By Amy Nicholson
By LA Weekly critics
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Anthony D'Alessandro
Photo Joe Lederer/HBOTALL, DARK AND HANDSOME JOHN CUSACK, WEARING the twin hats of leading man and executive producer -- or, more accurately, switching them back and forth very fast -- is the primary reason to watch The Jack Bull, an HBO Western about a man who destroys his world for the sake of a principle. He is also the primary reason it exists to watch, TV being ever ready to get in bed with a movie star -- it lends class to the joint. Working (in the grand nepotistic tradition of, among many others, John and Walter Huston) from a screenplay adapted by father Dick Cusack from the early-19th-century German novel Michael Kohlhaas, he plays a Wyoming territory horse breeder seeking redress from a wealthy landowner who mistreats a pair of stallions left as security at a tollgate; when "the system" fails him, he takes the law into his own hands, selling off his property to raise an army, essentially to force the landowner to give his horses a bath, and a good brushing.
There is something great to be made from such a premise, and this isn't it. "The themes you find in this piece are the themes you find in classic cinema," avers coexecutive producer Steve Pink. "The good guy versus the bad guy. Man against society. Man protecting his family and land." Apart from the fact that these aren't really "themes," they describe equally well the substance of the Charles Bronson oeuvre, Billy Jack and Walking Tall, Nos. 1139 inclusive -- films from which The Jack Bulldiffers less in concept than in self-conception. It imagines itself bagging bigger game than it ever gets in its sights. It is overexplanatory, derivative and predictable -- is there any chance that wife Cora (Miranda Otto) will return from her mission to Cheyenne still breathing? Not in this movie-determined universe. And much of it does not make sense: For a supposedly successful businessman in a pioneer world, Myrl is a phenomenally bad judge of human character; and for a man fanatically devoted to the sanctity of his property, he is remarkably improvident with it. While we are meant to regard Myrl's crusade as honorable and admirable, I couldn't help regarding him as a bit of a dope. Pay the two dollars, I shouted. But to no avail.
The black hats, for their part, are unambiguously vile: pistol-packin' cartoons lacking even the plausible motivation and pathos of a Wile E. Coyote. Mean old rich man L.Q. Jones isn't onscreen 20 seconds before you know everything the film will have to say about him, and it's nothing you haven't heard before. John Savage, a good actor whose career stalled somewhere between rising starand risen, is wasted, or wastes himself, in the stock role -- the overstock role -- of brutal henchman. Director John Badham, whose curriculum vitae (from Saturday Night Feverto Short Circuit to Nick of Time) marks him as what might be nicely termed a professional, gets the walls to stand but can't stop the wind from whistling through the cracks. Well-designed and nicely photographed, the film is not bad and nearly good, but its heavier ideas sink in the pink muck of Hollywood convention, and in its fearful need to make Myrl likable (Cusack calls him a "classic hero") rather than unflinchingly investigate the flaws that impel him to his ruin, the drama pulls up short, leaving a work (of art or whatever) that is not so much tragic as simply frustrating.
It's watchable, for all that, especially as regards Cusack, the Jimmy Stewart of his age. An unsentimental player whose dry, droll cladding only barely camouflages a potential for cold violence, he's aptly cast here, in one of his first real grown-up roles; it's only a shame that the part underserves him -- a state of affairs for which, as exec. prod., he must be held at least partially responsible. And it is never less than pleasant to encounter John Goodman, cast not as a maniac, for a change, but as the Judge Who Cares -- his purpose here is to validate Myrl's outrage, and to ensure that you, dear delicate viewer, will depart the drama believing that, whatever else, evil will not go unpunished. That's right: It's a fairy tale.
THE REAL-LIFE PROTAGONISTS OF BLACK TAR HEROIN: The Dark End of the Street, an HBO documentary on the young junkies of San Francisco, are as confused and doomed as Cusack's Myrl, and like him have staked their future, to the extent they imagine they have one, on a faulty principle. Meet Tracey, inspired by the film Sid and Nancyto give heroin a whirl; meet Jake, the addict son of an addict mother; meet Oreo and Jennifer -- they're young, they're in love, and they shoot drugs. Meet Jessica, meet Alice. They lie, they steal, they score, they get high, they get sick, they get busted, they get momentarily clean, they score, they get high, they get sick, they get busted . . . and for a couple of years they let Steven Okazaki (an Oscar winner for his 1990 short, Days of Waiting) follow them around with a camera, perhaps in the belief that it's better to go to hell on television than to go to hell unnoticed (or never to go on television at all). Captured in full glassy-eyed effect in their unnatural habitats, in trash-strewn apartments and needle-littered alleys, they are somewhat proud and nearly unembarrassed -- but only nearly. And it's in revealing that small hard-dying flame of self-consciousness that Black Tar Heroinbecomes something more than a gruesome travelogue. Though stylewise its subjects are punk 'n' pierced, and though they buy the romance of self-destruction and take drugs as much to make themselves special as to kill pain, the film makes clear (from lovers' arguments, old scrapbooks and stoned calls to Grandma) that on a deeper level they crave conventional affection, mundane domesticity, satisfying pastimes. Just like, well, practically everyone. It makes wretchedness complex, and if nothing else -- and it's no small thing -- may make you think a little more kindly or a little more completely upon the next little creep with a Mohawk who panhandles you for change.
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