The Direct to Video Connoisseur

I'm a huge fan of action, horror, sci-fi, and comedy, especially of the Direct to Video variety. In this blog I review some of my favorites and not so favorites, and encourage people to comment and add to the discussion. If you click on an image, it will take you to that post's image page, which includes many more pics from the film and other goodies I couldn't fit in the actual review. For announcements and updates, don't forget to Follow us on Twitter and Like our Facebook page. If you're the director, producer, distributor, etc. of a low-budget feature length film and you'd like to send me a copy to review, you can contact me at dtvconnoisseur[at]yahoo.com. I'd love to check out what you got.

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Angel Town (1991)

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This is DTVC Hall of Famer Olivier Gruner's first film. I've been looking for it for a while now, and I know Kenner at Movies in the Attic has wanted me to get it up. Well, we made it, we finally made it.

Angel Town has Gruner as a French dude who comes to LA to get his masters in engineering, and train the US Olympic martial arts team. Problem is, he gets here late, and the only housing he can find is in a gang controlled barrio. Too bad for him, huh? No, too bad for them, because he's pissed that the nice mother, grandmother, and son that gave him a place to stay have to live in fear of these punks, and he's going to do something about it.

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This was pretty stellar. A little long (105 minutes, when it really had about 80 minutes worth of material), but Gruner was solid, especially in his fighting skills-- his English and acting, maybe notsomuch. The plot did a good job of depicting the plight of the neighborhood in terms of residents that have given up fighting the gangs, and just accepted their terror as a way of life, and as Gruner giving them that sense of fight back. Sure, he's the hero, but he can't be the hero without the people being heroic and standing up with him. Instead of making it look like a bunch of savages that can't take care of themselves and need a white man to step in and sort them out, it was more like people who are victimized by a system that has neglected them and allowed the gangs to reign uncontested, and Gruner is the agency through which they reclaim their lives.

And boy, is Gruner that agency. Total badass. Again, the feeling is that it's not he who we should pity for moving into a bad neighborhood, but the people who terrorize that neighborhood who should be afraid that they're picking a fight with him. It's like a Steven Seagal level of badass, only much cooler. Last August he celebrated his 50th birthday. I feel like such a dork that I missed that. Well, for what it's worth, happy belated birthday.

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I don't want to give away too much of the film, but there were a few elements that this handled really well that most movies screw up. First, Gruner's friend puts his life in danger to help out against the gangs. Usually, that friend would be killed off by the gang, leaving Gruner with a revenge motive. That always pisses me off, because it makes the hero less heroic in my eyes. He needs to rely on people who end up dying for him. What Angel Town does is it has the friend be a defeatist who thinks Gruner is wasting his time fighting the gangs. When the gang attacks his dojo, no one is killed, but he realizes that he shouldn't live in fear of them, that he needs to fight back too. Excellent use of the friend character. The other one was the end battle. They don't insult our intelligence by having us believe that a Gruner who could take out five gang members at once would have trouble dealing with their leader, just because he's their leader. What they do is have Gruner soften the leader up, so the son of the woman he was staying with can fight the guy and get some satisfaction. Again, great way to rework the classic ending paradigm. There are ways to make bad action movies better, but they don't involve techno music, bad jump cuts and camera angles, or atrociously dragged on plots. Just look at Angel Town.

There was one moment where the racial issue-- I'm not saying was handled poorly, but rather, maybe needed more of an explanation if they were going to go there, even though that explanation would have gummed up the film, meaning maybe they probably shouldn't have gone there. Gruner is called a "frog" by a classmate, who is an Arab. Gruner grabs him by the collar and calls him a "rag head". Now, the thing is, Gruner's character, growing up a street urchin in Paris, would have been in direct conflict with impoverished Algerians, and it's not inconceivable that that animosity would have been divided on racial lines. The problem is, either way, it paints our hero as a racist-- I mean, I'm of French descent, and I know from experience that being called a "frog" should not be equated to any bigoted term meant to dehumanize a race, gender, creed, or sexuality. It was just a bad look in a semi-applause scene that shouldn't have been, even if it was meant to fill out Gruner's character's back-story. Come on Angel Town, you're better than that.

