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Hipster Holy Grail: Dudes (1987)

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 1,000 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

I'm not sure I understood a deeper meaning after watching Dudes, but I enjoyed it while it lasted.  It's kind of like what you get when you make a revenge movie and strip all pretense of morality, and then you try to turn it into a romcom.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

The movie opens in New York City, where we are introduced to three punks: Grant (Jon Cryer), Biscuit (Daniel Roebuck), and Milo (Flea).  They're good friends, but from what we gather during a post-concert meal at a greasy Chinese place, they've been down on their luck lately.  Money is tight, prospects seem dim, and Grant is particularly frustrated since he can't score a date to save his life.

As if to prove a point, he tries to hit on a girl sitting at a nearby table, but then finds out she has a boyfriend - a hulking anger-beast who was in the bathroom a second ago and came out just in time to see Grant fawning over her.  A brawl breaks out and all three punks try to take the guy on.  Results are mixed.

Later, the pals are drinking themselves into a stupor on a fire escape and hashing out possible plans.  Milo thinks they should leave NYC and go to Los Angeles, but Grant is only half-listening - he's too busy having one of those self-hating doubt spirals.  (Ooh, I've been there.  You guys know that friend of yours in high school who would start talking about his feelings and his desperation at 2:00 in the morning when all the guys were hanging out, and you'd be like, "Jeez, dude, we just thought we were going to play Mario Kart?"  That's me every Sunday and Grant in this scene.)  He starts to contemplate suicide, sort of as a joke at first... and then starts to fall off the fire escape for real.  After Milo and Biscuit save his ass for the second time that night, Grant decides it's time to give Milo's plan a shot.

Cut to the open road and opening credits.  The guys are well on their way to Los Angeles - they've already made it to the southwest, possibly Nevada.  While driving through the desert, they come across Daredelvis (Pete Willcox), an Elvis impersonator / daredevil who seems to be stranded.  He flags them down and asks for help rocking his RV out of a ditch.  Grant is reluctant, but the guys all get out and give the guy a hand. He gives them his business card - apparently he has a bunch of small businesses on the side, including snake charming - and goes off on his way.

Around this time is also when Grant starts to see visions of a gentlemanly cowboy riding a horse.  This will happen a bunch of times throughout the movie, and it's always presented as if he's either tripping or he's seeing a mirage.

It starts to get late, so the guys pull off to a nice spot in the desert and set up a campfire for the night.  They roughhouse a bit, have some banter, and then fall asleep peacefully.

For about an hour.  They're soon interrupted by a marauding band of redneck thieves, led by Missoula (Lee Ving).  I wish I could give you a little more characterization for these guys, but "redneck thieves" is pretty much it.

The thieves beat the punks up a bit and play around with them, implying all kinds of horrors.  It's hard to tell exactly what their end goal is - some of the rednecks are clearly just out to steal some cash (and whatever else isn't bolted down in the punks' car), but others look like they're out for blood.  At least one stands up to Missoula during the punk beatdown and tells him he's going too far, but other than that, everyone's on board with an impromptu lynching.

Milo elbows one of the guys and starts running into the desert, which distracts everybody long enough for Grant and Biscuit to run, too.  There's a brief chase scene, and then the punks are able to hunker down in a nice hiding spot on a rock outcropping.  Unfortunately, Milo loses his footing and slips down a hill, falling into a clearing below.  The rednecks immediately track him down and shoot him in the head, then leave.

Grant and Biscuit mourn briefly, but realize they have to keep running.  So they wander into the desert and eventually pass out.  When they wake up, they're in a small town being tended to by some cop stereotypes.  Grant believes they were rescued by the ghost cowboy he saw earlier, but the cops have no idea what he's talking about.  All they know for sure is that they immediately hate the punks, and even though Milo was murdered, the cops' response is, "Get the hell out of my town."

So... they do.  Grant and Biscuit recover their car and hit the road.  And this is where the movie makes a bit of a logical leap for me.

See, Grant is understandably upset and frustrated that his friend got killed and the police won't do anything about it.  Biscuit is in the same boat, but he thinks the best thing to do is to just keep traveling west and get to LA so they can recover.  Grant can't settle for that - he wants vengeance.  So he drags Biscuit along with him on a revenge quest.

