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Hipster Holy Grail: Street Corner Justice (1996)

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

There’s a halfway decent action movie hidden in Street Corner Justice. The sort of dumb thing you’d find on TV on a lazy Sunday morning and you don’t mind wasting the time on it. If only they got rid of some of the bloat and the politics, you might even want to check it out a second time.

My Rating: 2.5 / 5 (Almost Good Movie)

The Plot Summary

Street Corner Justice almost beats Cruel Justice for the Minutes-to-Rape (MTR) ratio; about two minutes and eight credits in, we get treated to Clint Howard carving up an innocent woman in a dumpster and violently raping her. What fun.

I’ll maybe cut SCJ a little bit of slack in that the point of this is to establish that the protagonist, Mike Justus (Marc Singer), exists in a nightmare world where all he sees day in and day out is horror, and he’s willing to go beyond the law to punish especially terrible crimes. And the movie isn’t really about exploitation or anything like that – it’s just a means to get Justus riled up so he can commit some brutal act and get kicked off the police force. Still. Two minutes, man.

The point is, Clint Howard runs when he notices that Justus is on his tail, and he goes on a big, drag-out chase through alleys, up some fire escapes, and finally along some rooftops. Briefly there’s a moment where Howard is hanging precariously from a hand rail and Justus toys with him a bit. Then they chase some more, until Howard is cornered on a balcony.

The movie is a tiny bit clever here. Justus keeps toying with Howard and it’s pretty clear that he’s waiting for him to do something violent so he has a good reason to beat and/or kill him. Howard picks up on this and refuses to play along, even when Justus tosses his revolver on the ground and invites him to take it, and there’s a little bit of a mind game at play. It’s not a brilliant move, but I do appreciate the sense of self-awareness that both characters have.

So, Justus... ugh, you know what?  I can't keep doing this.  I hate that the movie doesn't have conviction in its stupid choices.  I'm going to call him "Justice" from now on since that's clearly what they wanted to do before they wimped out.

Anyway, long story short, Justice ends up beating the shit out of Clint Howard (who is only credited as “rapist,” by the way), and he’s reprimanded by his superiors for his brutality. Justice is forced to retire and he moves from the sunny streets of Pittsburgh to North Hollywood.

Once there, he moves into a shithole of a house and starts to rebuild it while making friends with the various folks who work at a strip mall across the street. They’re a diverse bunch of folks, including Kwong (Soon-Tek Oh, who we saw just a couple weeks ago in Steele Justice), the owner of a doughnut / dessert shop. Kwong is a fiery dude with a short temper. He notices a guy dealing drugs in his shop, so he kicks him out and gets into a shouting match with him. The drug dealer retaliates by throwing a brick through Kwong’s window, which leads to Kwong getting into a shoving match, and soon Kwong is overcome by the drug dealer’s gang.

Justice is going to let most of this slide, but when he sees that Kwong is physically in trouble, he decides to intervene. He beats up all the drug dealers and calls the LAPD, who quickly arrest and cart off the gang members. Then one of the plainclothes cops who showed up, Ryan (Steve Railsback), chats with Justice and gets to know him better. He invites Justice to join the force, but Justice is non-committal. His current plan is just to finish fixing up his shithole house, then sell it and move somewhere else.

Kwong joins up with some of the other shop owners at the strip mall. This is the first time any of them get any dialogue, and you see that the movie is trying perhaps a little too hard at making them a ragtag group. There’s a Jewish jeweler, a priest played by Bryan Cranston, who may or may not have an Irish accent, and a wholesome white woman, Jenny Connor (Kim Lankford), who has been making goo-goo eyes at Mike the whole time she’s been on screen so far.

They all commiserate about the crime that’s been plaguing their strip mall, then make plans to get in good with Mr. Justice. Kwong brings him a box of free donuts and invites him to join everybody at a community meeting that night. Justice is again non-committal, but he decides to check it out after a random vandal tags the side of his house.

