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Hipster Holy Grail: Reflex Action (2002)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

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

Reflex Action has a lot of problems, but I find myself unable to hate it.  It's a low-budget (probably no-budget) action movie with some nifty cinematography and excellent shooting locations that's marred by bad dialogue, laughable effects, and terrible pacing.  I don't think I'd recommend it overall, but I don't know... there's a glimmer of talent here.  I'd greenlight a remake if I had the cash for it.

My Rating: 2 / 5 (AGM)

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Quinn Taylor (Michael Baldoz) is a soldier in the Gulf War and possibly part of an elite Special Ops squad.  After a more-or-less successful mission, he returns to his home in Arizona, where his father, Pop, and brother, Lee (Michael Guerin), are eking out a living through an ailing mine on their property.

And here I have to take a brief aside to mention that I don't actually know what they're mining.  They probably mentioned it somewhere along the way and I just wasn't paying attention.  Let's just say.... salt.  Works for me.

Quinn and Lee wrassle a bit and indulge in some kiddish sibling rivalry for the first of many times.  Through these scenes we learn that the two of them used to be superstars on the high school football team, but that seems to have been their peak - ever since graduating, they've gone on to become nobodies.

(Which is really weird since Quinn was a soldier that saw active duty in the Gulf War.  You'd think the town would be constantly celebrating him, right?  I know that America's obsession with supporting / loving / thanking / honoring the troops really hit a high point in Gulf War II, but I thought that was always a thing we did with the exception of the Vietnam War.  Then again, I lived on or near military bases when the first Gulf War was going on, so what I saw was probably different.  Anybody out there able to confirm / deny?)

Lee is also harboring a bit of a grudge against Quinn because he believes Quinn abandoned the family when he enlisted, so by extension, the family's current financial state is partly his fault.  They argue about this a lot.  Pretty much every third scene.

We are also introduced to Alexandra (Monique Scott), an enigmatic young woman who mysteriously appeared on the Taylors' property one day and who was taken in by Pop.  She kind of just serves as an overall homemaker and looks on with doe eyes most of the time.

The Taylors go about some mining and then we cut to miscellaneous drug lords on the other side of the border who are scheming about how to smuggle their stuff into America.  They've realized that if they dig through a particular tunnel, they can connect to the Taylors' mine and create a literal underground system to transport the goods.  The only problem is that they don't own the Taylors' mine.  So they send some guys to the mine to try to convince Pop to sell his property, but he refuses out of a matter of pride.

And here's where I start to get confused again - possibly because I wasn't paying enough attention, or possibly because the movie doesn't explain it.  Why do the drug lords feel like Pop's refusal to sell is an obstacle?  I guess I could understand if they're trying to keep things low profile and they don't want to attract attention by killing anybody - but surely if you're a member of the cartel, you'd have a little more sway.  Either you'd hide their bodies really well, or you'd just use his mine, anyway, and do your transporting late at night when nobody's paying attention, or you'd kidnap some folks, or anything.  As I understand it, the cartel is ruthless.  One guy's refusal to sell should be nothing.

I'm also a little confused by some scenes that show their current smuggling operation, which seems to involve packing the drugs under boxes that are being shipped from a meat packing plant.  If you already have a cover story to smuggle your stuff, why does the tunnel matter so much?

And for that matter, why don't the Taylors notify any authority figures once they are threatened?

I guess what I'm saying is, this would be a good opportunity to introduce some corrupt figures of some sort.  Maybe make it a thing where Quinn returns home and he starts seeing cracks in the surface of his rose-colored memories of his hometown.  Or maybe he finds out that things have gone downhill in the time he's been away, and there's a racist Sheriff who's on the cartel's payroll and who keeps menacing the Taylors.

The central conflict in the movie is between the thugs, who want the mine, and Quinn, who is trying to defend his family.  But outside of the mine and the tiny family drama, you don't get a good scope of suspense or the cartel's power.  I don't mind having a small-scale movie, but why not give a bit of context to show us just how powerful and terrifying the thugs really are?

It's kind of like swimming with a great white shark and the only thing you ever see or feel is the tip of its tail.  I don't need the full shark to be on screen to feel suspense, but I should at least see its teeth - or the aftermath.  If the worst thing that happens is I get pushed around in its wake when it swims past me, then it's not a threat.  It's just an asshole.

The rest of the movie is basically the slowly mounting tension between the Taylors and the cartel as the thugs keep coming back to the mine to threaten everybody.  Eventually we learn that the cartel kidnapped Alexandra's sister at one point and she's now being forced to do their bidding, lest they kill her - but this doesn't really amount to much either because "their bidding" is never brought to fruition.  So the sister might as well not even be in the movie.

Finally, things come to a head and Quinn and Lee team up to fight back once and for all.  There's a dramatic confrontation in the mine, some thugs are shot to death, and the day is saved.

The Part Where I Complain

Oh, sure, the acting's pretty silly, and the effects are kinda weak, and there's some really melodramatic moments... but whatever.  The biggest problem with this movie, I think, is the pacing.  It never finds the right avenue for rising tension.

Let me give you a good example.  There's a scene where the drug dealers trap Lee and Pop in a shed and threaten Alexandra with ambiguous violence.  Quinn comes running out of nowhere and does a flying Liu Kang kick into one of the bad guys, which you think is going to be the big moment that turns the tables.  Now it's time for Quinn to start kicking ass and taking names, right?

So, he beats the crap out of the two thugs who happen to be standing around at the moment.....

...and they leave.

The next couple scenes just go back to life as usual around the mine.  It's not necessarily bad stuff, but they're moments of interpersonal drama that should be fleshed out at the beginning of the movie, not sandwiched between macho guys bludgeoning each other.

