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Hipster Holy Grail: Southern Justice (2006)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

I find myself surprised to be in the position of really, really wanting to defend Southern Justice.  There's an engaging vibe and unexpectedly progressive politics at play that make it feel like more than just another sleazy B movie about serial killers and strippers.  But at the end of the day, some jumbled story structure and bad editing make parts of it unwatchable, and I can't bring myself to give it an unqualified recommendation.

My Rating: 2.5 / 5 (Almost a Good Movie)

The Plot Summary

We open with a group of miscellaneous goons paying a prostitute to come back to their hotel room.  They're ominously horned up, and she's understandably suspicious.  She goes into the bathroom to get ready, then locks the door and makes an emergency phone call to Slim Manning (M.D. Selig, who also wrote and directed), her pimp / confidante and a former sniper in the military.

Up to that point, Slim was having a pretty ordinary night at the strip club he owns.  His ex-girlfriend, Audrey (Lisa Robert), works there as one of the more popular dancers.  Their daughter, Tracy (Kristi Wirz), hangs out there regularly along with her best friend, Janna (Annette Matlock).

Here's where Southern Justice first takes you by surprise: the dynamics between these four are all pretty average and mundane.  Like, sure, they regularly hang out in a strip club and Audrey works as an escort on the side, but that stuff doesn't define them.  Audrey and Slim are caring parents who want what's best for Tracy, and Tracy and Janna are, strip club stuff aside, humdrum teenage ditzes who think Audrey and Slim are boring-ass old people.

But we'll get back to the mundanity in a minute - first Slim has to go beat some ass.  He goes to that hotel where his friend is being accosted and finds that the goons have broken down the door to the bathroom.  He interrupts their gang-beating of her by bludgeoning them into comas.  So, that's kinda fun.  I've seen way worse openings to a movie.

Slim takes her back to his house and gives her time to recover while the police descend on the scene.  There are a few officers who show up here and come back again later in the movie, and while I think they have names, they were all interchangeable white folk for me, so who cares.  Anyway, the cops are well aware of Slim and his business, and although the interchangeable white guys seem to be quasi-suspicious of him, they never give him much trouble.  This is thanks to their captain (?), who has been long-time friends with Slim and turns a blind eye to all the prostitution as long as Slim curbs violent crimes on his property.  So, basically, everybody's chill.

Then a dead body shows up.  A stripper from a rival club was found murdered in a nearby lake, having been beaten and drowned.  The police bring it up to Slim less as a matter of interrogation and more as a warning to keep an eye out for psychopaths.

Shortly after that, Slim meets and befriends Johnny Deal (Rico Cymone), a pornographer / video producer who's recently set up shop in town and has been hiring a lot of Slim's dancers to be in his movies.  Slim is suspicious of Johnny at first, but soon comes to like him since all the ladies swear he's a swell fella and treats them nicely.  Slim more or less hires Johnny to work as an assistant pimp at his club.

Then Southern Justice kinda forgets about that murder for awhile so it can keep dwelling on some of Slim's family dynamics.  There's a kinda funny, but also sincere subplot here where Tracy wants to dance in Slim's club and he keeps refusing.  Audrey eventually talks him into allowing it since, as she puts it, Tracy's going to go to a rival club and dance if she doesn't get her way, and if Slim lets her dance here, at least they can keep an eye on her. Basically the same logic you use for telling your kids they can drink as long as they do it at home and stay away from the stairs.

Then you get to see Johnny ingratiate himself in Tracy and Audrey's lives, and you get to see a bit of what Audrey gets up to when she's not stripping.  Mostly she works on her garden.  Eventually there's a bit of a romance brewing between Audrey and Johnny, and even though Slim still has feelings for Audrey, he's kinda cool with it because Johnny's a decent guy.

And so on.

I would ordinarily complain that the movie doesn't need all this interpersonal drama - what I just described above spans the first 50 minutes or so - but if I'm being honest, this may actually be the best stuff you get to see.  It's refreshing to see a movie about subject matter like this where the characters get to do more than take off their tops and become meat for a serial killer.

Oh, right, there's a serial killer.  So.  Somewhere along the way we also meet Sherman Ackers (Michael Childers), a priest who gives over-the-top, stereotypical sermons about salvation and purging your demons and whatnot.  Almost as soon as he's introduced, you know that Ackers is going to be the bad guy.  It's kind of hard not to be when you give such angry speeches about lust and demonic forces.

Ackers, as we see by roughly the halfway mark, is behind the first murder and several more that happen throughout the movie.  His shtick is that he pays Phat Ronnie (Duke Kloss), a middleman, to go find strippers and escorts who will come to his church for a private show.  Then he has his goons put a bag over their head and he whisks them away to his lakeside estate.  From there, he savagely beats and drowns them in his swimming pool while a reverend watches from inside and furiously masturbates.