The community meeting is loud and unproductive. Ryan is there and just kind of shrugs everything off, and the other law enforcement types present say something to the effect of, “It’s your job to police your own stores and prevent criminals from gathering.” Which is… weird. I’m not a business owner and I can’t say I’ve ever gone to a community meeting, so I’ll need somebody else to set me straight – is this a real thing that cops say when they don’t want to get involved?

While all this is going on, we also occasionally cut away to see some of the goings-on of the local gang. To my knowledge, they’re never given a name, and they also don’t seem to have any particular colors or unifying tattoos or other things that would tie them together. In fact, there might even be two gangs, because one batch of bad dudes seems to be Hispanic and the other batch looks like stoner white guys.

Anyway, the point is, the leader of one gang is killed by one of his generals, Frederico (Juan Garcia), who takes over. And… that’s about it for Frederico. I mean, he doesn’t really do a whole lot other than stay visible. You expect him to be a particularly vicious guy… but no. Even when he kills his boss he seems a little bit nervous, like, “Aw, dang, I didn’t think this would be so icky.” In fact, I don’t even know if Frederico is the character’s name, so I might be crediting the wrong actor here. I only picked it, somewhat racistly, because Frederico is the first name on the character list who's Latin-sounding and isn't played by Peter Mark Vasquez.

As you might expect, the poor characterization of the gang members is kind of a problem. Street Corner Justice has no shortage of scenes of them committing crimes – there’s plenty of drug dealing, vandalism, property destruction, and so on to go around. But there’s not a lot of personality and no stakes. They’re just a nebulous bunch of those people who show up now and again to be menacing.

The movie falls into a bit of a hole around this point because Mike Justice is still being non-committal to everyone, just sitting back and taking in everything that’s happening. The only real development is that the shop owners form their own community justice organization, the TNB (“Taking Norwood Back”). They put on bright orange jackets while they go around policing their neighborhood, which mostly just involves them shouting at the gang members and pointing a video camera at them.

So, for maybe a good twenty minutes, the movie is just on loop, recycling similar scenes of each character doing basically the same thing over and over – cops being lazy, the TNB yelling at minorities, the drug dealers dealing drugs, and then Justice just grimacing in the corner.

Thankfully, some conflict finally erupts. Frederico leads a hit squad to smash up the TNB one night, and his goons beat them all up on a public playground. A couple of them are shot, including Jenny and the jeweler, and the police shrug and say, “Well, what could we possibly do? They were acting like vigilantes.” This drives Justice up the wall, because his romantic interest might have died, so now he’s finally invested enough to turn it into an action movie.

Justice starts by asking a cop buddy back in Pittsburgh to give him the names of ex-cons who moved from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles. Then he goes to visit two of them, Willie Gee (Beverly Leech) and Angel (Tiny Lister), with whom he’s on good terms. He’s able to convince both of them to help him act as a security team for the TNB, and the movie starts to get interesting.

They do some staking out and learn a bit about the gang(s), and then go on a couple of counter-missions to push back. At Justice’s command, they shoot up a couple of the gang(s)’s hideouts, destroy their drugs, and steal their cash, which they give back to the various shop keeps.

Ryan is unimpressed and advises Justice to knock it off. Justice ignores him, and then the next day a couple of gang members hit Justice with their car. He’s sent to the hospital, where he makes a quick recovery and has sex with Jenny, who it turns out is not actually all that much in pain from her injuries.

Unfortunately, while that’s happening, Angel gets into some trouble. He spots one of the goons dealing drugs at the strip mall and goes out to beat him up. In the ensuing fight, the gang member takes out a knife and tries to kill Angel. There’s briefly a fight, and then Angel starts beating the guy mercilessly until he’s dead.