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Mark Dacascos is in this for like two short scenes, just long enough to get his ass kicked by Gruner. There aren't really any close-ups on him, but I suspected it was him from his voice: Hawaiian American English is not East LA Chicano American English. Anyway, in the credits, he's listed as "Mark Dacuscos". As far as what he's been up to, his last four films after I Am Omega have not been released on DVD yet, but according to imdb, they could be some good ones. It's always a tough decision when it comes to whether or not to tag with a short bit part like that, because, on the one hand, we want people to know an actor is in the film, while on the other, I don't want people thinking the actor is in it a bunch. Our most recent example of this was with Michael Dudikoff in the 1981 cult horror classic Bloody Birthday, where he was in it for two funeral scenes and one make-out session with Julie Brown (the red head, not the Downtown one). But you want to know there's a horror movie out there with Dudikoff in it, right? (It's actually pretty good beyond him too.) Then you have Gary Daniels in Submerged, Deadly Bet, and perhaps most disappointingly, Retrograde. I think with those three films, it's more of a warning, because you see him listed and think "wow, Daniels with Seagal, or Daniels with Jeff Wincott, or Daniels with Dolph Lundgren, where do I sign up?" I think that's the big thing with Angel Town, because Dacascos is on the first page of imdb's cast listing, which can be very misleading. He's essentially a glorified extra with lines and a misspelled name in the credits.

As per usual, I'm getting off on a rant on that seventh paragraph, so let's wrap it up. Angel Town is not only a great first film for Olivier Gruner, it's a great DTV actioner as well. Solid fights, explosions, etc., plus a decent plot that doesn't have all the "ugh!" elements that most bad action films resort to. A bit of a hidden gem. Unfortunately, not available on Netflix, but it is on DVD if you want it.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099039/

9 comments:

  1. I thought this film was OK, but it suffered from having too little action and too much needless padding.

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  2. This movie fascinating for me because I did see it as a white guy solving all the problems and there really is a backlash on race. Although perhaps this is the Death Wish movie that Ebert was talking about in his Death Wish 3 review as it does have a vigilante protecting Mexicans from gang violence. The climax is surreal though.

    Another thing is that the Asian mobsters and the black gangs are seen in a far higher light than the Mexican gang. What fascinated me most though is the whole resolve it shows towards activism, as the father of Martine is a speaker against such, is about advocating life without violence or something, and Gruner goads Martine to take up vengeance.

    It's a wrongheaded movie on a lot of levels but I appreciated it because the politics are so angry. This is clearly a metaphor for fascism as the racist element of Gruner's character reflexes, as well as how he puts dead bodies in bad guy's cars, also goes in the middle of the night to threaten the bad guy, he also grabs his Asian friend and says he doesn't kill him out of fear but fear of vengeance that his family will enact, there is much much more to the confused politics. It also stands to reason that Gruner doesn't start getting serious on fighting said guys until after they attack the white college, and then there is a driveby shooting at the college. The message is that people have to stand up to the gangs, but it's just so angry it becomes fascinating.

    Last but not least is the climax, which sees Asian sidekick, French kickboxer, veteran in a wheelchair with a machine gun and finally the mexican kid with a shotgun defending the house from gangs. This is a non-too subtle message at the country and gang problems. Like I said before, this is a movie that is fueled with hatred and outrage, so it makes the standard kung fu elements play that much better.

    Like I said, I recommend it, but mostly for the rage. I mean this makes Death Wish seem like Alice In Wonderland.

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  3. It sure is on DVD, but I don't think I will be able to get it any time soon...

    http://cgi.ebay.com.au/ANGEL-TOWN-DVD-HARD-FIND-RED-REEL-ENTERTAINMENT-/380223509166?pt=US_DVD_HD_DVD_Blu_ray&hash=item58871652ae#ht_1280wt_907

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  4. The reason why I didn't see it as a white guy solving the Mexican's problems was one, Gruner was a street urchin himself, and two, there were plenty of Mexicans in the neighborhood (the guy in the wheel chair, the neighbors, and the mother and son) who wanted to take their neighborhood back and were depicted as genuinely good people. In your scenario, Gruner would be doing things like getting them jobs and into community colleges, showing them all how to be contributors to society. We didn't see that, instead we saw that they tried to contribute, but the greater society neglected them, and Gruner was giving them the agency to fight back in spite of that neglect.

