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Hipster Holy Grail: Prime Target (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

Prime Target is a lot of fun.  It's kinda like Midnight Run meets The Departed meets a piece of crap.

My Rating: 4 / 5 (Junior Varsity Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

Prime Target opens with a terrible hostage situation.  A group of miscellaneous, bloodthirsty goons with nebulous motives has taken over what appears to be an abandoned barn in the middle of nowhere and is holding what appear to be four accountants at gunpoint.

Stop.  Wait.

I hate to derail the plot summary before I've even really gotten it underway, but wow, does this scene ever need more background.  Was there a John Deere convention that went horribly wrong or something?  Why do the goons have such big demands when they're clearly occupying such a small-scale location?  For that matter, how did the cops (who have the place surrounded) even hear about the situation in the first place?  Did the goons shoot their first hostage and then sit around waiting impatiently for six hours until one of them finally caved and said, "Fine, I'll call the cops?"

There's some crimes you can put on screen without any context and your audience will get it immediately, and there's others that just make no sense.  I wouldn't have minded a few extra minutes to set this up.


The cops, led by Captain Tompkins (Isaac Hayes), are at an impasse.  The goons have asked for a getaway vehicle and some other miscellaneous bad guy demands, but time is running out to deliver.  With limited options and growing anxiety, Tompkins calls in the one man he knows he can count on to get the job done.

Enter John Bloodstone (David Heavener), known by his buddies as simply "Blood."  Blood is the normal Alpha Male douche that Heavener loves in his movies: a gun-toting, cigar-chomping, booze-swilling roughneck who lives in his own filth and hates rules.  None of these things are necessarily a problem, but somehow Heavener manages to wring the worst out of them all.  Blood is such an extreme stereotype that he becomes a caricature.

Hell, he goes so far as to dress up like an honest-to-God cowboy, with a chintzy hat and boots.  He even wears a belt that has the word "COWBOY" written on it, just in case you didn't get it yet.

Blood is roused from a hungover sleep on his day off and comes to the scene ready to bust some heads and go back to bed.  He shows up at the warehouse / barn with a blowtorch, then smashes the windshield out of a car parked nearby.  Seconds later, he crashes the car through the barn wall and shoots the torch out the window, setting fire to all the goons and freeing the remaining hostages.

What's really odd about this scene is that it's by far the most clever setup for an action scene in the movie (almost everything else is just a garden variety shootout), yet it plays out far less interestingly than you'd expect.  I know it sounds like a guy crashing through a wall and setting people on fire is amazing, but it moves slowly and you just end up wondering why the goons stood there waiting to burn.

Regardless, the day is saved and Blood pats himself on the back, then goes home to meet his estranged wife, Kathy (Jenilee Harrison), who's upset that he got home late.  Kathy is a one-dimensional nagging wife character who keeps complaining that Blood doesn't make her a high enough priority.  They've been dancing at the edge of divorce for awhile now, but each time Kathy thinks she's going to kick Blood out of the house for good, they somehow end up fucking and it solves everything.

Cue fucking, and it solves everything.  Almost.

There's just two problems.  First is that Commissioner Garth (Andrew Robinson), Blood's new boss, hates his ridiculous tactics and careless, loose cannon attitude.  He has suspended Blood from duty without pay.  Second is that Blood is up to his eyebrows in debt.  He's $25,000 past due on his mortgage, and if he doesn't come up with the cash in about a week, he'll lose the house.

Blood does some shirtless stair-painting while he thinks of a plan.  Then he figures, hey, if I ask for my suspension to be lifted, maybe I'll be able to get a loan through the police union, or something.  So he goes to visit the commissioner the next day, which renders the previous suspension scene kinda moot.

As it turns out, Garth wanted to see Blood, anyway, because he's got an interesting offer for him.  A couple of FBI Agents, Harrington (Robert Reed) and Robbins (Michael Gregory), want to hire Blood for a one-time gig transporting Marietta Copella (Tony Curtis), a high-profile mafia boss in protective custody.  Copella is negotiating with the state on the terms of his arrest in exchange for information about his criminal enterprise, so Harrington explains they want somebody outside of the FBI to get involved in order to deflect any attention from potential assassins.

Or something.