The cops are quick to arrest Angel, and they start grilling all the shopkeeps, who swear up and down that Angel only fought in self defense. The cops, Ryan among them, are a little bit reluctant to push the issue, but then one of the superior types – I’m guessing the District Attorney, maybe? – says that they have to prosecute Angel or else they’ll set a precedent that backs up vigilante justice. Which... is what they were arguing for earlier in the movie? Again, somebody please correct me on whether or not this is a thing actual cops try to encourage.

Anyway, Justice and Willie are both pretty bummed about the situation and the TNB is totally discouraged, so it seems like everything’s going to back the way it was. (Not to say that they’ve really done much to improve their neighborhood, anyway.) Fresh from the hospital, Justice is about to totally give up when he gets a mysterious phone call from Frederico, telling him that the gang has kidnapped Jenny and they’ll kill her unless he goes to a spooky abandoned warehouse.

Naturally, he goes, and the movie is all set for an action climax. It’s okay. Nothing terribly special, but there’s at least one explosion and a couple of people do some dramatic stunt work.

Justice fights his way through all the goons until eventually he winds up on the top level where he comes face to face with Frederico and – shock of all shocks – Ryan, who has been a corrupt cop this whole time. Ryan is holding Jenny at gunpoint and starts giving Justice a speech. But… why? There haven’t been any demands made yet, and if their end game is just to get Justice to leave the city and/or otherwise stop interfering, then wouldn’t it be easier to just shoot him?

Out of nowhere, Kwong shows up to throw a knife into Frederico’s back, and then Ryan and Justice get into a fistfight. Justice gets shot, but he’s also able to punch Ryan over a hand rail. Ryan gets one of those nice double-deaths where he not only falls a great distance, but also gets wrapped up in some electrical stuff along the way and is electrocuted, too.

The movie ends with Justice and Jenny being romantically carted off to a hospital in the same ambulance. Meanwhile, we never get to hear what happened to Angel, or the seedy DA, or the rest of the gang, or the shopkeeps, or pretty much anybody. But Justice is having some sex at least.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

In many ways, SCJ is the exact kind of movie I was hoping I’d be watching when I started my ill-advised Justice marathon. I kept thinking that movies with “justice” in the title would yield low- or mid-budget action vehicles where a lone stranger would clean up a shitty, crime-ridden town. It’s strange that I had to go this long to get something of that type – and it’s disappointing that it’s got as many problems as it does.

SCJ is one of those movies that’s actually more depressing because it isn’t thoroughly awful. The acting is okay for the most part. The lighting, sound, and other technical elements are all solid. It looks crisp and basically shot/directed pretty well. The plot is clear, there’s just the right amount of characters, and the plot has plenty of potential to be interesting. A few of the action scenes work, too. On the face of it, this is a movie that should be getting a recommendation. It should be the type of thing I flock to.

Two problems. First, the movie’s focus is too narrow. SCJ does a decent enough job of painting the neighborhood as a cesspool of crime, but it’s really bad at answering, “What next?” The stakes are there – we can see that the shop owners need help, we can see that their livelihoods are in danger. But the payoff is missing. We need a sequence where we see that a difference is being made. The best you get is a news report where the correspondent says something like, “Crime is pretty bad here, so these people made a community watch group.” No word on whether it’s working – just that it exists. There isn’t even anything in the movie to tell us that Mike Justice has made an impact. The movie ends before we can see any kind of resolution – if anything, things have gotten a magnitude worse.

Next, and probably much worse, there’s the padding. This movie is 100 minutes long and could easily be 80.

One of the things I skipped over in my plot recap is the constant, repetitive discussion the characters keep having about law, crime, and “the system.” Either there’s a citizen saying that the police have failed them, or the police saying that the city doesn’t give them enough support, or a reporter waxing philosophic about social justice. There’s a lot of complaining, and very few solutions.

