A few years ago I was corralled into going to an art exhibit in downtown Los Angeles. The artist on display, whose name I have blocked from my mind, dealt exclusively in stenciling. The walls of the exhibit hall were covered with thirty foot high letters that spelled out F**K ‘EM IF THEY CAN’T TAKE A JOKE. Since we had paid ten dollars each to view this, I can’t say that I appreciated the joke.
I bring this up because I have just seen the filmed equivalent of that experience; a pseudo cult classic from Colorado called “Action Figures.” The director, a talented but obviously disturbed young man named Daniel Cooper, has blended together elements from Clerks, “Dawn of the Dead”, “Slackers”, and “Rear Window,” thrown in neo-nazis and drug dealers, strippers and retards with hammers, mulleted musicians and serial killers, and the result is…well…strangely compelling. You don’t feel good while you watch, but you can’t seem to turn it off. Cooper has tapped into our primal fascination with the freak show.
The movie starts with a preview of “Action Figures,” with a lot of heads exploding, toys being stomped by the director, and nun-chucks made out of two dildoes. Ok. While we are scratching our collective heads, the director invites his friend to sit down and watch the movie he has made, the saga of a stoner/slacker/loser named Frank “Smashed” Lewis, a pothead on the outs with his stripper girlfriend. He blows the chance to make some real money with the local drug dealer (when the guy tells you not to look in the package you’re delivering, you probably shouldn’t) and has to leave town. He pressures the ex, who has a hulking brother named Stein who likes to fondle his hammer and feels a deep need to recycle, to drive him to his childhood home. When they get there, he finds that his parents have amscrayed.
They wind up at the home of some guys he knew back in high school. The living room is decorated with a Southern flag and a sign that says, “The Messiah is coming” with a big swastika in the middle. The older of the two brothers, Morgan, bedecked in military regalia, makes a surprise entrance with a machine gun. He shoots Frank (or does he?) and ties up the stripper. There is another brother in the basement, Eddie, who likes to eat people and wears a flagellant mask and nothing else. The drug dealer shows up with a woefully unprepared posse looking for Frank. More people die.
I realize I’m being pretty vague, but believe me, this is the best that I can do with the material on display. We are watching a movie in a movie, with little side trips into other movies that have nothing to do with the movie. Ok? For instance, at one point we cut to a guy watching “Action Figures” on DVD. We’ve never seen him before. He puts a gun in his back pocket and heads down to the local adult video store, where he picks up a guy in an army shirt. Then they cut to him returning home with a bloody shirt, and a bloody stain on the a*s of his jeans. What the f**k? What does this have to do with anything else? It doesn’t. Scenes like this throw the viewer into a state of confusion and keep us watching, because we honestly don’t know what is going to happen next.
The dialogue is badly written, but that is unimportant. The characters have nothing of value to say, so who cares? The actors, friends of the director and/or people who gave him money toward the cost of the production, perform enthusiastically. Ted Hill as the hulking Stein glowers convincingly and has the creepiest smile since Vincent D’Onfrio in “Full Metal Jacket”. Brooke Simpson, recruited from the local strip club for authenticity, dances well. The two ostensible leads, the neo-nazi brothers Morgan and Larry, are well played by Jay Everhard and Tim Daughtery. And producer Frank Cseke has fun as the doomed slacker “Smashed.” The smaller roles are filled by what appears to be the parents of all concerned.
I can’t say that I enjoyed seeing this movie, but it doesn’t really matter what I thought. This movie was not made for me, and I recognize that. The only thing I can do is focus on the handiwork. Director Cooper shot the film on digital and then edited it together on his home computer, and he has done a good job of assembling the scenes. He is obviously capable of making a finished product. Now that he has this out of his system, I’d like to see him do something of some substance.