Time is a funny thing. Some movies nominated for a dozen Oscars are never heard from again, while others age like a fine wine into classic status. The 70’s exploitation films of Melvin Van Peebles, Russ Meyer, and Roger Corman were trashy, obvious, and had terrible production values, but now they’re Criterion Collection-approved cinematic touchstones. Despite their lack of subtlety, they were propulsively entertaining and understood storytelling fundamentals better than Hollywood did. Many of them experimented with film form; some, like Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, were downright avant-garde. Armed, the latest film from Van Peebles’ son Mario, overtly inserts itself into this tradition—not in the ironic, retro-throwback way of Black Dynamite, Undercover Brother, or Grindhouse, but in an honest and fully modern attempt to update the genre.
Your mileage may vary on whether or not it succeeds. Since his 1991 directorial debut New Jack City, Mario Van Peebles’ career has had its ups and downs. His only other critical success as a director has been 2003’s Baadasssss!, a biopic of his father. Between Armed and those two movies, he’s had steady, solid work as an actor and TV director, with some critical duds as a feature filmmaker (his last film before Armed was USS Indianapolis: Men Of Courage, starring Nicolas Cage, and it’s not one of the good Cage movies). Armed is, therefore, something of a surprise: not an assembly-line action movie, but a gonzo, go-for-broke love letter to exploitation cinema.
“…he’s a handsome, charming, impeccably dressed…an ex-cop with PTSD who can’t hold down a job.”
The tonal ebb and flow of a good exploitation movie is something that you can’t get anywhere else. They can be part wish-fulfillment, part sociological treatise, part meta-cinematic mindfuck, and part porn. In Armed, Van Peebles plays “Chief,” the perfect exploitation combo: he’s a handsome, charming, impeccably dressed lead who drives his cousin’s nice car, and he’s an ex-cop with PTSD who can’t hold down a job. To reveal anything beyond that would be criminal—suffice it to say, this movie doesn’t go where you think it will after the ludicrous opening scene. Despite being outrageous, baffling, and often stupid, Armed is usually one step ahead of the audience. At least once every ten minutes, I was left with my head in my hands, amazed at the audacity of some of its twists and turns. If you demand logic and coherence from movies, your head may be in your hands for other reasons.
As hinted at by the title and premise, Armed works in plenty of topical themes: gun control, PTSD, and the rise of Trump. Its social and political commentary is all over the place, veering from lucid to groaningly obvious to just plain weird. Right up until a head-scratching Van Jones cameo, it’s never entirely clear what the movie is trying to say, but it’s definitely saying something, and it’s never boring.
“…an image that stunned me with its inventive, hyper-saturated vividness.”
One thing Armed has in common with its exploitation influences is that it gets by with the promise of violence and sex, rather than violence and sex themselves. This is something that most modern exploitation homages get wrong; very few 70’s exploitation films have the 20-minute-long orgies of bloodletting that modern movies get away with. Armed often looks like a Michael Bay movie (albeit one made on the cheap), but there are no extended scenes of carnage—its most surprising and impressive choice is keeping onscreen gun violence to a minimum. Instead, outlandish production design and even more outlandish editing give it its rhythm and energy. For every terrible special effect that looks like an AfterEffects plugin, there was an image that stunned me with its inventive, hyper-saturated vividness.
30 years from now, I’m not sure if Armed will be looked back on as fondly as the films that inspired it. It possesses none of the self-awareness that we usually want from our “good-bad” movies. But if the world still exists in 2040 and this ends up in a midnight movie marathon somewhere, I won’t be surprised.
Armed (2018) Written and directed by Mario Van Peebles. With Mario Van Peebles, William Fichtner, Ryan Guzman, Columbus Short, Dionne Warwick, Jemma Dallender, Van Jones.
7 out of 10 stars