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DVD Review: Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell Returns and Searchers 2.0

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British director Alex Cox is the very picture of a riches-to-rags story, tumbling from mainstream Hollywood success in the mid-1980s to a self-described blacklist not long after. 1984’s Repo Man and 1986’s Sid and Nancy displayed Cox’s ragged punk aesthetic at its most accessible, but it was a different story with 1987’s Walker, a political and anachronistic flop that studio Universal refused to promote. Cox’s career hasn’t been the same since.

With two new Microcinema releases, a better picture of Cox’s career comes into view — both the period where he began to fall out of favor with the mainstream and where he’s ended up now.

The first, Straight to Hell Returns, is a redux version of Cox’s 1987 feature Straight to Hell, which came out just before Walker, and made it clear that Cox was headed for stranger waters. The film transports his punk sensibility into the world of the spaghetti western, where the bloody and the bizarre are in full array. This new version restores six cut scenes, adds a 5.1 stereo soundtrack and features “digitally improved violence,” which is pulled off rather effectively.

The film features a gang of bank robbers (Sy Richardson, Joe Strummer and Dick Rude, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Cox) and their tagalong girl (Courtney Love), who head to the desert to hide out with their loot after they botch the job. The seemingly deserted town they take shelter in is, in fact, packed with weirdos and scum who antagonize the group leading up to an inevitable explosion of violence at the film’s climax.

Straight to Hell doesn’t take itself seriously for even a single second, but sometimes the winks to the audience seem to get lost in translation. Or perhaps there aren’t meant to be many winks to the audience. Either way, the film seems to possess an exclusive quality that doesn’t bring along its viewers for most of the ride.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its share of fun. It’s not breathlessly outrageous enough to be a true cult hit, but the oh-so-smooth Richardson is a fantastic screen presence and the preponderance of guest appearances (including Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper and Jim Jarmusch as the gang’s irked boss) help to liven up the proceedings.

The DVD includes a making-of featurette, Back to Hell, that features interviews from a large portion of the cast, both prominent and supporting, an audio commentary by Cox and Rude and a short tour of the filming locations.

The second film, Searchers 2.0, comes from 2007 when Cox was moving into extremely low-budget filmmaking. Working from another original screenplay, Cox traverses more overtly comic territory with this road picture, following two former child actors, Mel (Del Zamora) and Fred (Ed Pansullo), who are on a quest to exact revenge.

The two meet in a quickly sketched moment of happenstance, and discover that they both worked on the same film as youngsters, where they were terrorized by a domineering screenwriter (Richardson again). They find out he’s screening his latest film in Monument Valley, and the two manage to coax Mel’s distant daughter (Jaclyn Jonet) into giving them a ride there from Los Angeles.

Searchers 2.0 sometimes feels like it’s herking and jerking from one genre to another (and Pansullo’s deliberately obnoxious performance probably has something to do with that), but there’s a lot of inspired satire, beauty and lunacy to be found in the film. It effectively skewers nostalgia for one’s past and the state of filmmaking simultaneously in a series of conversations where Mel and Fred discuss their favorite films, all the while getting key details wrong and conflating true classics with soulless studio garbage. It’s also gorgeously shot by DP Steven Fierberg, whose digital compositions of Monument Valley and the road getting there are quite affecting.

The film ends with a customary bang of surreal craziness from Cox, which does feel a little out of nowhere, but Searchers 2.0 is clearly the product of a filmmaker who’s both smart and rebellious. As a genre mash-up of the western, the road movie and the industry satire, it’s a total success.

The DVD includes a making-of featurette and an audio commentary by Cox, composer Dan Wool and sound designer Richard Beggs.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.
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