You know how this movie should've gone?
  1. Quinn comes home from Iraq.
  2. Quinn romances Alexandra and argues with Lee about trivial stuff.
  3. Thugs show up for the first time and ask Pop to sell.  Pop refuses and there's an ominous threat with a short clock - "We're comin' back in two days, and you better be ready to sell."
  4. Quinn, Lee, and Pop all argue about the thugs.
  5. Whatever other "life at the mine is hard" stuff you want.
  6. Thugs come back, get violent with Pop, and Quinn beats the shit out of them.  They leave in a panic.
  7. Split scenes between the mine and the thugs' HQ.  Pop and Alexandra celebrate and praise Quinn, which makes Lee jealous.  Thugs whine to their boss, who says something like, "I don't care who he is!  Send in more guys and kill whoever you have to - just get me that mine!"
  8. Thugs come back en masse and fight Quinn.  He puts up some good resistance, but he's swarmed and gets beaten up pretty badly.  Pop gets killed, Alexandra is kidnapped, and Lee is given a message: "Bring the deed to our hideout in twenty-four hours or Alexandra dies." 
  9. Lee helps Quinn recover and they sulk a bit, but then Quinn has a revelation about what the mine meant to Pop.
  10. Lee and Quinn go to the thugs' hideout and brutally murder all the thugs.
  11. They eat pudding pops or something and have a good laugh.

What we get instead is something more like this:
  1. Quinn comes home from Iraq.
  2. Quinn argues with Lee about trivial stuff.
  3. Thugs show up and act menacing.
  4. Quinn argues with Lee about trivial stuff.
  5. Thugs show up and act menacing.
  6. Quinn argues with Lee about trivial stuff.
  7. Thugs show up and act menacing.
  8. Quinn argues with Lee about trivial stuff.
  9. Thugs show up and act menacing.
  10. Pop dies.
  11. Lee and Quinn go to the thugs' hideout and brutally murder all the thugs.
It's really just a matter of story structure, which, as I'm fond of pointing out, is deceptively difficult.

I think a good comparison to make here is El Mariachi.  Like Reflex Action, El Mariachi was made for very little money. It's more famous for Robert Rodriguez's editing and directing tricks than it is for its quality or story. EM was also a small scale movie about a guy of Mexican descent (yeah, I'm making a broad assumption about Quinn Taylor - what of it?) reluctantly going up against an endless army of drug-dealing thugs.  And EM was also a melodrama with a lot of moments of terrible acting.

The differences between the two may appear vast, but a lot of it comes down to the basics.  EM was tight and laser-focused.  RA meanders and dawdles despite not having a broad premise.  The result is a significantly less enjoyable movie.

The Stuff I Liked

All that aside, I did actually find Reflex Action charming at times.

In legitimate B movie fashion, there's an undercurrent of "can do" spirit - even when the scenes they're trying to film are clearly beyond the scope of their budget - that elevates the movie and allows you to look past some of the bumps.  It isn't necessarily sustained throughout, but when it's there, it's glorious.

I'm talking about scenes like the opening Gulf War sequence in which Quinn is trying to plant a bomb under an Iraqi outpost and then narrowly escapes the resulting explosion.  They obviously filmed it in some random tunnel they found and make no attempt to show what, exactly, is the value of setting up the bomb - you never see what specifically it is that they're trying to destroy.  (A bunker?  A barracks?  Maybe just an important warehouse of some sort?)  But the actors all commit to it and the camerawork sells you on it, anyway, so it ends up working.

The director, Kevin Rapp, had two great tools at his disposal, and he used them well: he had access to a mine / cave system that looked like a mine, and he had access to a junkyard next to some scenic hills.  This is important because it means the movie actually looks pretty good most of the time, even when the music, acting, and dialogue may not be up to snuff.

It almost seems like he wrote the movie around his shooting locations, and I don't know that that's a bad thing.  The open hillside shots are beautiful enough to lure me in, and the premise is engaging enough that I want to stick around to see how it pans out.  So, good on ya, Mr. Rapp.

The editing is also pretty good much of the time.  The action scenes aren't always the most riveting, but they're shot well and have the right action movie feel.  When Quinn fights a thug, it looks like he's causing pain and might be a force to reckon with.  This might seem like a baseline level of competency rather than a thing to praise, but I'm still feeling kinda burned by those terrible action scenes in Hawk's Vengeance. Trust me on this: action scenes that look like people are actually moving and getting hurt are a huge, huge plus.

I also liked that Quinn is not a super soldier, despite his tenacity and skill with guns / hand-to-hand combat.  He gets beaten up frequently and takes as many punches as he gives.  The best action heroes are the ones who are just regular dudes with the drive to move forward because they give you a chance to create some kind of tension, even if you already know ahead of time that the good guys are going to win.  I can't honestly say that Reflex Action is a tense movie, but I appreciate that they tried - it's so easy to just make your hero ~~Perfect~~ and then your movie is really boring.  (See again: Hawk's Vengeance.  Also The Ultimate Weapon.)

The race / role reversal of the characters is pretty nifty, too.  The cartel seems to be made up mostly of white guys, despite being based (I have to assume) south of the US/Mexico border, and the heroes are all of Latin descent.  I don't know if Rapp meant to inject any political or cultural subtext or if he just wanted to have a movie where the white people are the bad guys for once, but it's a great touch - especially in the context of the drug trade.

I'm calling this an Almost Good Movie because, like all AGMs, this really looks like it could use a remake.  If they had a better budget, rewrote the script, and maybe recast it while still keeping the races the same, I think you'd have a nifty little small-scale action movie on your hands.  What we have now is like 75% of the way there, but man, what a difference that last 25% makes.

Where You Can Watch

Reflex Action is currently streaming on Netflix.

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