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Hipster Holy Grail: One Man Army (1994)

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 reluctant to say anything positive about One Man Army for fear that folks might try to seek it out, but here goes:  It's got a few laughs here and there.  The lead is a good fighter, so there's occasionally a decent action moment, if not a good scene altogether.  And it moves pretty quickly.  Overall it has the elements to be a fun B movie romp.  Unfortunately, it never gels.  There's nothing so special here that you need to seek it out.

My Rating: 2 / 5 (Varsity Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

Jerry Pelt (Jerry Trimble) is a possibly-successful kickboxing instructor in The Big City.  He's content to teach his classes in peace until one day when he gets a phone call with terrible news: his grandfather has died.

Jerry returns to his small home town in Johnson County, a mythical place that's supposed to be mining country in the American Mideast, but which looks strangely like the Philippines.  He immediately runs into trouble: a pickup truck full of assholes rams him off the road and harasses him.  He beats the shit out of them, then borrows/steals their truck to get to his grandfather's funeral.

Soon he realizes the town is pretty shitty in general.  The current sheriff, Pat Boze (Rick Dean), is a slimy goon who lets people do whatever the hell they want.  Local bars are full of prostitutes and drug dealers and at least one of them runs an underground fighting tournament.  Murder is on the rise and day laborers are exploited mercilessly, forced to work 12-hour days at the hands of a tyrannical business magnate.

Jerry has a passive attitude toward all this, thinking he will be in and out of the town quickly.  But then he hooks up with a couple of old friends, Natalie (Melissa Moore) and Eddie (Dennis Hayden).  Natalie is one of those activist / reporter / legal expert types with an ambiguously defined job that translates to snooping around a lot, and Eddie is a rowdy, washed-up loser type who used to be Jerry's drinking buddy.

After Jerry hangs out with Natalie a bit, he gets suspicious that his grandfather was murdered, so the two team up to investigate.  They have a few antics and Jerry is briefly able to find some nebulous evidence that would prove the crime - but then the coroner's office mysteriously burns to the ground, so any investigation that Boze could have started has been rendered impossible.

Furious, Jerry has sex with Natalie.  Then he decides to do something about his grandfather's murder.  Natalie encourages him to run for sheriff and clean up the town.  So he does!  Five minutes later, he's the new guy in charge, and he's out to turn things around.  This is when you realize it's a Walking Tall derivative, and that's normally not a bad thing.

Jerry deputizes Eddie and starts raiding bars and other hotspots where he knows crimes are afoot. This is around where the movie starts to drag.  It loses a sense of direction here and becomes a series of montages.  Jerry and his cops arrest this group of guys, they go over here and arrest that group of guys, etc.

The frustrating thing about it is that Jerry keeps pouting and insisting that they're not making any progress... but since the only thing we've seen for the last 10-15 minutes is him arresting people and busting up some crimes, it seems like progress is the only thing he's made.  Eventually he stages a raid on one of the more prominent bars and finds out that the owner was tipped off, so everything inside is totally legit.  This is the worst of it - that he can't arrest people on that one particular night.

Weren't there a bunch of workers being exploited like half an hour ago?  What happened to them?  Maybe we could see them in peril or something to remind us that things are shitty, and then the movie might get interesting again.

Anyway, after the movie gets bored of this, we cut to Eddie in a trembling rage.  He's apparently a cokehead and hasn't had his fix in awhile.  After snorting a bump, he beats his wife, who runs off to tell Jerry.  Then we cut briefly to a scene with Eddie, Boze, and the ambiguous businessy villain, and you find out that Eddie has been a traitor this whole time.  Boze gives Eddie more coke and tells him he needs to kill Jerry.

Cut back to Eddie's house.  He's sitting inside, high on more coke (he has like a fistful of it that he's just carrying around from now on) and fuming.  When his wife comes back home with Jerry, he whips out a shotgun and shoots her to death, then knocks Jerry out.  He sets fire to his house and leaves so he can get sworn in as the new sheriff.

(You become the sheriff if you kill the current one?  Sure, why not.  I don't know Johnson County law.)

There's a scene of despair where Eddie and Boze gather up all the crooks who have been arrested previously, and everybody mobs together and starts getting pumped to go back on the streets and commit more mayhem.  Briefly we cut to some scared townsfolk who are cramming themselves inside their homes, and then the goons swarm the streets.

Here would have been a good time to show some more crimes.  Like, maybe the mob starts rioting and beats up a pregnant lady or something so you remember, "Oh, right, these guys are all dicks and they deserve to die."  But that doesn't happen.  They just wander around shouting sorta angrily.  I've seen worse after an Orioles game - and I'm not even talking about downtown, I'm just talking about drunk people walking away from the bars near my house.

Then Jerry shows up, alive, and starts punching them.  The last twenty minutes or so are a prolonged fight scene that spills from one location to the next as Jerry beats up one miscellaneous goon after another.  He fights at the rich guy's mansion, he fights in a lumber mill, he fights in a junk yard, etc.  It could be a really fun sequence, but there's just not enough energy to make it interesting.

If anything, it's confusing.  How is the town laid out?  Are the mansion, lumber mill, and junk yard really that closely packed together?  Come to think of it, why is the snooty rich person bad guy living here in the first place?  Shouldn't he be removed from the chaos and using Boze as his instrument of horror from a distance?

