz.

But it wasn't the quality of Boz's debut film that sent him to the ranks of the Blockbuster shelf-fillers. Box-office performance probably had something to do with it, but that in no way implies a bad movie. Like Speakman, The Boz simply wasn't a household name, nor was he as well known as the producers probably thought he was, but if nothing else, his comparatively affordable salary simply meant more money for some of the goddamned coolest practical stunts ever to burn across the screen. Reportedly, the producers had only ever planned on making something that would be an easy sell to the big cable networks (thus the film's 1.33:1 aspect ration, matted on the new DVD), but when Baxley turned 74-year-old Walter Doniger's tight screenplay into a lean, mean motherfucker movie in which everyone and everything gets shot and blown up, they knew there's be at least some money to be found in a theatrical release. And so it went...

A few of the tightasses I worked with at a daily newspaper at the time were fish-eyed that I could give this silly-sounding movie such raves in an extended review, but when I passed around the screening cassette a few months later, most of them suddenly realized the greatness they'd missed on the big screen. Those who didn't lived sheltered lives...

I mean, not only do you get a pro-football novelty-athlete-du-jour in the lead role of a supercop who infiltrates a scuzzy gang of bikers with access to heavy artillery (including military choppers!) and plans to blast up the state senate, but you get not one but two of the greatest screen villains of the past 20 years, Lance Henriksen as gang leader Chains and William Forsythe as his vicious second-in-command Ice. And with veteran hollywood stunt coordinator Baxley at the helm after two above-average mid-budget actioners—ACTION JACKSON (1988) and I COME IN PEACE (1990)—it's a safe bet the action scenes won't just amaze, they'll friggin' cut your arms and legs off and weld you into a steel tank and drop you into the bah-yoo, son.

And now that we live in an age where heavily and obviously computer-augmented "practical" stunts in a film like LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD are considered welcome throwbacks to old-school 80's action pictures by critics who really oughtta have better memories, it's nice to put in an true old-school action movie and see what it was like when stunts were done entirely for real.