So, I have to confess something about these scenes. Ordinarily I'd be grossed out by the extreme abuse of women and sudden injection of sleaze... but it actually kinda works.  Ackers and the reverend are so over-the-top evil and in juxtaposition with the fairly mundane lives of Slim and the Sex Workers, their brutality doesn't seem exploitative, but rather central to the plot.  The movie's criticism here is about how well-dressed, morally righteous folks will fail to see strippers or prostitutes as actual people and consequently end up making things worse for everybody.  Having a priest get a murder-boner about destroying them is pretty spot-on.

The problem, as I'll get into more later, is that this stuff doesn't cohesively mesh with the forward momentum of Slim's arc.  Briefly you get to see Slim and Ackers square off a few times.  At one point, Ackers tries to lead a protest and get the strip club shut down.  (This leads to one of the best lines of the movie, in which a bunch of bikers show up to form a blockade in front of the protesters, and one of them looks straight at Ackers and says, "This here is our church.  You shut it down and we'll come to yours."  Pretty bad-ass.) And later there's a scene where one of Ackers's goons roughs Slim up, ostensibly to get him to close the strip club down.  And there's still another scene where Slim goes to fuck around with said goon in retribution.  But other than that, Ackers and Slim don't really interact.  They seem to be having completely separate movies.

Slim doesn't really get involved with Ackers until probably the last twenty minutes or so when, through a series of unrelated misfortunes, Tracy offers to sell herself to Phat Ronny and he brings her to the lakeside murder house.  Slim realizes she's about to die, so he and Johnny load up a bunch of guns and launch an assault on Ackers.  (And in another unrelated scene right before this, we find out that Johnny was actually an undercover cop who was setting up a sting on somebody - possibly Phat Ronny - but ended up blowing his cover when he was arrested by another cop who's on Ackers's payroll.  So now Johnny has quit the force and he's just good ol' Johnny again.)

Then the movie starts to get kinda weird.  Functionally, the assault sequence is about what you'd expect.  Johnny and Slim kick some ass and shoot up the bad guys, but they're bested by Ackers at the last minute so there can be suspense about whether or not they save Tracy.  The thing is, the editing here gets extraordinarily crude.  The action scenes are all stilted and have that, "Wait, what just happened?" effect, to the point that you're not actually sure where the characters physically are.  There's one cut where Johnny and Slim go from being on Slim's boat to being inside Ackers's house, and I thought I had a stroke or something.

Somewhere in the middle of all the fighting, Ackers knocks out Slim and drags his unconscious body to the murder pool.  Then he puts Slim up on a homemade crucifix, complete with a thorny crown, and laughs maniacally at the prospect that Slim will die while he drowns Tracy in front of him.  Slim manages to break free of the crucifix thanks to some carefully misplaced torches, and then he beats Ackers to death.  Unfortunately, Tracy has been held under water long enough that she's not responsive.  Johnny and Slim pull her out of the pool and try to resuscitate her.

Then, out of nowhere, Phat Ronny (who was previously shot during the assault sequence and supposedly killed) shows up and shoots Johnny, then aims the gun at Slim.  Then the police chief shows up, ostensibly having been called by Johnny in order to arrest Ackers, and he and a fellow officer point their guns at Ronny.  Slim screams, "No!" and dives down to protect Tracy, and the screen cuts to black.  You hear two gunshots, and then the credits roll over somebody from the production staff dancing on a stripper pole.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Surprisingly, there was a lot I liked about this movie.  It defied a lot of my expectations.

We can start with the subject matter itself, which is the stuff of sleazy B movies and Cinemax originals.  It's a movie about a strip club owner and his staff, which would lead you to believe that there's going to be gobs of gratuitous nudity and objectification of women.  I can't say that neither rears its head, but there's not nearly as much as you're picturing.

Southern Justice treats its characters with an amount of empathy you would never expect from a movie with either "Southern" or "Justice" in the title.  Stripping is treated very matter-of-factly; yes, the women strip, but that's not what defines them.  Audrey is an actual character who's good at what she does and has conflicted feelings about how she's perceived by the public.  She and Slim have made peace with their status, yet they feel an overwhelming sense of obligation to their daughter to push her to greater heights.  Whenever anybody has an out, they never turn their nose up at their roots.  The pervasive feeling you get is one of respect - the dancers are beloved members of Slim's family (sometimes literally) whom he wants to protect.

Hell, I've watched movies that try to moralize a hell of a lot more than Southern Justice and which feature waaaaaaaayyyyy more sleaze.  Southern Justice is downright tame.  This is a movie that's explicitly about stripping and it has less sex and nudity than average.

It all adds up to an awesome and unexpected sex-positive tone.  I mean, yeah, there's still a serial killer murdering strippers, so it's not exactly my go-to choice if I'm trying to give an example of feminist cinema, but there's a world of difference between a movie where the hero actually fears for the victims and sees them as human beings and a movie where the hero is disgusted by the people he's supposed to be saving.

