David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) kick started the trend of stylish road movies during the 1990s. They usually involved a beautiful, young couple in trouble with either the law or criminals or both, driving a vintage muscle car across the vast countryside of the United States, stopping in small towns populated by eccentric characters all scored to an alternative rock soundtrack. While Thelma & Louise (1991) was certainly the most popular example of this genre during that decade, it was only one of many that tried to give their own unique spin, be it the couple that picks up a psychopath on the road a la Kalifornia (1993), or lovers on the run from gangsters in True Romance (1993), or where the antagonists are actually the protagonists as in Natural Born Killers (1994). Then, you have The Doom Generation (1995) and Perdita Durango (1997), two films that represent extreme examples of the road movie genre, pushing the sex and violence to the limits.
Among all of these various movies is one of my favorites, Love and a.45 (1994), a modest independent film, written and directed by C.M. Talkington, that got lost in the shuffle due to its lack of star power and advertising muscle. It is notable for featuring then up-and-coming actors Gil Bellows and Renee Zellweger in early roles as lovers on the run from two vicious debt collectors and a vengeful ex-con. I have a soft spot for Talkington’s film due in large part to Zellweger’s enthusiastic performance and a soundtrack populated with the likes of the Butthole Surfers, The Reverent Horton Heat, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Mazzy Star among others.
When he’s not knocking over convenience stores to help pay off an engagement ring he bought for his girlfriend Starlene Cheatham (Renee Zellweger), Watty Watts (Gil Bellows) plans for a future with said significant other. However, as the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men… The young lovers are soon visited by a whole mess of trouble in the form of Dinosaur Bob (Jeffrey Combs) and Creepy Cody (Jace Alexander), two well-dressed debt collectors hopped up on high-powered speed. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Watty teams up with Billy Mack Black (Rory Cochrane), a fellow ex-con buddy and speed freak, on a robbery that he hopes will help pay off the money he owes. Predictably, things horribly wrong when someone is killed. Watty and Starlene soon find themselves on the run from Bob and Billy Mack, who has lost what little he had of a mind to drugs.
Watty considers himself something of an artist when it comes to holding up convenience stores and freely quotes from the I-Ching. Gil Bellows certainly plays an attractive protagonist and is good in the role, giving it all he’s got, but at times he’s overshadowed by the likes of Jeffrey Combs and Rory Cochrane’s larger than life characters. Bellows and Zellweger have good chemistry together and make for a believable couple that is crazy for each other. They are young and have their whole lives ahead of them – that is, if Dinosaur Bob, Billy Mack or the law doesn’t get them first.
Starlene is a free spirit in cut-off jean shorts that leave very little to the imagination. All she wants is for Watty to make an honest woman out of her by getting married. At the time she made Love and a .45, Renee Zellweger was a fresh-faced starlet and she dives enthusiastically into her role. She brings a lot of natural charm and charisma to the role so that it is hard not to like Starlene. Love and a .45 is a potent reminder of how the very presence of Zellweger would energize a given scene and how this seems to be lacking from what few films she’s done in recent years.
Rory Cochrane brings an unpredictable energy to Billy Mack Black, amping himself up more and more as the film progresses with him diving deeper into drug addiction. One moment, he is whining about going back to prison and the next, he’s pointing a gun in Watty’s face. Cochrane starts off chewing the scenery when Billy Mack appears on-screen and by the time he shaves off his head and gets a huge tattoo on it, he’s gone so over-the-top, he’s devoured the scenery.
The always watchable Jeffrey Combs steals every scene he’s in as a charismatic speed freak cum debt collector. This is evident in his introductory scene, which sees the actor swagger all over the place, gleefully bouncing off the other actors in snappy verbal repartee. Bob is giving Watty a friendly warning, but it is a taste of things to come when everything goes pear-shaped. Combs looks like he’s having a blast in the role as he gets to play a larger than life baddie who enjoys his job a little too much. He delivers a performance that feels fresh and spontaneous, like anything can happen. There’s a fantastic meeting of charismatic scene-stealers when Bob and Creepy catch up with Billy Mack at a tattoo parlor. It’s a lot of fun to see Combs vamp it up as he questions Billy with the aid of a tattooing needle. Then, all three psychos hit the road together to the strains of “Who Was In My Room Last Night?” by the Butthole Surfers blasting on the soundtrack.