Now, that part is fine - it's the basis of a lot of great action movies - but Dudes doesn't play it up like a "They've gone too far this time" moment.  It's presented as a comical challenge, almost like a "here we go again!" moment.  Oh, that silly Grant and his crazy revenge schemes!  What a nut!

...uh, so, yeah, they're out for blood now.

They start heading north based on what few clues they have and pick up Missoula's trail little by little.  Along the way, they find a car wreck with the one thief who tried standing up to Missoula the night before; he's dying, but Grant offers him a bit of water as a final grace.  Then he steals the guy's guns and they get back on the road.

Eventually they come to a truck stop where we meet Jessie (Catherine Mary Stuart), a gas station attendant...?  Or something?  I'm not exactly sure what she does for a living, because when you see her again later, she seems to own a giant ranch and appears to be pretty well-off.  Maybe she owns the truck stop.  I missed that part.

Anyway, there's a kind of arbitrary fight scene here where the guys go inside the truck stop to get a burger, and the patrons inside immediately start beating the shit out of them.  But not in a dark, "we're oppressing your people" kind of way.  It's played up for laughs, as if it's a parody of a saloon brawl in a Western.  You know, now that I think about it, all of the fighting in this movie is played up for laughs except for the stuff with Missoula.  It's kind of like, "Yo, buddy, aimless brutality is totally my jam, but you made it weird."


Grant and Biscuit get back on the road again and, in a complete coincidence, manage to drive up right behind Missoula on the highway.  Grant whips out the guns he stole earlier and starts shooting in a panic, but he keeps missing and doesn't do anything except piss Missoula off.  The thieves ram Grant off the road, and he crashes.

A bit later, Jessie drives by and finds Grant and Biscuit on the side of the road.  And then out of the goodness of her heart - or maybe because she really, really wants to bang Grant - she invites them to stay at her house for a night to recover.

The movie splits Grant and Biscuit apart for a little bit here.  Grant's story is that Jessie teaches him how to shoot and ride a horse.  Then she takes him camping in the woods and has sex with him.  Jessie is a very charitable person.  Biscuit's story is less glamorous - he sleeps a whole lot, then has a strange, druglike dream in which he's a Native American and he watches his tribe's camp get slaughtered by frontiersmen.

The next morning, Grant and Jessie come back to her house to find that Biscuit is dressed up in stereotypical Native American garb and is starting to effect a cornball 1940s Indian Voice.  ("How, White Man. Need wampum?")  Biscuit says, in so many words, that he's fully on board with revenge and is ready to go kill the shit out of Missoula.  Grant and Jessie celebrate his new bloodlust, and she gives them new clothes, new guns, and a new car to go complete their mission.

Their next stop is a small town in Wyoming where they have a lead on one of Missoula's guys.  Everybody in town is having a grand old time at the local rodeo where Daredelvis is working as a rodeo clown. After Grant spots Missoula's goon in the crowd, he pays Daredelvis a visit and calls in a favor.  Daredelvis agrees to help them on a quick sting operation; he pretends he wants to buy some drugs from Missoula and traps the goon in his trailer.  But then he breaks out and runs away from Grant and Biscuit until he dives headfirst into a bullpen.  He's gored to death, and everybody celebrates.

The boys continue their quest and head to one last stop, another small town in Montana.  They camp out one last time and drink some moonshine that Daredelvis gave them, then have a ridiculous, whacked-out dream where Grant sees the ghost cowboy again.  I'm assuming this is all meant to be some kind of literalization of how they've been infected by the "spirit of the West" or something, but I'll be honest... I'm not sure what this is about.  Fun colors, though.

They wake up and get back on the trail.  Eventually they wind up in a bar, where Missoula and his buddy are drinking.  Grant and Biscuit set up a stakeout outside and wait for nightfall, then methodically track Missoula into a movie theater.  Once inside, they sit behind Missoula and draw their guns, planning to shoot him and his buddy in the back.

Now, once again... this movie is presented as a comedy for the most part, except for the scenes with Missoula.  This is maybe the only time in the entire movie that there's any real gravity to their actions, and the whole theater scene is filled with a sick dread and foreboding as they contemplate cold-blooded murder.   But all of that gets undercut a moment later when Missoula notices them and they get into a gunfight, and the camera keeps cutting to a bored clerk at the concession stand who seems to think the gunfire is just sound effects from the movie.  Go figure.

