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Hipster Holy Grail: Reluctant Justice (1995)

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

Credit where credit's due: Reluctant Justice has a lot of nifty ideas and never shoots so high that it can't deliver.  Unfortunately, amateurish acting and a severe drought of editing make this movie drag on way too long, so I can't honestly recommend it.

My Rating: 2.5 / 5 (AGM)

The Plot Summary

I know it's New Year's Eve and it would probably make a lot more sense if I decided to close out the year with something thematically appropriate, but today I figured I'd try to get back into the true spirit of the Hipster Holy Grail.  No cult films, no MST3K classics, no foreign movies that are probably well-regarded in their native land and just didn't make a huge splash in America - no, I wanted to review something independent, possibly shot on VHS, and so small in scale that it never fully got off the ground.

Unfortunately, I decided to watch Reluctant Justice, a movie whose title is probably both the best and worst I've seen so far.  "Justice" was a real winner for HHG-bred movies, apparently - I've seen Narcotic Justice and Twisted Justice and I have Fatal Justice, Final Justice, and Raw Justice in the pipeline as possible future entries, so that part is totally fine.  It's the "Reluctant" that gets to me.  If you put "Reluctant" in your title, you're telling us that you're either a Disney comedy or a legal thriller.  "Reluctant Justice" sounds like you don't even want to make your movie.

Ugh, fine, he'll go get justice already... Jesus, get off my back.

Anyway, the plot.  Reluctant Justice concerns the misadventures of John McCallum, played by the writer/director/producer, John Harris.  John's father and some of his other family were recently gunned down at a barbecue by mafia hitmen for reasons unknown - as far as anybody can tell, the shooting was entirely random.

He struggles to cope with this for the first act while getting information from a friendly detective, Wiggins, who's investigating the case.  Initially, John's goal is just to make sense of the tragedy and get closure, but the longer he goes without getting any clear answers, the more he wants revenge.  He decides to enlist the help of his goofball friend Jimmy to find out who killed his dad and why.

At first they do this by hanging out at a bar they think the mafia frequents, but after a con goes wrong - they grift a dude at pool and end up getting locked in his trunk - they realize they're in over their heads and they need some help.  John chats up a bartender at the place and, as luck would have it, she has friends who are also hitmen - or at least lurkers on the local Hitman Forums or however the fuck an average hitman keeps abreast of hitman issues.

(Now's a good time to mention that I didn't actually catch everybody's names as the movie went on and IMDb is not really helping me, so I'll just say that the bartender is named Sally and her main hitman pal is named Brock.)

So, John and Brock get to talking about John's father's death, and he finds out that the assassin in question is a dude named JC Spell, a high-level hitman who the mob uses only for extreme situations and high profile murders.  They still can't figure out why JC Spell would have been contracted, but at this point, John is fine with not getting answers as long as he knows Spell is dead.  He and Brock come up with a plan: they will get Jimmy to go to the mafia posing under an assumed identity and put out a hit on John.  John will act as bait to lure out lower-level goons, whom Brock will kill.  When the lower level guys fail, the mafia will eventually contract JC Spell, and as soon as he comes after John, they'll kill him and justice will be served.

This leads to the best part of the movie, which is basically just a comedy of errors involving John and Jimmy bungling their way through a couple of hit jobs where John has to act as bait and everybody is an idiot.  Occasionally they also hang out with this one random dude who haunts the bar where Sally works, and I'm going to call him "Crazy Eddie" because he has a lot of absurd affectations.

Eventually JC Spell shows up and reveals that he killed John's dad because he was an informant in a previous life. John was either born right before or shortly after his father joined the federal witness protection program and gave important evidence that led to the conviction of JC Spell's father.  Ever since, Spell has made it his mission to find and kill John's dad.

Spell is about to kill John, but then Crazy Eddie shoots and kills Spell's cohorts and injures Spell.  Sally shows up and tries to save John, but Spell kills Sally, so John chases Spell and hops into the trunk of his car just as he's turning onto a highway.  John shoots the driver of the car, they crash, and then John chases Spell on foot to a public park where they are surrounded by cops.  Spell shoves a knife into John's heart and then John shoots Spell multiple times, and they collapse next to each other.  The movie ends with John's fate uncertain.