Now, if you’re going to have this much talk about “the system” in your movie, you’re basically establishing that your movie will be about politics on some level. You’re telling us that you want to have that conversation, and as such you’re implying that you have something to add to that conversation. But SCJ doesn’t. Its message is ambiguous at best – what are we saying here, that citizens should put on matching uniforms and police their own streets? That law enforcement should be a voluntary thing created by the community? I’m not necessarily against those ideas, but the outcome you’ve shown us is one of failure – the TNB is beaten multiple times, one of them may have been killed, they start drifting toward mindless mob violence at one point, and in the end, it’s not even clear that they’ve made any difference.

It’s kinda like going on Facebook after two years of inaction and then saying something like, “Just saw the news. Republicans make me sick! Why do we keep ignoring the healthcare crisis?” And then somebody takes the bait and replies, “I’m not 100% onboard with the repeal plan, but I’m not a fan of Obamacare either. What do you think we should do?” And then you never answer, instead choosing to go back to inactivity for another two years. I mean, I might agree with your politics or I might not, but what’s the point of just randomly shouting, “THIS IS A PROBLEM!!!!” and then leaving?

The movie’s politics are only part of the padding, though. A lot of it also comes from just plain pointless sequences. The whole opening sequence in Pittsburgh, for example, is about fifteen minutes long, and the only thing we take away from it is, “Mike Justice moved to LA.” You could get that done with a montage under the opening credits. Maybe a bunch of photos and newspapers can give us the back story, ending with a headline that says, “Mike Justice Fired From Force,” and then you cross-fade into Mike Justice waking up from a bender in his shitty LA house.

Or the weird repetition pit in the second act. It takes almost an hour for Mike Justice to recruit Willie and Angel because we keep seeing scenes of the citizens being angry with the cops. You don’t need that much to seed the conflict. What if the TNB was attacked on their very first day? That would get straight to the point. Or hell, don’t even bother with the TNB plot thread at all. Just have Jenny get shot during an armed robbery, and Justice decides he’s got to get involved.

Or – and here I’m fundamentally changing the story structure, but it works – you could open with Mike Justice already being an enforcer for the TNB. Open with him being a local hero because he keeps the criminal element away, and the shop keeps reward him with protection money. And then you introduce Frederico as the seedy criminal overlord who wants to expand his empire to this part of town, and then you introduce Ryan as a corrupt cop who threatens to arrest Justice on charges of extortion (he is, after all, accepting the protection money) unless Ryan gets a cut. And now you’ve got a pretty neat action movie where the hero’s backed into a corner from the get go.

I think I’m being overly critical at this point. SCJ isn’t a rage-inducing movie and doesn’t deserve an in-depth thrashing. It’s just a slightly less-than-average action movie. It’s simply frustrating. With a few edits, this could have been something much better, if not innovative and fresh. Classic Almost Good Movie syndrome.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

I'll give it 40 obscurity cred for having only 150 ratings on IMDb, plus 10 cred overall for the many B-movie regulars who show up.  Not the least of which is Marc Singer, who's basically the hipster version of Mark Hamill.

I'll give it 5 points for having "Justice" in the title, plus another 5 points for sorta-kinda-basically naming it's main character "Justice" on top of that.  And to complete the trifecta, somebody actually derisively calls him "Street Corner Justice" at one point, so it'll get another 5 points for a titular line read.

Lastly, I'll give it 5 points for technological bullshit, as there is a scene where a drug dealer is playing a Street Fighter 2 arcade cabinet and it's making Atari 2600 sounds for some reason.  I feel like that's the kind of dumb shit thing sound editors are too smart to do nowadays

That all adds up to a total of 70 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  But I feel like it's misleadingly high.  Sure, you might get a fair chunk of hipster cred out of this, but there's nothing really all that fun or ironic about the content.  This is one of those "you drink alone angrily wondering why you bother" kinda movies - I don't recommend you go for that cred if you can help it.

Where You Can Watch

Street Corner Justice is pretty easy to find, if you really feel like it.  It was released on DVD at least a couple of times, and copies are pretty cheap.  I watched it on a cheap-o multi-pack with few other movies that'll probably wind up on this blog some time.