Missoula gets away and the punks are arrested - because again, in the world of Dudes, the worst thing you can possibly be is a punk.  The cops call Jessie, who gets into her car and heads north to go spring them out.  While that's happening, Missoula and his bud kill the cops and try to break into the jail so they can shoot Grant and Biscuit in their cell.

At the last minute, Jessie shows up and carries out an old-timey breakout where she hooks her truck up to some bars on the jail window and yanks out part of the wall.  She replenishes the punks' weapon supply and they all get into another prolonged gunfight.  Missoula's buddy is killed, and then Grant chases Missoula into an abandoned warehouse and shoots him to death.

He sees visions of the ghost cowboy again, now joined by Milo, and then everybody smiles. Freeze frame, credits.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

This is a very strange movie.

Don't get me wrong - I like strange. It's always refreshing to see something different.  Even better when it's something that came out thirty years ago and you've got some historical context to work with.  But sometimes strange is just plain confusing.

The main drive of Dudes is revenge.  It's grim stuff.  Literally hundreds of movies have been made on the topic, and they all get their hands dirty in some way.  Revenge leaves behind a stain of evil, an unmistakeable mark that the revenger has been damaged by their quest.  Even when it's the fun kind of revenge story, it still leaves you with a sense that there was a higher road to take.

Dudes somehow doesn't have that.  It gleefully ignores questions of ethics to the point where you wonder if you're just missing something.  At no point does anybody stop and say, "Wait... are you talking about killing that guy?"  No one ever bats an eye - not even Jessie.  Her reaction, when Grant tells her that he's on mission to hunt and kill somebody, is, "Here, take my gun."

I'd call it nihilistic except that the tone is so lighthearted.  I could accept the casual dismissiveness of their revenge if it was a bleak universe where people were used to death and misery.  But that's not this movie - Dudes is a colorful world with goofy, quirky characters who smile and laugh and enjoy life.  They don't stoically accept the inevitability of death.  They just don't even acknowledge it.  Anytime Grant lets people know his plan, they react as though he's trying to get to his sister's wedding.

It doesn't make me feel uncomfortable.  Just confused.  Is this supposed to be a commentary on the punk lifestyle?  Is it a commentary on the Cold War?  Is it a really clever critique of the American justice system and I'm too dense to get it?

Like... I know the '80s were a weird time, but people weren't this desensitized to murder, were they?

Leaving all that aside, this is an extremely watchable movie.  Penelope Spheeris knows how to edit and pace a story with a ton of punch.  There's almost no down-time - the movie starts running at the first frame and never stops to take a break.  Even when the characters are sleeping or throwing back downers with booze, they don't actually stop - they have weird dreams to keep up the pace.  So even if you're confused, you'll find yourself absorbed by the energy.

It's also a fascinating movie to watch for historical context.  Dudes was made in 1987, five years before Spheeris directed Wayne's World and basically deleted everything else off her resume.  They're totally different movies in terms of content, but they share so much DNA that you can think of Dudes as Wayne's World's cranky uncle.  Both have music as a central theme to the movie, both have an uncontrollable protagonist who is outmatched by a free-spirited love interest, both are buddy comedies, both have head-banging sequences in the car that are shot almost identically, etc.  The powder blue VW bug that the guys in Dudes drive even looks like a prototype for Wayne's AMC Pacer / Mirthmobile.

Recognizing those similarities and then seeing the vast difference in the protagonists' actions makes for a very disarming experience.  It's like if you rewatched Wayne's World for the first time in ten years and there was a ten minute parody sequence of Deliverance that you forgot all about.  Overall, it's still a fun movie, but man, some of that stuff was far out, huh?

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

It has 718 ratings on IMDb, so there's no obscurity bonus on this one.  But I'll give it a fifteen point boost for being an '80s movie with the word "dudes" in the title, plus another ten point bonus for being the least-watched punk-related Penelope Spheeris movie.  I'll also give it a minor "I want to share it" bonus, but since my recommendation is a bit more marginal, I'm giving it only fifteen instead of my usual thirty.

That all adds up to a total of 40 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

If you go before it gets pulled for copyright infringement, you can watch Dudes for free on Youtube.