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DVD Review: Modus Operandi (2009)

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Modus Operandi, one of the latest cult film offerings where the level of competence doesn’t quite match up with the level of enthusiasm, is a bit of a different breed than The Room or Birdemic. Those films are easy to laugh at — earnest passion projects that function best as objects of unintentional comedy. Now, Modus Operandi is by no means an empirically good film; the espionage plot is beyond trite, the acting is leaden and the photography is barely passable. But director Frankie Latina’s disregard for or ignorance of filmmaking grammar often sends the entire thing into dissociative fever dream territory — and the effect is kind of bewildering.

Latina’s opus looks like some kind of pseudo-avant-garde oddity just as often as the grindhouse homage that it’s been labeled as. For all of the indiscriminate nudity, gleeful gore and exploitation touches, it’s the disorienting editing and faux-arty black-and-white compositions (the film switches back and forth between monochrome and color) that stick out most. I wouldn’t call these flourishes the product of talent necessarily, but they’re a lot more interesting than the low-rent Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino trickle-down you might expect from the film’s description.

Hamstringing the film from truly reaching the kind of visual non sequitur apex it could have is the narrative, which the film eventually gives itself over to. Stanley Cashay (Randy Russell) is a former CIA agent whose life has been ruined by the murder of his wife. A promise of the name of her killer gets him back in the game, where he’s needed to obtain two briefcases containing incendiary top-secret material involving the president.

Russell’s balding, bleary-eyed milquetoast (exceptionally non-intuitive casting here) doesn’t even seem to belong to the same world as goateed nemesis Dallas Deacon (Mark Borchardt) or fellow agent, Blaxploitation loaner Black Licorice (Nikki Johnson). Lending the film some cult cred is Danny Trejo, doing a few hours work as the director who might have to settle the whole thing himself.

Shot entirely on location in bland, bland Milwaukee (which doubles for Siberia and Tokyo at points), Modus Operandi has moments sure to inspire laugh-out-loud incredulity, like a bar shootout where playing cards and handguns are wielded as equal weaponry. But mostly, Modus Operandi is a baffling low-budget curiosity from an alien mind.

The DVD of the film includes an introduction by Sasha Grey, who appears in Latina’s forthcoming feature, Skinny Dip, short interview clips with several cast and crew members, a couple behind-the-scenes clips, one deleted scene and a reel of stuff from the cutting room floor. An audio commentary by Borchardt and “film historian” Dave Monroe rounds out the disc. It’s too bad we get no contributions from Latina here, but I guess the mystique must not be disturbed.

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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.