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Hipster Holy Grail: G-Men From Hell (2001)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover a hidden treasure. Sometimes I don't. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

G-Men from Hell makes the classic misstep of mistaking quirk for comedy.  The result is an interesting movie with an excellent title whose premise never actually lives up to the antics promised.  It's a tragedy; there's so much talent here that you can almost see something brilliant just under the surface.

My Rating: 2.5 / 5 (Almost Good Movie)

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

The opening credits are played over a series of comic strips that give us the back story: Crept (William Forsythe) and Mattress (Tate Donovan) are two FBI agents who were gunned down and have gone to Hell.  When the film proper starts, they reflect and come to the conclusion that a mistake must have been made - clearly, as agents of The Law, they should be in Heaven.  They decide to go back to Earth and do good deeds to make sure God notices them and recognizes the mix-up.

So, they steal a magic jewel from Satan (Robert Goulet) and use it to escape from Hell.  I'll give G-Men from Hell credit: it gets to the point quickly.  We're only like five minutes in and the movie has delivered on its title.  So, there's that.

Unfortunately, it kinda ignores the Hell angle shortly thereafter.  There's definitely a presence of Hell throughout the movie - occasionally we'll cut to Satan moping about or trying futilely to reclaim the G-Men's souls - but for the most part, the two guys basically just try to go back to their job.

They open a Private Investigation firm and take on a case from a blonde bombshell who suspects her husband may be trying to kill her.  While looking into it, they find her husband murdered and uncover a convoluted web of deceit surrounding his death.  In various ways this leads us to a cast of bizarre characters, which includes:

  • A mad genius who has discovered how to transfer people's souls ("essence," as he calls it) from their bodies to other entities, including puppets and robots;
  • A clunky malfunctioning robot containing the essence of a low-level thug who was responsible for killing the G-Men in the prologue and whom the G-Men killed in turn after returning to Earth;
  • A nutball vigilante who wears a cheetah costume;
  • An angry gay detective played by Gary Busey and his nebbish, amateur sidekick played by Zach Gilligan;
  • A chauffeur on the edge of a total mental collapse who carries around an apparently psychotic hand puppet who may or may not be an extension of his diminishing grasp on reality; and
  • Once in awhile, Satan.

If you're buckling over with laughter right now, then I've got great news - G-MfH is for you.  But for everybody else... ehh.  It's not that great.  I'll talk more about that in the next bit.

Before I do that, let's talk about some of the better stuff.

The movie features one of those nifty anachronistic blends of time periods where you can't actually tell what time or place you're watching.  Characters reference modern(ish) technology like CDs and desktop computers, so it can't be set before the '80s at the earliest, but they dress and talk like '30s pulp comic heroes.  At first I found this confusing because I thought it actually was supposed to be in a specific era - but I think the confusion comes entirely from it being a low-budget movie.  Once I figured out what they were going for, I kinda liked it.

The actors all do a generally decent job - or at least, they try to.  Nobody looks like they're phoning it in even though they would be justified in so doing.  (Plus, it's a great movie to keep in mind if you're trying to win a bar bet.  Who would believe there's a movie from the 21st century starring both Tate Donovan and Zach Gilligan in speaking roles?)

The visual direction (compliments of Nicolas Cage's brother, Christopher Coppola) is a little flat at times, but interesting enough to get across the cross-cultural mesh of "then" and "today," and the sets feature enough goofy props and locations to draw you in.

Overall, it's a fine movie to look at and it invites you in.  There's really no reason this movie couldn't work.  It all comes down to one big problem.

The Part Where I Bitch About the Comedy

This is not a funny movie.

In my opening blurb, I mentioned that a big reason why is the quirk.  Quirk is one of those flavorful elements that can make or break your story.  You have to be smart about how you dole it out.  It is not in and of itself a joke - it is merely part of your setup.  Lazy writers will often try to coast by on quirk alone, and that's how you end up with stuff like Mystery Men.

It's not that dissimilar to my gripes about Fake Bad Movies, actually.  You came up with a halfway clever title and a zany premise?  Great.  I'm intrigued.  But I'm not actually laughing yet.  I'm waiting to hear the punchline.  What's that? You don't have one?  Well... what the hell am I doing here, then?

To put it another way: quirk needs consequences.  Without that, it's just a bunch of arrogant noise.

For example, pretend you're making a sex comedy and one of your characters likes to shove pickles in his underwear.  He says he likes the way it feels, plus he likes to show off the bulge.  That's not actually a joke yet - it's just a really bizarre and zany thing the guy does.  I mean, it's kinda funny, I guess, but it's really just an arbitrary weird thing that you think will pay off.

The joke would be something like a scene where he actually lands a date and starts to have sex, but his date says something feels wrong.  Cut to pickle-dick sitting on the edge of a bed, red-faced, while you hear the woman screaming in the shower as she tries to wash the brine out of her vagina.  Then for the rest of the movie, everybody keeps saying pickle-dick has an STD, and he has to keep explaining, "No!  It was just a pickle!  Jesus, what's so hard to understand about putting pickles in your underwear?!"

G-MfH has a lot of arbitrary quirk that never pays off.  A good example is Weenie, the gross demon played by Paul Rodriguez.  I skipped over him in my plot summary because he doesn't really do anything except annoy the titular G-Men.  Weenie is a blotchy, hyperactive toadie-type character who goes to Earth to try to bring the G-Men back to Hell.  Functionally he (supposedly) serves as the film's active antagonist, since Satan is only kind of a figurehead antagonist.  But Weenie is, as his name implies, kind of a wimp.  So most of his scenes go like this:

Weenie: "Hey!  Wacky whiny sentiment!" [Flails arms.]
G-Man: "Ugh." [Punches Weenie and leaves.]