Blood agrees to transport Copella in exchange for $25,000 dollars.  Then Harrington makes a big point about how Blood may not speak about the job to anybody, is not allowed to make any phone calls, and has to leave to transport Copella immediately.  This is meant to be a vehicle for comedy later when Blood is put at odds with his shrew wife again, except that they ignore the rules almost immediately when Blood has time to sit down and buy a new life insurance policy, then mail the terms of it to his wife.  Also, he tries calling her like half a dozen times later.  So, why bother putting this part in the movie?  Damned if I know.

Blood heads to his pick-up location, and right from the start, things start going haywire.  The vehicle he's driving changes, the route he's taking changes, and he's given conflicting orders from the various agents involved.  But eventually he meets Copella and they start having some Odd Couple banter.  Copella is fashionable (as evidenced by his tie), clean (as evidenced by his gloves), and worldly (as evidenced by him being Italian), in contrast to Blood's country-boy cop.

A quick aside about these two.  I think the actors actually have decent chemistry with each other.  Tony Curtis comes across as a consummate professional, very capable of working with anybody and giving enough support to hold them up.  Heavener comes across... less so.  But still capable of holding his own, at least in the sense that he can keep being a dipshit cowboy in comedic contrast to whatever Curtis does.  Unfortunately, the chemistry is squandered throughout most of the movie.  There's just not enough crazy antics for them to get into, and their banter is never clever or memorable enough to pull you in.  If they were somehow able to take a second pass with a better screenplay to work from, I think you'd have a pretty decent buddy dynamic.

Shortly after Blood starts driving, he gets into some trouble when a traffic cop pulls him over.  The traffic cop seems to be doing a routine check, but then turns around and blasts Blood through the windshield with his gun, hitting him three or four times in the chest.  There's no blood spray, so of course this means Blood is wearing a bulletproof vest, but don't tell that to the traffic cop - he's proud of himself right up until Blood sits upright again and returns fire, killing him instantly.

You'd think this would be the part where Blood would call in to headquarters and say, "Hey, one of our guys just tried to kill me," but that doesn't happen.  Instead, Blood and Copella briefly talk about whether or not there are any cops on Copella's payroll, and then they go to a gas station to fuel up.  While there, Blood asks to use the phone - but not to call his boss.  Instead, he's trying to call his wife, but he can't get through.

The gas station attendant notices bullet holes in Blood's car and puts some pieces together, then calls the local sheriff.  He in turn detains Blood and starts to arrest him until Blood gives him Harrington's phone number and tells him he's transporting a prisoner.  The sheriff calls Harrington, who sends a couple more FBI Agents to the gas station to help out.

Now, you probably know what's coming, but just in case: it turns out Harrington is a bad guy.

The additional agents who come to the scene shoot the station attendant and the sheriff to death, and Blood quickly returns fire and kills them both.  Realizing he's on the run from the law, Blood steals a car from the station parking lot and shoves Copella into the back of it.  They get on the road again and have some more banter.

Copella reveals that yes, there were in fact cops on his payroll, and some of them are now trying to kill him and Blood in order to prevent Copella from testifying to this effect in court.  This then begs the question of why the corrupt officers bothered bringing Blood into the situation at all instead of just cornering Copella in his hotel room and shooting him in the head.  My guess is that since Blood's been suspended, they can more easily frame him as being a loose cannon and pin their planned murder on him, but if that's the case, why not kill him when he's close to home instead of letting him go off on a road trip?  It's not a very good scheme, is what I'm saying.

Anyway, Copella keeps trying to convince Blood to let him go, offering him tons of money to run away from the corrupt cops.  Blood steadfastly refuses and insists he's going to bring Copella to trial, as intended, and collect on his $25k.  (Psst.  Blood.  I don't think they'll let you collect on that now.)

This is where the movie enters the Midnight Run phase where the two form an unlikely partnership to survive.  It should be fun and exciting.  Unfortunately, since it's not as good as Midnight Run and their partnership isn't sold very well, Blood and Copella's antics run out of steam pretty quickly.

