In the 1980s, British filmmaker Alex Cox had a terrific run of idiosyncratic films that included the science fiction satire, Repo Man (1984), the skid row romance Sid and Nancy (1986), and the unconventional historical biopic Walker (1987). Often forgotten during this decade is the Gonzo spaghetti western, Straight to Hell (1987), a film that simultaneously pays homage to and parodies the genre. No one was ready for this kind of film during the ultra-conservative Reagan era and Cox’s film was a resounding commercial and critical failure.
If there was ever a film that deserved a cult following it was Straight to Hell, which has to have one of the most eclectic casts ever assembled – a motley crew of musicians (Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello), veteran actors (Dennis Hopper) and Cox regulars (Sy Richardson, Dick Rude). For good measure, Cox added an untrained actress (Courtney Love), a wildly eccentric one (Grace Jones) and a fellow filmmaker (Jim Jarmusch) into the mix, bouncing all of these people off one another and filming the results which were pretty interesting to say the least.
Sims (Joe Strummer), Willie (Dick Rude) and Norwood (Sy Richardson) rob a bank in Almeria, Spain and go on the lam with Norwood’s pregnant girlfriend Thelma (Courtney Love). They take refuge in a small, run-down village right out of one of Sergio Leone’s westerns. They cross paths with a rowdy gang of outlaws known as The McMahons (played mostly by Shane MacGowan and The Pogues ) and you just know that at some point a conflict will arise and it will all end in violence.
Some of the highlights of this very eclectic cast include Dick Rude playing a criminal variation of the dumbbell punk he played in Repo Man. Joe Strummer is the crook so cool that he combs his hair with a switchblade. Sy Richardson is the calm and collected leader. Courtney Love, before anyone knew who she was, seems to be channeling Nancy Spungen which makes sense considering she tried out for the role in Cox’s Sid and Nancy biopic. Then, there are the non-sequiteur cameos by the likes of Dennis Hopper and Grace Jones who show up more than halfway through to give our heroes a machine gun only to disappear like ghosts. What keeps things interesting is watching all of these musicians collide with actors in one odd scene after another.
While editing Sid and Nancy, Cox got involved in a concert in Brixton, England in support of the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua. The likes of Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and The Pogues played at the sold out benefit. Sid and Nancy producer Eric Fellner came up with the idea of getting the musicians that played at the concert to go on tour in Nicaragua. Fellner assumed that a video deal would pay for it and persuaded the musicians in question to sign-up for a month-long acoustic Nicaragua Solidarity Tour in August 1986. However, Cox and Fellner couldn’t find a video company to fund the tour because of the conservative climate in England with then prime minister Margaret Thatcher trying to criminalize the word, “Sandinista.”
With the tour a no-go and faced with the prospect of having all these musicians not recording or on tour, Fellner came up with the idea of making a film instead. Cox found that it was easier to raise a million dollars for a low-budget film than it was to get $75,000 to film musicians “playing a revolutionary nation in the middle of a war.” He also turned down the opportunity to direct Three Amigos (1986) to make Straight to Hell instead which just goes to show that he went with his gut instincts as opposed to his commercial sensibilities. Cox and Dick Rude wrote the roles for the actors and the director decided to shoot Straight to Hell in Spain where Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) had been made.
Straight to Hell’s premiere was as unconventional as the film itself, held at the Pickwick Drive-In in Burbank, California. Invitees were asked to come dressed in “post-apocalyptic fiesta garb,” and everyone who showed up was handed a water pistol. Not surprisingly, such an oddball film was not given a wide distribution and what critics saw it were not keen on it. Roger Ebert led the charge and wrote, “Watching the movie in a dreary reverie, while nameless characters shot at each other for no discernible reason, I asked myself what it was lacking. And the answer, I guess, is sort of old-fashioned: It needed some kind of coherent narrative.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “the result is a mildly engrossing, instantly forgettable midnight movie.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson was a little more unforgiving in his review where he wrote, “the action is so gratuitous, and so indifferently presented, that it’s impossible to think that Cox ever truly intended it to be seen by anyone outside of the cast and crew and their immediate families.” In his review for the Boston Globe, Jay Carr wrote, “Try as he will, Cox just can't revive punk's defiant whoop here. One wonders if it would have been possible even if Straight to Hell had a script, which it doesn't. Mostly, it's Cox's friends hanging out, looking forlorn, as if they wished someone would tell them what to do.”
Watching Straight to Hell, it quickly becomes obvious that Quentin Tarantino must be a fan and was influenced by it. Both Norwood and Sims are gun-toting criminals dressed like the crooks in both Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) but with the outlaw pedigree of the Gecko brothers in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Not to mention Sy Richardson’s no-nonsense criminal carries himself a helluva lot like Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp. Straight to Hell’s humor is very broad and often surreal while the characters are intentionally cartoonish in nature with the actors often playing their roles wildly over-the-top. It’s all done in a playful way that is not meant to be taken seriously at all. Although, at times, it feels like the cast were probably having more fun making the film than it is to watch it with all kinds of in-jokes being exchanged and this only adds to the surreal tone.
In retrospect, Straight to Hell marked Cox’s break from conventional cinema in favor of a looser, more freewheeling approach. The film ambles along without any real purpose, much like its protagonists. There is no consistent tone or rhythm which could be interpreted as sloppy filmmaking but I think Cox knows exactly what he’s doing here. It seems like he was trying to make a cult film on purpose. In some respects, Straight to Hell feels like a warm-up for Cox’s next film, Walker, which would be an even more radical break from genre convention, only this time turning the biopic on its head.