Skip to main content

Hipster Holy Grail: Ragin' Cajun (1991)

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

Ragin' Cajun has nowhere near as much zaniness or ass-kicking as you might expect from its title.  It's an honest attempt at drama surrounding a Vietnam vet's attempts to rebuild his shattered life. Go into it with low expectations and you might find some charm under the surface.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Plot Summary

Cage Damante (David Heavener) is, all at once, a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD, a washed-up kickboxer who used to make a ton of money in a sleazy underground fighting network, and a secretly talented country music star who's terrified of singing in public.  What is not clear is whether or not he's actually Cajun, despite him being billed as such on all the posters for his match-ups.

When the movie opens, Cage is fighting Benny Urquidez in a packed arena.  He's got the upper hand and is ready to get the win, but then he starts having flashbacks to Vietnam and can't focus.  We know this because Heavener puts his hands up to his ears and starts frowning, which is his go-to PTSD move.  (Not to make light of such a tragic psychological condition, but nuanced it ain't.) Urquidez comes from behind and knocks Cage out while he's distracted.

Mr. Regetti (Allan Rich), the club owner and Cage's sorta-manager, visits Cage in the locker room after the fight.  They have a brief chat about Cage's future - Cage wants out because his flashbacks are too powerful, and Regetti's none too pleased.  Then Regetti has his goons beat Cage up for reasons that don't totally make sense.

(Later in the movie we find out that Regetti is a mobster who contracted Cage, but has since lost a ton of money on him because of his constant fits.  This does not come across very clearly at first.  Besides, why would you beat up a dude who's only going to make money for you if he's fit to beat up other people?  Mobsters don't always think things through, do they?)

Smash cut to Cage at his psychologist's office some time later.  Cage has apparently been checked into a mental health clinic for the last month or so under the care of Dr. May (Samantha Eggar).  He's just about ready to go back into the world and try to re-integrate himself into society.  His roommate, Legs (Sam Bottoms), an agoraphobe, is not quite as ready - Cage tries to convince Legs to come with him, but Legs isn't having it.

So, Cage goes his own way.  He meets up with an old friend, Ali (Charlene Tilton), who has offered him room and board at her place.  Ali has also hooked Cage up with a dishwashing job at a country music club where she performs.  They settle into a new life together far away from the havoc of the ring.

Unfortunately, Regetti's got a terrible scheme up his sleeve.  There are some promising fighters rising up the ranks in his club, but they're still relatively unknown.  If he sets up a death-match between one of the new toughs and Cage, he can bet against Cage and bank off the fact that he still has a high reputation among his patrons.  Or something.  I don't know, I'm not good at underground kickboxing math. The point is, Regetti needs Cage back in the ring. So he sends his goons out to find him and bring him back.

Meanwhile, Cage spends a lot of time watching the ocean and writing / performing country songs.  Here I should probably mention that there's a lot of them, and you get to hear most them from start to finish.  I won't say they're bad - I don't listen to much country, so I don't know what the standards are for good and bad - but they are, across the board, the exact stereotype you picture when you think of "country music."  For example, Ali's big smash hit is "I L.U.V.Y.O.U."  (That's not "I Luv You," you understand.  There's a major difference.)

The part that takes them from silly to hilarious is when Heavener performs a solo piece.  The audio mixing is so poor that the switch from diegetic to dubbed-over hits you like a baseball bat.  I'm fairly certain you're hearing Heavener's actual singing voice, since he's credited as having done the music, but you're clearly hearing him in a studio miles away after a dozen technicians have cleaned up the vocals.  It's jarring, is what I'm saying.

One day Ali sees Cage perform and encourages him to keep playing.  He's nervous, but slowly comes around to the idea and works up a little self-confidence.  Ali, meanwhile, is gearing up for her "big break" as a... something.  The movie says that she's been signed as the opening act for some major band, but when we eventually do get to see what she's so psyched about, it looks like she's just entered into a Battle of the Bands.  I guess maybe she's performing with some other dude, but he's got a ton of opening acts?

Anyway.  Cue montages as Ali and Cage practice together and start falling in love.  Occasionally Cage tries to help Legs, too.  Oh, and he has a few more PTSD fits.

Eventually Regetti's goons catch up to Cage and beat him up.  They threaten to kill him if he doesn't fight again, so he tries to run away and lie low.  Unfortunately, they kidnap Ali and torture her until she tells them where he went - up to and including crushing her hand in a vice.

Cage comes looking for Ali at her house and the goons catch him there.  They take him back to their underground ring in New York, where he is set up against a fearsome dude named Dr. Death.

