REVIEW: Danny Trejo Gives Bad Ass Some Gonzo Charm
It’s spring rummage week at the movies, with four releases – Lockout, The Three Stooges, Cabin in the Woods and Craig Moss’s vigilante goof Bad Ass – retooling old gems and selling off genres for parts. Maybe next year we can look forward to a film made up solely of references to this quartet – The Three Bad Asses Escape Lockout in the Woods? Wait, don’t Google that. I don’t want to know.
Spoofing all the ways that it’s all been done before has itself become a pretty predictable gig. A genre, even. But every once in a while a movie like 21 Jump Street manages to stay two steps ahead of our endlessly attenuated expectations, making clued-in silliness look like a (funny) walk in the park. Bad Ass has a bit of that gonzo energy – a fair bit, actually. In the first few minutes a montage sequence challenges the record for film clichés-per-second to tell the back-story of Frank Vega, a Santa Rosa farmboy who grew up to fall in love in a pasture and then fight in Vietnam, where the memory of his girl back home sustained him through unimaginable torture. Once returned, Frank (played as a young man by Shalim Ortiz) finds his true love married with kids, and his hope of becoming a police officer is snuffed out by a bum leg. He begins selling hot dogs in the street, a career that carries him all the way to the moment where he turns into Danny Trejo.
A considerable part of the point of any Danny Trejo performance involves the question of what a person has to do to get a face like that. It’s what made him a favorite of genre geeks like Robert Rodriguez: The face is its own movie with its own set of references. Here he is the gentle ogre, a scary-looking softie in combat shorts and a camo jacket who just wants to get through the day and nurse his disappointments with a bottle of El Matador at night. The problem is he lives in the vicious Los Angeles of Falling Down, where there’s always some racially charged a-hole trying to bring you down. The morning of one particular bus ride, it’s a couple of skinheads harassing an older man in a Black Panthers beret. When Frank intervenes with a few definitive blows – the geriatric set has all the hand-to-hand skills in Bad Ass – a cell phone video taken by a member of the generation that doesn’t do much else with their hands makes him a YouTube star.
But Internet celebrity doesn’t pay the bills, nor does it protect your best friend from his enemies. Shortly after his Vietnam buddy Klondike (Harrison Page) joins Frank in his recently deceased mother’s home, he is gunned down by a couple of gangsters. Frank’s abiding faith in the police (a little strange, given the routing the system gave him) is shaken when they fail to follow up on the murder, and he takes matters into his own iron-cast hands.
Frank doesn’t want to fight, but the world keeps demanding (and then rewarding) his beat-downs, whether they involve cholos shaking down the local liquor store, barflies spoiling for a piece of the famous tough guy, or a jerk-ass neighbor who beats on his pretty wife (Joyful Drake) and yells at his sitcom-ready son (John Duffy). “Violence just seems to follow me,” Frank protests when one of his cop buddies tells him to cool it with the public beatings.
It’s one of many lines in a script (also written by Moss) that plays like the entire Charles Bronson oeuvre was fed through a shredder, tossed into the air, and glued into a new configuration wherever it landed. The effect, a kind of hard-boiled camp, makes the first two-thirds of Bad Ass lots of fun. Moss, the Weird Al of genre goofs, has a surprisingly light touch (especially given that his last film was a Twilight take-off called Breaking Wind, also starring Trejo). Very often the line between spoofing and playing it straight is too subtle to make out. When Frank tackles an old lady to shield her from drive-by fire and she makes a corny joke about being manhandled, Moss uses a sound bridge of canned laughter to carry us into the next scene: Frank alone in front of the television that night. When a cop warns Frank, “They say you’ve been leaving a bloody trail all across the city,” Frank shrugs: “Doesn’t sound familiar to me.”
It’s the casual tone that makes all the difference, but it can’t quite carry the movie. When the mystery behind Klondike’s execution begs resolving and Frank begins romancing his battered neighbor, the plot’s worminess proves a distraction from Bad Ass’s more mindless charms. It’s a funny catch for this kind of thing – to really let it fly the movie needs the safety of a narrative’s inner logic. The Internet celebrity factor adds novelty but not much else, and by the time Frank is hunting down the gang boss behind a vague political conspiracy (involving Ron Perlman and Charles S. Dutton) an anomalous chyron introduces a key location because the storytelling isn’t strong enough to get us there on its own. This feels disappointing mainly because, to do some borrowing of my own, in the world of classic send-ups, Bad Ass coulda been a contender.