The acting is okay, too.  Not great, but good.  Everybody does what they need to do, everybody's believable, and nobody has that awkward trying-too-hard cadence.  Some of them even have stellar moments - Michael Childers gets to ham it up as the villain and has a couple of fantastic, turn-it-to-11 scene-feasts.  There's one particular moment where he seems to be high as shit and starts cackling like a maniac for about two minutes for no reason, which he caps off with a sudden, "Let's go get a milkshake!"  I can't say that sort of thing is "good acting," but holy hell is it fun to watch.

I also really liked that the characters are all pretty average, believable folks.  Slim is a great marksman and he's tough as nails, but he doesn't have super powers.  He's not the cliched ex-military "ultimate weapon" that got pushed too far and then starts a rampage that you see in other movies.  He's just a guy who's making a living off something that a lot of people don't particularly like.  Johnny Deal is well-liked by the ladies, but he's not a smooth-as-silk sex machine.  Everybody's just a bunch of average folks who unfortunately have to deal with a psychotic pervert preacher and his corrupt cop buddies.  That's the perfect formula for suspense: average people + overpowered villain.

The pacing is pretty decent, the plot is serviceable, the sound and video are fine - there's a lot here that works.  Yet I can't bring myself to call it anything better than "Almost a Good Movie."  Why is that?

Well... unfortunately, Southern Justice has a terrible editing and story structure problem.  It's present a little bit in the first act, but it doesn't become truly noticeable until about a half hour in when characters start to make choices that seem a little bit off.  Johnny suddenly becomes best friends with Slim, and you wonder, "How did that happen?"  Or Slim goes to harass one of Ackers' goons in retaliation for the beating he got the other night, and you think, "How did he know Ackers was behind it?  And how did he know where Ackers lives?"  Or the story cuts from a moonlit night to a gorgeous sunny day on the river, and then back to the moonlit night and you think, "What day is it?"

It feels like there are scenes missing.  Not giant chunks - you can still piece the story together pretty easily - but little snippets.  Flavor dialogue or exposition shots.  Transitions from one scene to the next.  Little details that make a movie feel like a finished, clean progression from beginning to end are missing here.

By about an hour in, it really starts to get bad.  You can clearly tell where the movie is trying to go: Ackers is going to try to murder Tracy and Slim will have to take the law into his own hands to protect his daughter.  But it doesn't feel like you're making any progress on that journey.  It feels like you were awake for the first part of this road trip when your buddy told you'd he'd drive, and then you passed out.  Later, you wake up and your buddy is still driving, but now you're in a different car.  What the hell happened?  And why are you now four hundred miles away in Cleveland?  Your buddy never tells you, but you make it to Cape Canaveral eventually... so... I guess that's good?

Something that Southern Justice is really missing in its second act - aside from all that connective tissue I mentioned above - is escalation, particularly between Slim and Ackers.  Slim seems to know everything that Ackers is up to without ever confronting him directly or doing any detective work on his own.  It's almost as if he's watching the movie, too, so he sees all the cutaway shots of Ackers being gross.  Similarly, Ackers has it out for Slim, but it's hard to figure out exactly why.  His public persona is one that demands that Slim's club be shut down, so I understand that part - but if he's secretly a perverted sex maniac that pays folks like Slim a lot of good money to buy victims for his death games, why would he want to put them out of business?

The second act of this movie really needed a lot of retooling.  It would work a lot better if you saw Slim doing some amateur sleuthing and figuring out early on that Ackers is behind the murders.  And then, through whatever contrivance you want, Ackers realizes that Slim knows, so he tries to cut a deal.  They could have a creepy limo scene where Ackers offers Slim a lot of money to look the other way, and when Slim refuses, Ackers sics his goons on him.  Maybe they beat the shit out of Slim and he has to crawl his way back to his club with a broken ankle.  And then you can introduce the corrupt cops: when Slim goes to them for help, they not only turn him away, they start to harass him for bullshit reasons.  And then you keep building up suspense off the idea that Ackers is some demagogue who secretly controls the whole town, and once he sets his sights on Tracy, Slim has no choice but to bust out his guns and shoot that fucker in the head.

The third act is basically the climax you expect from a plot like that, but it introduces so many awkward edits and unanswered questions that you get whiplash.  Especially when you consider that the first half hour almost feels like a slice-of-life drama about an unlucky dude and his strip club business.

Sigh.  I really want to like this movie more.  I think it's a good first draft.  If Mr. Selig ever has the cash and time, I'd love to see the remake.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

I'll give it 45 points for obscurity, since it's only just barely north of 100 ratings on IMDb as of today.  I'll give it another 15 for an ensemble "you've probably never heard of them" bonus.  It has "Justice" in the title, so that's worth 5 points.

Then you have to take into account the subject matter, which involves a former sniper (yes) and a strip club (why not).  I'll give it another 10 points for general content.

That adds up to a total of 75 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

You can rent the DVD from Netflix like I did, or if you don't mind spending an extremely modest sum of money, you can buy it.