Monday, September 9, 2013
Review: Bounty Killer
It's an interesting thing: since the release of Grindhouse in 2007, we've seen dozens of movies that seem to imitate that movie's approach of paying tribute to the sleazy, violent exploitation movies of the 1970s and '80s. Even major studios have gotten in on the act, releasing not one but two Machete movies (itself a Grindhouse spin-off). Not only is this kind of influence incredibly ironic -- Grindhouse was a flop, after all -- but the quality of these knock-offs vary wildly. Most err on the side of terrible. For every Hobo with a Shotgun, there's a Cherry Bomb -- inept, paper-thin showcases of sex and violence that disguise their shortcomings with cheap, DIY spirit.
The more I think about it, the less I suspect that this wave of movies are being in response to Grindhouse. It's more likely that they're being made a) because one way to make a low-budget movie is to call attention to your low budget as a deliberate aesthetic choice or b) they're being made by a generation of filmmakers who grew up on cable TV, VHS tapes, Troma movies, USA Up All Night, John Carpenter, Sam Raimi and The Road Warrior.
Those are but a few of the influences on Bounty Killer, the latest film from director Henry Saine, which plays like someone took tapes of a bunch of the movies I grew up loving and threw them in a blender. Shot in 18 days for about $1 million, there is an incredible amount of energy and ingenuity in Bounty Killer -- Saine has packed a LOT of movie in for such a low budget, staging elaborate set pieces (like an old-fashioned stagecoach chase that replaces the stagecoach with an RV and horses with motorcycles) and tons of funny, violent gunplay.
Bounty Killer was originally made as a short film in 2011; actually, it was originally designed as a possibly animated series based on a series of drawings, which were then turned into a short film which was then adapted into a comic book, all by Saine (which helps explain why the movie feels very much like it's based on an independent comic -- it kind of is). The short film also starred Christian Pitre as Mary Death. It's easy to see why Saine would want to expand the short to feature length; not only is there a lot of world built into this concept, but Pitre/Mary Death begs for her very own movie -- and Bounty Killer really is Pitre's movie. Sure, Drifter is the de facto lead, but he's pretty vanilla in a universe this colorful and can't possibly hope to stand up to Pitre when they're on screen together. Saine wisely steers the movie towards Mary Death, understanding that she's the breakout character (and Pitre gives a breakout performance). It would have been very easy to make Mary Death a cardboard construct of big guns, short skirts and slinky one-liners, but Saine and Pitre give the character a surprising amount of depth. As the film continues and Mary Death's backstory is slowly revealed, her relationship with Drifter picks up some actual weight.
Hopefully that comes across as the compliment it was intended to be.
There are a handful of celebrity cameos in the movie to lend it some star power, including Beverly D'Angelo as a madame, Kristanna Loken as the movie's Big Bad and Gary Busey as a corporate henchman. They're fine and I'm sure they helped raise some money or help the movie out in a couple of territories, but they're almost completely unnecessary. It's very obvious that each of these actors was only available for a day or two, and their scenes rarely add much to the movie. Kristanna Loken's performance is problematic, but she's at least integral to the plot -- plus, she's involved in a few of the movie's best moments. The Gary Busey cameo is the only one I have a real problem with; while Saine doesn't play his appearance for laughs, necessarily, his participation alone tips the movie in an "ironic" direction. Don't be fooled; Bounty Killer is not some self-aware B-movie winking at its own existence. It can be goofy, sure, and it knows what movie it is, but that doesn't mean that Saine isn't playing it straight.
Most importantly, though, is that Saine understands the value of a gag. Movies like this don't add up to much if there aren't any moments you can point to and say "Oh, and remember THIS crazy/funny/violent thing?" Bounty Killer comes up with a new and inspired gore gag every couple of minutes, including the best head-splitting moment since Dead Alive and a fantastic climax set inside an office building. Saine has a lot of fun staging bloodshed and isn't afraid to keep things goopy and wet, but the results usually make us laugh instead of gross us out. As it should be.
Bounty Killer is currently available on Amazon Instant Video, VOD and in limited theatrical release. It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on October 29.