    As far as the gang hierarchy, that specific Mexican gang actually wasn't an established gang yet. It was understood that there were better established and more powerful Mexican gangs somewhere else, but the one bothering Gruner was really new-- they only had one gun, for instance. I didn't see that black gang as being anymore established either, it was simply that the Mexicans were in a black neighborhood. That Asian gang was better developed because it had been around much longer, but there was no indication that there weren't Mexican gangs that weren't similarly established.

    The rage part is the part that I fully agree with you on, but I got the sense, with all the references to "the cops don't care", that society had allowed this to happen through their neglect. The result of that in real life, of course, was aggressive policing in LA and NY, often racially based. It's interesting to see a film from 1991 in 2010, because we have to remember that in 1991, there was a profound fear that gangs would take over our cities-- just look at Predator 2. That was something I missed in my review, so I'm glad you brought that up here, because it's a very important element.

    Oh, and Sutekh, Amazon has it on VHS used for about $15 (before shipping). That's still a lot, but it's a better bet. Netflix actually used to have it for rent, I just didn't get it before it went out of print.

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  5. I would argue the politics of such, but i'm far to distraught over the Lions OT loss to the Jets. My girlfriend has suggested we go out, and see the new baby again. But honestly I just want to cry, also it should be noted the police had to talk me down from my apartment building, and the cops apparently were called by the screaming of the words "Fuck" and "Shit" with some "Goddamn it" thrown in.

    I see the Patriots lost also to Cleveland big, so let's just pretend this week didn't happen. I mean It was 20-10 with 4 minutes left.

    I would talk about Angel Town, and the rage of politics, but i'm afraid the only passion and hatred I feel right now is towards Matt Millen (of course) but also myself, for a couple years ago It would've been just another sunday, but now that I care, it just cuts to the bone.

    Ugh.

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  6. There's no way that I can equate the Pats stinking it up because they didn't take the Browns seriously with your Lions coming so close to getting over the hump and not quite making it happen. I felt for you man. Go to the well and find something good to take your mind off it.

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  7. My girlfriend and I got tacos and I feel better. It just hurts when you're team starts to get decent again but the wins aren't there yet, Sort of like depression meds that give you energy but take awhile to actually correct depression tendencies. I kept saying how I doubted a win this week but the fact the Lions almost won still was tragic. It would've been a win later on down the road, the reason was absurd mistakes such as passing with 1 something on the clock, then there was losing Stafford again, and honestly with Stanton at the helm one doubts if Buffalo is so winnable.

    This whole season has been bad luck. Starting with game 1. With no B.S the Lions could be 4-4 or even 6-2.

    My girlfriend found some Jim Norton stand up to take my mind off it.

    The difference between the Lions and Pats was that the Lions don't quite have the skills and tools to win against seriously good teams, The Pats though didn't seem prepared today. Which in itself could be arguably worse but I don't know, losing with honor is still losing. I actually won this game on the line in my weekly picks (5 pts, where as the Lions lost be 3) But the Pats lost me in the standings. (As did the Texans and Dolphins)

    The food was good and now I'm celebrating by watching a kung fu movie with my G.F (7 Grandmasters) She'll be thrilled when football season is over although close losses hurt more than 10 pt losses.

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  8. Chin up man, just remember I was where you were only ten short years ago, and in a flash it turned into this. Just make sure you enjoy the ride up, because the next thing you know, all that hope, disappointment, and jubilation, turns into expectations, anger, and relief-- believe me, as a Pats fan, the best we ever do is relief that they got a win, and when they suck up the joint, like today, I get so mad I watch soccer. These tough days will make the winning only sweeter, and from there, you can only go down.

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  9. I'm REALLY glad I don't follow sports!

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