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The B-movie is dead; long live the B-movie

June 18, 2010 1 comment

Imaging if it had starred Michael Moriarty and Frederic Forrest

The Bride and I caught “Law Abiding Citizen,” the programmer with Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, a host of character actors, and a special appearance by Gerard Butler’s abs, last night on Netflix streaming. It’s a solid little thriller that begins with some interesting questions about the nature of justice and the law and gradually grows into an series of plot twists and revelations wouldn’t have been out of place in a Warner Bros. cartoon if you replaced Butler with Yosemite Sam.

Towards the flick’s end, I’ll admit I found myself wondering what would have happened if “Citizen” had been made 25 or 30 years ago. After all, despite the appearances of an Oscar winner (Foxx) and one of the new Hollywood alpha dogs (Butler), “Citizen” is, at its core, a B movie, and, as it stands, almost too clean and sterile. The director, F. Gary Gray, goes for a 70s crime flick vibe, but he never pulls it off completely, never fully imbibing the movie with any true sense of place (it’s set in Philadelphia but might as well have been Anytown, USA) and instead manages to just contain the movie and its plot twists from spiraling out of control, effectively staging some shocking deaths and a short but effective action sequence in a cemetery.

“Citizen” is something of an abnormality, a movie that probably would have never have been released by a major studio 25 years ago. Then it would have been filmed in Florida and put out by an outfit like Cannon and probably staring Chuck Norris in the Gerard Butler role, making him the good guy for killing all of the “corrupt” members of the legal system.

Put it back still another 10 years and it would have been directed by Larry Cohen with Michael Moriarty acting his ass off in the Foxx/DA role and released by AIP. The premise of “Citizen” calls out for someone like Cohen, a master of masking social commentary underneath genre conventions. And for Cohen’s faults as a storyteller, he always gives you a sense of the city’s character; New York City feels authenticly gritty and alive in movies such as “Q: The Winged Serpent” or “The Ambulance.” His characters are always hungry, always desperate, always looking for a way out, another option, something, anything that will ultimately save them from themselves.

That is what lies at the very heart of the true B movie: desperation. Desperation to get out of poverty, out of drugs, out of the drug trade, to catch the psycho killer, to change, to be who they would dream about being in an A movie. Butler is angry in “Citizen,” but he never taps into the essential core rage of a man who spends a decade plotting bloody revenge; conversely, Foxx’s character, with his expensive suits, beautiful family and expensive home, never feels like a man truly battling for his life and the life of his friends and his city. Contrast that with Richard Carradine, with his cheap suits and shabby apartment in “Q,” who authentically feels like a man battling New York City from a reborn Aztec god.

All of this just led me to thinking how the B movie as we know it has become sanitized. Thrillers or horror flicks that never knew lives outside of video rentals are now the mainstream, slicked up and neutered down for public consumption, save for rare occasions when something shows up out of nowhere like “The Boondock Saints” or “Bubba Ho-Tep” that actually pulses with the energy of a director wanting to make something out of nothing and a cast that’s not just waiting for a paycheck.

"Hi, I used to be Batman."

Sure, you can rent direct-to-DVD crime and horror now, but those all feel like combinations of major studio crap so bad the studio wants to hide it and hope they’ll make a little money back (in a fair world this is where “Jonah Hex” would be), something thrown together by people who scrapped together rental money for a high-end camera and editing software, or low-rung actioners with actors who you remember once had a career (hi, Val Kilmer).

Now we have studios actually remaking all the stuff that was originally released independently: “Halloween,” “Prom Night,” “Bad Lieutenant,” “They Live.” Hollywood wants to co-opt what once passed as the independent spirit in B movies and then filter it through the lowest common denominator. Sadly, by taking once was the “guilty pleasure” of entertainment and trying to mass market it, the studios are shortchanging audiences.

The influence of old school B movies shows all over Tarantino’s filmography, but even directors like Scorsese give nods to masters like Sam Fuller in films like “The Departed” and “Shutter Island,” and even manage to more acutely harken to those roots than most (for all of its artistic leanings and repeated use of “Gimme Shelter,” “The Departed” is an unabashed B movie with an A-level cast, and they STILL run over Martin Sheen’s body; THAT’S what a B movie does). Even Tony Scott, who never shot a scene he couldn’t cut into 50 jittery little shots, manages to make New York City feel dangerous and the characters seedy and desperate in the “Pelham 1 2 3” remake.

As filmmaking becomes more and more a medium of the people, and distribution becomes a matter of burning DVDs rather than booking theaters, here’s hoping that the B movie finds a way to return to its squallid roots; after all, think what Jack Hill could have done with something like “8MM.”

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