Maybe there’s a reason Chong rhymes with bong. When early seventies doper humor ruled on record and in theaters, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong waved the flag for weed-inhaling stoners and blunt-burning burnouts. “Up In Smoke” immortalized the herb-smoking duo’s signature image – two minority waste cases stumbling out of their van and shadowed by a sweet-smelling cloud of marijuana smoke.
Part of Cheech and Chong’s humor stemmed from their complete harmlessness. Naïve, sweet natured, and perpetually stoned, they nonetheless outsmarted dim-witted law enforcement officer Sgt. Stedenko (Stacey Keach) in their film escapades. It was every pothead’s wet dream brought to vicarious, onscreen life.
As Josh Gilbert’s “A/K/A Tommy Chong” attests to, life doesn’t always imitate art. While Marin slowly shed his outlaw skin to become a prolific character actor in films like “From Dusk ‘til Dawn,” Chong capitalized on his hemp-worshipping notoriety to open Chong Glass, a family-run, mail-order service specializing in “water pipes.”
It wasn’t long before Chong’s bong-manufacturing venture ran afoul of Operation Pipe Dreams, an aggressive national sweep on drug paraphernalia helmed by U.S. Attorneys John Ashcroft and Mary Beth Buchanan. The 2003 government sting operation would eventually indict 55 individuals – including Chong, sentenced for conspiracy to manufacture and distribute drug paraphernalia.
As “A/K/A Tommy Chong” begins, we’re whisked down the interstate towards wire-wrapped, cement-encrusted Taft Correctional Institution. Inside, we meet cell inhabitant Chong, looking more refined than he did in his hemp-inhaling heyday. His waist-long, untamed mane is replaced by short, gray hair. Sporting a tan prison jumpsuit, Chong reminisces on the bust that put him behind bars. It was six in the morning, he describes, when copters, dogs, and uniformed SWAT teams all converged at the home he shared with wife Shelby Fettis. “They told me, ‘You’re not under arrest,’” he recalls in the film. Yeah, right.
“A/K/A Tommy Chong” asks whether it was really necessary for the U.S. Government to stage a $12 million dollar raid to incarcerate Chong. Dancing with supportive wife Shelby the night before beginning his prison sentence, the aging felon appears harmless enough. Even so, if you’re a conservative, far-right Bible-thumper, chances are you’ll condone the action. But Gilbert compiles a formidable list of VIP Chong sympathizers, including talk show host Jay Leno, author Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”), actor Peter Coyote, and comedian Bill Maher. In fact, the film’s only major flaw is its reluctance to collar any rabid Chong-haters to provide a candid counterpoint.
Even so, the film effectively conveys the myriad of forces that crashed together and created Chong’s rebel, outsider spirit. Raised by a Chinese father and Scotch-Irish mother, Chong remembers growing up “knowing I was mixed,” when he was the only kid in his neighborhood not invited to birthday parties. It’s easy to see why alienation and racism could create this beloved counterculture guru – and even easier to understand why millions of fellow misfits identified with his cannabis-saturated, lovable-yet-subversive persona.
Speaking of drugs, one of SIFF’s Emerging Masters seems to know a thing or two about this illicit underworld. Honored by the festival as one of four “visionaries whose films speak with an original voice,” Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Bleeder,” “Fear X”) joins an esteemed group including past honorees Tom Twyker, Takashi Miike, and Michael Winterbottom. Refn’s “Pusher” trilogy offered festivalgoers a chance to wallow in the gutter inhabited by Copenhagen’s most volatile and conflicted criminals. Some critics condemned the films for redundantly telling the same story over and over. But the story – dealers struggling with debt-fueled anxieties – is really a device for spinning three surprisingly self-contained character studies.
1996’s “Pusher” concerns Frank (Kim Bodnia), a smack-supplying bruiser seriously indebted to his mobster boss. Sound familiar? Not the way Refn stages it, with tension and anxiety replacing familiar action and violence. Unlike past underworld sagas “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos,” Refn’s callous universe is strictly dog-eat-dog. Partners, girlfriends, and even mothers either exploit or are exploited. The grim vibe continues through 2004’s “Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands,” as Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), the black sheep, screw-up son of a powerful crime family, completes a prison sentence and discovers that he’s a father. While the first “Pusher” (where Tonny was initially introduced) examined stress and tension, Refn’s sequel examines the consequences of a weak man’s continued rejection. Berated by a brutish father and a presumptuous, skanky girlfriend, Tonny is pushed too far. He pushes back, and things get ugly.
Refn’s third installment, “Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death,” features a brilliant performance by Zlatco Buric as Milo (present in all three films). In this final third of the trilogy, he’s an aging drug kingpin juggling sobriety, family politics, and vicious competitors. While Tonny resented being ignored, Milo becomes angry that he’s taken for granted by a spoiled daughter and an arrogant, ecstasy-pedaling gang of Albanian double-crossers. Backsliding into heroin use, Buric convincingly depicts the torment of addiction. In a gruesome Grand Guignol finale, Milo demonstrates why he’s ruled the roost for so long, shedding his surface charm to reveal the cold-blooded killer lurking beneath. It’s a chilling transformation that’s sure to raise goose bumps on the flesh of even the most jaded crime genre fans.
Force one of the “Pusher” thugs to do post-prison community service at a rural chapel, and you’ve got “Adam’s Apple,” a slice of black comedy heaven from another Danish director, Anders Thomas Jensen (“The Green Butchers,” “Flickering Lights”). Sporting a chrome domed skinhead scalp, Adam (a hysterically sardonic Ulrich Thomsen) adores Adolph Hitler and pledges allegiance to Nazi nihilism. Adam’s polar opposite is church- supervising priest Ivan (Mads Mikkelsen, also starring in “Pusher”), whose eternally positive, optimistic outlook suggests loose screws and unhinged gray matter. Inquiring about the “handsome” gentleman from a picture on Adam’s bedroom wall, Ivan is bluntly informed that the image is Der Fuhrer himself, Hitler. When a beloved housecat is accidentally shot from a tree, Ivan takes it all in stride, reasoning, “It was an old cat.” When a remorseful war criminal wails of the internal torment he now lives with following such genocidal misdeeds, Ivan’s “don’t worry, be happy” philosophy is ludicrously inappropriate. “Everyone makes mistakes,” the priest reasons, “but we don’t let it get us down.”
This is daring stuff, and when our mentally disturbed Man of God assigns Adam on a rehabilitative mission to bake a pie, hell literally breaks loose. Ovens mysteriously break down, while the churchyard apple tree becomes infested with worms and ravens. Is Satan at work, attempting to foil this redemptive assignment? Or is God testing Ivan to endure these roadblocks, ala the Book of Job?
“Adam’s Apple” culminates in a war of wills between hateful Adam and faith-imbued Ivan. The inspired script suggests Jensen’s original storytelling chops. Never falling into slapstick silliness, the filmmaker’s sensibilities share the dry irony of the Coen Brothers. Meanwhile, his jarring, politically incorrect tone suggests the fearlessness of Quentin Tarantino. Like Adam, Jensen doesn’t take s**t from anyone. He’s an aggressive, unrepentant talent to keep an eye on.
Check out part one of KJ’s 2006 Seattle International Film Festival coverage.