At the time, Love and a .45 was compared rather unfavorably to Quentin Tarantino’s films, but it doesn’t take long to see Wild at Heart’s influence on it with Renee Zellweger channeling Laura Dern’s hopelessly romantic sex kitten and Jeffrey Combs playing an energetic variation of J.E. Freeman’s laconic gangster. Love and a .45 even features a memorable cameo from Lynch alumni Jack Nance. It also features bloody violence scored to a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack and adopts the same kind of cutesy lovers banter that is scarily similar, but without the square sincerity of Lynch’s film. It is cool to see Peter Fonda and Ann Wedgeworth show up playing Starlene’s parents, or “handicapped suburban hippies” as Watty calls them. Fonda’s presence is obviously meant to evoke Easy Rider (1969), the mack daddy of all road movies. In an amusing moment, they give Watty and Starlene some primo liquid LSD as a wedding present.
Carty Talkington started off playing guitar in two rock bands he had formed and the theater, producing and directing plays for his independent company. He wrote the screenplay for Love and a .45 with the intention of directing it himself, turning down lucrative offers in the range of $100,000 to $200,000 to sell it for someone else to direct. He approached upstart distributor Trimark Pictures and convinced them that he had made other films, but that they had all “burned up in a dorm room fire.” The ploy paid off and Talkington received a budget of just under $2 million.
Renee Zellweger read the script while making Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994) and her co-star Matthew McConaughey was initially being considered to play Watty. She actively pursued the role, which worked out well as going into production, the filmmaker had yet to find someone they liked for the role of Starlene. Gil Bellows felt that Watty was “one true, cool character ‘cause he’s not perfect. You see where he succumbs to his own human weakness and his own temptation. He’s got a sense of humor about life.” Rory Cochrane read the script and liked it, finding “so many interesting characters in it.” To research the role, the actor talked to a prisoner serving 50 years for armed robbery.
While writing the script, Talkington knew how everything would look and worked closely with cinematographer Tom Richmond (Waking the Dead): “I wanted to make a rock ‘n’ roll movie, and I wanted to have some raw feeling in it, some energy, some soul.” A friend of Talkington’s agent saw Love and a .45 and got him a record deal. The record company gave him enough money to get all the music he wanted, like “King of the Road” and “Ring of Fire,” as well as getting The Breeders to record an original song for the film. Unfortunately, the production was marred by tragedy when the man in charge of special effects died when he crashed his car after a late-night shoot. In addition, the set director died of cancer soon after the production wrapped.
Love and a .45 received mostly positive reviews. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Talkington shows some visual talent and has assembled a head-bangingly effective soundtrack, but he’s short on dramatic inspiration.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “Love and a .45 is a comic book, not be taken seriously, yet Talkington’s people are real, well-drawn, even though they’re caricatures. Talkington not only has style but also a terrific way with actors, giving them the confidence to go over the top while having fun doing so.” Finally, in his review for the Austin Chronicle, Marc Savlov wrote, “Really, there’s not a whole lot here we haven’t seen before. Wisely, Talkington keeps the film moving at roughly the speed of Speed, bathing the shots with eerie gels and utilizing various skewed camera angles to keep things interesting.” Jeffrey Combs said of his experience working on the film: “That movie was nothing but a joy for me. I had never done anything like that … It was a wonderful director, and I thought it was quite a good script for the first time out for this guy.”
The problem that road movies sometimes fall into is that the eccentric characters the protagonists encounter tend to be more interesting because they have less screen time to make an impression so the actors tend to give it all they’ve got. This is certainly the case with Love and a .45, which features blistering performances by Cochrane and Combs. When their characters are on-screen, the film really comes to life and this fire ebbs a little when they are absent. While Love and a .45 is certainly indebted to films that came before, it is a fun and entertaining ride with two attractive leads and a cool soundtrack accompanying their misadventures. One doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time out. Sometimes, telling an engaging story is enough and C.M. Talkington’s film certainly does that.
Allen, Tom. “Carty Talkington Hits the Mark with Love and a .45.” MovieMaker. November 1, 1994.
Griffin, Dominic. “Road to Nowhere.” Film Threat. February 1995.
Rochon Debbie and Peter Schmideg. “Jeffrey Combs – Acting on the Edge.” Videoscope. Winter 1997.