Now, this is probably the most disappointing part of the movie.  What little fighting we've seen so far has been underwhelming, but there's at least three things we know for sure: 1) Cage is a good fighter when he's not bogged down by flashbacks. 2) This has been billed as a fight to the death, and Cage is fighting a guy named "Dr. Death." 3) It's the end of the movie.  So you're really expecting some kind of major blowout that will serve as the climax, right?  Cage just kinda gets really psyched up and punches Dr. Death in the head, then runs out of the ring.  It's over with little fanfare.

Ragin' Cajun so desperately didn't want to end with a kickboxing match that it actually has two different endings afterward instead.  First, Cage sees Ali in the crowd and runs away with her to a car, then leads Regetti and his goons on a chase through the city.  The cars crash, and then Cage beats up the goons and scares Regetti into breaking off his contract.  Second, Cage takes Ali to the Battle of the Opening Acts, but since her hand is broken and she can't play the guitar, Cage has to perform with her.  The movie ends with them singing a soulful duet to much applause.

Oh, and Legs is in the audience because Cage cured him somehow.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

This is the kind of movie I have to watch when I'm in a forgiving mood.  If I've been spending the day reading a bunch of bad news or cynically sneering at crappy movies, I'd rag on it for being too slow, too serious, too dimly-lit, and so on.  By any reasonable technical standard, this is not a particularly good movie.

The thing you have to remember, should you ever choose to watch it, is that Ragin' Cajun is not a campy movie.  It was made with total sincerity for its subject matter.  William Byron Hillman, the writer/director, set out to tell the tragic-but-hopeful story of a guy who was down on his luck, but overcame his challenges with the combined powers of music and love.  It's hammy as hell, melodramatic, and kind of interchangeable with any other character study, so there's not even much demand for it.  But... its wholesale devotion to sentimentality kinda won me over by the end.

Maybe it's the heart-on-my-sleeve-ness of the music.  Maybe it's Heavener's conviction that he's selling the dramatic upheaval going on inside his brain.  Maybe I just really like his hair.  I can't help myself.  I liked this movie by the end of it.

It's not a full recommendation, though.  For most of the movie, I was thinking I'd award it a "Junior Varsity Bad Movie," meaning that it's enjoyable, but you have to buy into something stupid and/or inept from the very beginning.  That's not totally accurate, though.  The JVBM rating is meant for movies that you laugh at and not with.  If you tried to do that with this one, you'd be disappointed.  Sure, some of the songs are chuckle-worthy, but watching a guy flip out because of Vietnam flashbacks is never funny, no matter how poorly acted.

So, I guess what I'm saying is, you should watch this on a good day.  Play with a puppy for an hour and have a really nice bagel first.  Then, when you're thinking, "Say, life's alright sometimes," give this a watch.  You might even want the soundtrack later.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Ooh, there's a few levels to dig through here.  First, there's a distraction - technically this was a Troma release, and as any true hipster knows, Troma is actually worth negative hipster cred.  However, it was not a Troma production - it was made by Walanar Group and Loner Productions, Inc.  So, no penalty on this one.

The big draw here is that it stars David Heavener, even though he did not write or direct.  I have an inexplicable affinity for Mr. Heavener.  Way, way back when the Holy Grail was some throwaway thing that I barely thought about (as opposed to the throwaway thing that I think way too much about now), I watched Twisted Justice.  It was one of the first movies that I had fun with and gave me an unrealistic expectation of things to come.  Not long after that, I heard the We Hate Movies episode on Kill Crazy, another of Heavener's directorial works, and it cemented him in my mind as a purveyor of nonsense.

I've yet to arrive at a reasonable conclusion of what I think about him.  He's not batshit insane like Tommy Wiseau, he's not trying to crap out as many movies as humanly possible like Fred Olen Ray, and he doesn't have the lackadaisical "who cares" attitude of Albert Pyun.  But he seems to encompass elements of all of them.  His movies always have a touch of melodrama and self-seriousness they never earn - even in his promotional stills that appear on IMDb, Heavener is always dour and practicing his Serious Face.  Yet his filmography is unabashedly C-grade.

One thing is for sure.  He's more interesting as a writer/director than an actor.  The last time I saw him was in Massacre: The Border of Tong, which was so boring I could barely even summon the energy to write a proper review.  He's got enough morbid appeal to me that I'm willing to give this movie 15 hipster cred for his performance, plus a 50 cred bonus for the movie having less than 100 ratings on IMDb for a total of 65 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  Not a bad score, but next time I check him out, I'm crossing my fingers he has a hand in the screenplay.  That's where the real sweet stuff is.

Where You Can Watch

I suspect this one will pop up on Youtube quite a bit, but I streamed it on Amazon Prime.