Anyway, there's a lot of fighting.  Boze gets fed up with the business guy and shoots him to death, and then Jerry knocks Boze under a car in the junk yard and crushes him to death with it.  Eddie shows up out of nowhere with Natalie as a hostage and for no apparent reason (probably because he's high) admits that he was the one who killed Jerry's grandfather.  Jerry and Eddie fight, and then Jerry brutally murders Eddie by strangling him to death with a rusty chain.

Then Jerry and Natalie romantically walk down a quiet road together under the moonlight.  Credits.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Overall, I would not say this is worth watching.

The main gripe I have is simply that it's boring.  The plot runs out of steam by halfway through and I constantly found my mind wandering.

I think this is mostly because they don't set up good stakes.  It starts off in the right direction: Jerry is trying to avenge his grandfather and Natalie is trying to get justice for exploited migrant workers.  The criminals are clearly defined and cruel.  But then Jerry gets elected sheriff... and it just forgets that there's any crime.  There's not enough of a through-line to keep you invested.

What it needed was a better heavy.  Dennis Hayden / Eddie had enough physicality to pull it off, but his character's reveal comes way too late and is immediately deflated when he turns into the bad guy in the very next scene.  What they should have done was show Eddie working with the bad guys shortly after he gets deputized, and then any time you see Jerry making an arrest, you cut to a scene of Eddie doing horrible things.  Like, Jerry and the good cops celebrate because they busted up drug ring - hooray!  But then you cut to a shady alley where Eddie is beating the shit out of some innocent grandfather, and Boze smiles greasily - boo!  That way you build up more suspense about Eddie's betrayal and you actually care that he's evil, and then he and Jerry have a more awesome fight scene at the end.

Without that element, there's just a vague sense that Jerry is probably good, and the bad guys are probably bad, and oh look, somebody's getting punched right now, that's nice.

The action scenes are mixed.  The good news is that Jerry Trimble is a great fighter, so when he gets into ass-kicking mode, he's fun to watch.  He can do some great moves.  Unfortunately, nobody else can.  There's occasionally a good portion of a fight, but nothing stands out as a scene I would point to and say, "Wow, that bar fight was awesome!"  It's not quite as bad as Hawk's Vengeance, where everybody has to slow down so much that the movie is rendered pointless - but it's still not good.

One Man Army ends up being a hard one to categorize using my bullshit rating system.  I want to call it a Workman Bad Movie since it's mostly pretty bland.  I don't think I would recommend it to anybody, bad movie fans or otherwise.  And yet there's just enough nonsense that's borderline funny that I think some people might get a kick out of it.

So how about this.  I'll summarize the funny good-bad moments as generally as I can, and if you're a bad movie fan to whom any of it sounds appealing, then you can set aside the 80 minutes required for admission:

1) It takes gratuitous nudity some new lengths.  I don't want to oversell the breasts; it's not like there's a 2:1 tit-to-minute ratio or anything like that.  It's just that they have the laziest possible excuses to cram it in the movie.  The first time Melissa Moore takes off her top for a pointless shower scene, you go, "Oh, right, it's one of those movies.  Okay."  And then when she has a sex scene no less than two minutes later, you think, "Wow, why did you film the shower scene?  Couldn't you just wait for this?"  And when she goes skinny dipping another two minutes later, you think, "Okay, now you're just fucking with me."

1a) Quick addendum to the above... the sex scene in particular is pretty funny because it has elevator mall music playing over top the whole time and randomly cuts to slow motion.  But I hesitate to encourage you to watch a bad sex scene.  The Room has taught me that even when a sex scene is hilariously bad, it usually makes people feel uncomfortable rather than giddy.

2) Jerry has a german shepherd as a partner who keeps randomly jumping out of nowhere to maul people whenever he's in trouble.  That dog is a never-ending source of joy.  (Spoilers: It does not die.  Animal lovers can watch with abandon.)

3) Once Eddie reveals his betrayal / drug habit, he is either snorting coke or wiping coke off his nose for the rest of the movie.  I love this.  It's like the director said, "Okay, you're a drug addict, so make sure you're doing drugs," and that ended up being his only acting note for the rest of the production.

4) The abrupt pacing and weird editing can be fun sometimes.  The main example is when Natalie convinces Jerry to run for sheriff, and he has this poignant, "Okay, I accept my fate" look on his face.  Then it cuts to a two-minute montage with silly music that shows him winning the office.  So... yeah, let's just gloss right over any kind of uncertainty or stakes and cut to the chase, I guess.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Quite a bit.  This is another one of those hard-earned cred situations - the movies that you watch only to prove how hipster you are.  It gets a hefty 40 point obscurity bonus for having just over 100 ratings on IMDb.  It's production staff comes with a good pedigree; it gets 10 points for being a Concorde / New Horizons production, plus another 10 for being directed by Cirio Santiago.  It gets 10 points apiece for casting Jerry Trimble and Melissa Moore as the leads, plus another tiny bonus for using kickboxing to resolve all its problems.

One Man Army is worth a total of 85 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  Too bad it's not more entertaining.

Where You Can Watch

It's available on DVD, so it's pretty easy to find. I rented it from Netflix.  However, somebody was generous enough to upload it, so if you go before it gets pulled, you can watch it on Youtube for free.