There are two good-bad highlights, though:

1) They stop at a sleazy motel for the night and a couple of FBI goons come to take them out.  Blood manages to get the drop on them by first breaking into the room belonging to the big-breasted lady next door who happens to be taking a shower at the time, and then - in a short scene that takes place entirely off screen - convincing her to lay on top of him in bed so that it looks like they're having sex.  What's really funny is that this ruse doesn't even work.  The goon who busts in on them knows that Blood is in there and still has him at a disadvantage, so all it does is allow Blood to shoot a guy while a naked woman straddles him.  I guess that's its own reward.

2) While sitting around a campfire, Copella keeps pestering Blood and annoying him with his banter.  Then some dramatic music comes on, Blood sits upright, and, apropos of nothing, he soliloquizes about suffering from PTSD after his partner was shot to death unexpectedly.  In any other movie, this would be the scene where the two characters find out they have common ground and start to bond over it, but in Prime Target, they don't bond - Blood just jolts up as if he suddenly remembered they're supposed to be friends now.

Eventually Blood gets Copella into the same city as the courthouse.  He calls Tompkins and asks him for a favor, then calls Garth and Harrington and tells them he's going to drop Copella off at the front door of the courthouse at exactly noon.  Garth gets a sniper to hide on the roof with orders to shoot Blood on sight, and in the meantime, the music swells and tells us that Blood has a scheme in motion.

Well, as it turns out, no, he doesn't. His plan was literally just to call the bad guys and let them know exactly where he would be at noon.  Predictably, the sniper shoots Copella and wounds him, so Blood whips out his cowboy gun and kills the sniper, then gets into a shootout.  Tompkins comes to help by arresting Harrington, and then they confront Commissioner Garth and tell him to surrender.

Now.  Stop the movie.

In some previous scenes that seemed to come up arbitrarily here and there, we've seen a bit of what Blood's wife has been up to.  Kathy has been kept in the dark and doesn't know what exactly is going on, but she's aware that Blood is in trouble.  Through various conversations she learns that he's been implicated in some murders and that he'll be at the courthouse at noon, but other than this, Kathy has been completely removed from the action of the movie and has no reason to be involved.

Back to the movie.  Blood and Tompkins are about to arrest Garth, but just before he puts down his gun, Kathy drives up to the courthouse, parks, and runs toward them, screaming, so Garth grabs her and holds her hostage.

In other words: the cliche wife character who would ordinarily serve as the main character's motivation to fight the villain forgot she was supposed to be a victim, so she actually drove across town and into the climactic scene in order to get kidnapped.

Wow.  Bravo, Prime Target.  You showed me something I've never seen before.

And if you think that's absurd... Blood shoots Garth to death in the next minute, then grabs Kathy and they walk off down the street romantically, leaving behind four dead bodies - including his boss - on the courthouse steps and not collecting the $25,000 that started this whole thing.  It's like an anti-ending.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Ah, David Heavener.  Back to form!

It's been just about three years since I watched Twisted Justice, my first Heavener movie, and in that time, I'd forgotten how absurd and delightful he can be when he's given free reign with his material.  (Side note: Rereading my review of TJ makes me cringe.  All my early HHG stuff does.  I feel like my review of TJ deserves a redux edition.  Maybe I'll rewatch it and report some day when I have more free time.)

Heavener is the type of guy who wants to prove a point so badly that he'll ruin his movie to do so, and yet in the end, it still seems half-baked.  Prime Target tries very hard to make a point that criminals have way too many rights, and the police need to be able to mete out justice more efficiently.  It's the same kinda right-wing, tough-on-scum bullshit that's fun in '80s movies and deplorable everywhere else.  Somehow, Heavener manages to take a simple conceit and make it confusing to hell and back.

What are you actually trying to say?  On the one hand, your hero is a literal cowboy with a theme song chatting up how great it is to be a man and drink Coors and listen to country music, and you even have a "Battle Hymn of the Republic" sting on the soundtrack when he shoots down a bad guy.  But on the other hand, you're asking us to cheer him on when he kills a traffic officer and guns down the police commissioner and an FBI agent on the front steps of the local courthouse?  I'm just lost.

If this inconsistency was in a different movie, I'd probably be frustrated.  Instead, it's just hilarious.  It's so out of touch with any pretense of reality that you just give up after ten minutes and enjoy the ride.

The editing in this movie deserves special mention since it is noticeably terrible.  For the most part, this just means that scenes move way too slowly for their own good (like the opening blowtorch deaths), but every now and again the editing manages to be the transcendent kind of bad where it turns into comedy gold.