What I Liked

I really want to like this movie more.  There's so many good ideas at play here and it drives me crazy that none of them gelled together better.

First of all, the initial plot itself is brilliant.  A guy's dad is murdered by professional hitmen for seemingly no reason and he tries to figure out why?  There's a billion ways you can go with that premise and they're all awesome.  So, kudos.

But the movie actually one-ups itself in its middle act by introducing an even better premise: a random schlub acts as bait for a bunch of assassins so that a different assassin can kill them in hopes of luring The Best Assassin out of hiding.  That is all kinds of fun.  If that's all this movie was, I'd probably recommend it just on the strength of that premise alone.

It's clear that the people who made this movie (i.e., John Harris) know what the basic elements of a good movie are and could do something pretty amazing if given the right resources (i.e., a script doctor, a budget, etc.).  Aside from the great plot elements, there's also very specific scene elements that are really innovative and a lot of fun.  I love that the climactic chase sequence involves John hopping into the open trunk of Spell's car and then shooting the driver in order to make him crash - it's so over-the-top stupid and unique that it compels you to watch.  It's the kind of "Huh, haven't seen that before" twist on an action scene that makes action movies fun.

The movie also has a ton of great moments of dark comedy that I really appreciated.  Crazy Eddie is a bit overblown, but I kinda dug some of his moments - especially one scene where he basically does magic and keeps pulling stuff off of Jimmy's body like that David Blaine: Youtube Edition video.

I also really dug a totally useless and throwaway gag in the climactic chase scene - literally only 4 minutes before the movie is over - in which Spell runs up to a bench and leans on it to catch his breath, and some random asshole on it yells at him, "Dude, I'm having a bad day and this is my bench. Go somewhere else.", and then Spell casually shoots him and keeps running.

Those moments, those ideas, those bursts of genius tell me that John Harris is a pretty cool guy who deserves a second chance at making a movie.  There's enough quality of concept here that Reluctant Justice is almost worth a view.  Almost.

What I Didn't Like

Unfortunately, there's just too many blemishes for the movie's merits to shine through.

The sound and video editing are the main offenders - the sound in particular.  The dialogue is quiet and frequently washed out, muffled, or otherwise incomprehensible.  The video is rough and grainy and looks every bit as cheap as the budget - which is really a shame because they obviously had some money to spend on renting police cruisers and fitting stuntmen with squibs and blood packets.  All of this adds up to that gross "shot on VHS" feel that sinks a movie like an anchor.

It's a funny thing.  No matter how interesting a movie is, the minute you notice that it looks like it was filmed with your dad's camcorder from 1992, your brain will just tune it out.  There's something about that aesthetic that just tells your brain, "Don't bother, guys.  Nothing to see here."

The score isn't doing the movie any favors, either.  It's frequently bombastic and silly when it needs to be somber and serious and never rises about the level of "royalty-free MIDI tunes we downloaded off of some Geocities webpage back in '97."

But the things that really sink the movie are the editing and story structure. There's so many shots and scenes that drag on for longer than they should and so many moments that really ought to be cut out for the sake of something snappier and more riveting.

A good example is the 10 minutes or so spent on the pool grift sequence, in which John and Jimmy are shoved in a mafioso's trunk for the night.  By itself, this sequence is not really bad, but in the context of the movie, it just feels like a giant "So what?"  Two idiots get trapped in a trunk for a night and the only real payoff to it is that they talk to Sally.  Why not just have them talk to Sally in the first place so the movie can go on with the plot?

That, unfortunately, is what the whole movie feels like.  You'll get a burst of energy or a really funny and interesting moment that is immediately followed up with a lot of dialogue that feels like padding, and then you'll get bored and lose interest while the movie tries to right itself.  Then another burst of energy comes along and you decide to keep watching.  There's enough of those bursts to convince you that something awesome could have come out of the whole thing, but in between is so much ennui that the journey isn't worth it.

Where You Can Watch

Reluctant Justice is currently streaming on, and if you have Prime, you can watch it for (basically) free.

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