What's the point of that?  I get that there could be some comedic potential in having a wimpy and ineffective demon, but again, being wimpy is not a joke in and of itself.  He should at least be trying to enact some pathetic schemes that keep failing.  Maybe if Weenie pulled a Wile E. Coyote and kept trying to trap the G-Men, but he forgets to take anything into account and things keep backfiring.  That could be something, right?

Another example is the cheetah-themed vigilante who prowls on rooftops and keeps saying "evil must perish."  He's probably mentally ill and the movie sort of hints at that.  He pops up now and again as kind of a red herring to the actual plot, but pretty much all he ever does is wail and remind you that he has a mental illness... and then he leaves.  Who finds that funny?  How?

How This Should Be Remade

I have to be honest: I kinda made up my mind about this movie maybe 30 minutes in.  It was hard for me to give it fair chance on its own terms after that point because I'd already come up with a much better movie in my head.

Naturally, this is now the version of the movie I want to see.

Let me back up a bit to the one joke in this movie that actually does work.  It's kind of an ingenious joke, actually, the sort of thing that can act as an engine for the entire film - but it's buried in bad costumes, broad performances, and the never-ending fight between the supporting cast to see who can chew the most scenery in the shortest amount of time.

Y'see, the G-Men are actually pretty shitty guys.  They took bribes, they're quick to shoot perps, and they don't give a crap about due process.  They went to Hell because they're terrible people.  But they don't ever figure that out - the entire movie, they think there's just been some kind of mix-up because they're "the good guys" and they should be going to Heaven.  So they go around town doing shitty things without ever once considering the consequences or ethics of their actions.

That's actually funny.  Two assholes who are too dumb to be cognizant of what they are?  It's great.  It's a deep well of material that can sustain at least a 90 minute comedy, if not a little more.

The main problem with the movie as it is?  They keep forgetting that central thesis.  They keep going off on these other subplots or side quests and none of them live up to the potential of the core conflict.

So here's how I'd solve it.  First, the G-Men need some kind of visual reminder about the debt they owe to Hell.  Like maybe a tattoo of how many years they have to spend being punished, and it magically goes up or down depending on their actions.

Next, let's make the timeline more straightforward and get rid of the anachronisms.  We'll keep them in the fictional "Snap City," which will serve as a pastiche of Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, but the world if the movie will follow actual history.  The G-Men are killed in the 1920s or 1930s and go to Hell.  When they finally escape and get back to Earth, however, they find out that it's modern day.

Now, the obvious joke is to make it a fish out of water formula and play up all the technological and cultural differences between now and a century ago.  ("An iPhone?  What's that?  Is it some kind of candy bar?  Oh, no!  I broke a tooth!" [Sad trumpet.])  But that wouldn't come up very much.  No, what we're going to play up is the sociological differences between now and then.

The G-Men are ruthless, sexist, homophobic, racist bastards who use fascistic tactics to get the job done.  They were around before the Holocaust, before desegregation, before DOMA, before virtually anything that can be construed as a landmark reminder to us that maybe we should try to be better people.  So when they decide to "clean up the town," what they're really doing is beating up on immigrants and violating civil liberties.

Picture the two of them picking up a newspaper with some headline about a recent murder.

"Say, that's in the Brentwood District.  Ya know what that means, don't ya, sport?"

"Sure do, pal.  Let's get 'em."

Next scene is them mowing down four black guys at a basketball game and laughing their asses off.  Then they stand over the bodies.

"The big guy upstairs is gonna love this!"

Suddenly their tattoos catch on fire and the numbers start spinning, adding another three hundred years to each of them.  They look up at the sky angrily.

"What gives?  Jesus, we're working as hard as we can down here.  Give us a break."

Now you have actual G-Men from Hell.  You've got your pulpy comic book layer, you've got a nice thick satirical layer, you've got a horror / action layer....  There's just so much more potential here for actual jokes and suspense, and you get to keep a lot of the visual sensibilities.  You could even use most of the same cast.

Somebody get on this.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth? (Added March 2017)

So, this one is a little weird.  We can get the usual obscurity formality out of the way (25 cred / just under 300 IMDb ratings) and move into a meta discussion about hipster cred and how it applies here.

I started doling out hipster cred for my HHG reviews mainly because I thought it would be funny, but the more I try to evaluate how "hipstery" a movie is, the more I peel back the layers of the irony onion.  And there's definitely a rotten spot in the core where it mushes together and you have a hard time figuring out what you're even looking at.

G-Men From Hell does its best to cram irony and quirk into every minute of its runtime.  But it doesn't do so insincerely, the way that a Fake Bad Movie does.  It's clearly a labor of love and you can tell that people put in a lot of hard work - and that's kind of the whole definition of hipsterdom right there.  A hipster is one who puts effort into outdoing others with ironic or obscure knowledge, especially as it applies to nostalgia and obsolescence.  That... that kind of is this movie.

It pretty much breaks my system.  I don't think there are any other movies I've watched that are custom-made for hipster cred.  I'm obligated to give it a full 100 hipster cred out of a possible 100, but I'm going to put a caveat on that.  It'll stay that way only for as long as it stays under 500 IMDb ratings, dropping by 10 cred for ever 50 ratings it gets until it hits the 1,000 rating barrier and becomes mainstream.

So, if you're looking for a quick way to stack up cred, go check this one out.  I'm not saying it's a good movie.  Just that it's pretty gosh dang hipster.

Where You Can Watch

G-Men from Hell is currently streaming on Netflix and Hulu.

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