For example. consider the scene at the motel where Blood and Copella are attacked by FBI goons.  Briefly you see Blood call his wife - a blonde woman - and we get a brief shot of her drying her hair while looking away from the camera.  The scene is framed so that she's on the right side of the screen and a shower is on the left.  She is unable to hear the phone because her hair dryer masks the ringing.  Okay, so far, so good.  Now, cut back to the motel and Blood groans in disgust.  Some other crap happens, and then we cut to another bathroom with a shower on the left featuring a blonde woman who is looking away from the camera - only this woman is taking a shower, and the camera is aimed mostly at her breasts rather than her face.

What the movie is trying to tell you is that there's a lady taking a shower in the room next to Blood, but the editing makes it look like Blood's wife.  Which would mean she was putting a ton of effort into her hair in order to get ready for a shower.  This is one of the most stupidly hilarious ideas I've ever heard.  I wish it was an actual joke in a movie and not just a brief misinterpretation on my part.

Other parts of the movie combine bad editing with bad framing so it looks like the characters are just idiots.  For example, when Blood walks up to the courthouse at the end, it's very clear that he's walking to it head-on in an area without any trees or other obstructions - yet he somehow doesn't notice the sniper standing in the very center of the roof pointing a gun at him.

You almost can't top the total ignorance of the characters in the opening scene, though.  Blood very slowly and methodically grabs a blowtorch out of his truck and straps it to his back while Tompkins keeps going, "What are you going to to?" and "Oh, God, are you doing something bad?"  And then everybody acts shocked and appalled when Blood sets the bad guys on fire two minutes later.  Tompkins, man, c'mon.  There's only so many things you can do with a blowtorch.  What did you think was going to happen?

It's kind of like Heavener thought his audience would be too stupid to understand anything that was happening unless he telegraphed it four times over, but he was also counting on his audience being smart enough to differentiate that this shit was made obvious for our benefit only and that the characters themselves didn't notice.

The overall package is a lot of good-bad fun.  Prime Target has enough enjoyably stupid moments that you could easily share it with friends and have a laugh, but I'm going to have to give it a Junior Varsity Bad Movie rating since I don't think it moves quite fast enough for casual bad movie fans.  The litmus test comes around the first time Heavener takes his shirt off - if you've bought into it by then, you'll love the rest.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

It juuuust barely cracks three digits in IMDb ratings, so unfortunately, it doesn't get the full 50 cred bonus for being obscure.  But the number of ratings is still low enough (103 as of today) to merit 40 cred.  The bigger draw, though, is David Heavener.  And I don't just mean that he stars in it as he did with Ragin' Cajun a few months back - I mean it's a full-on David Heavener experience, meaning that he wrote, directed, produced, and performed all the music.

You've got to understand why Heavener's presence gives this one such a huge bump.  At this moment, I consider him to be the very definition of hipster appeal.  I can think of no one else who instantly hits all the right buttons. He's self-serious, yet thinks he's writing jokes.  He's got absurdly right-wing politics that border on self-parody.  He's got the right mix of bad ideas, vanity, and financing to make movies that are terrible, yet watchable.  He sports a mullet.  And yet somehow, he's still so obscure that his best-known movie is Angel Blade.

I don't understand why he's not a bigger deal on the Internet.  I mean, I know why he's not a bigger deal in general (watch literally any of his movies to answer that), but the fact that he hasn't amassed a huge cult following of dorks who've petitioned to have him play The Punisher blows my mind.  For all intents and purposes, he is the Hipster Holy Grail: an obscure treasure trove of ironic delight that you can still discover before anybody else does.

And yet... Prime Target still isn't quite right.  It's a lot of fun and definitely a recommendation.  But I think he could do better.  I've got a suspicion that the real treasure is hidden somewhere else in Heavener's resume.

Until I find it (or until Heavener finally becomes the cult hero he wants to be), this one will do pretty well.  I'm going to give it 80 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

You can stream Prime Target on Amazon, and if you have Prime, you can watch it for (basically) free.  Just make sure you click on the right link, because Amazon uses an alternate poster for this Prime Target as the cover art for the one starring Angie Dickinson.