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.