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Offbeat Alex Cox film gets second chance

'Straight to Hell Returns' adds deleted scenes and animation to its sweat-stained take on spaghetti westerns, hitman pictures and corporate intrigue. It plays UCLA on Friday.

November 15, 2010|By Mark Olsen, Special to the Los Angeles Times

There was a time in the mid-1980s when filmmaker Alex Cox would have been considered on par with such contemporaries as Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant and David Lynch at the forefront of the ascendant notion of "independent film." Coming off the critical successes of "Repo Man" and "Sid and Nancy," Cox stood to bring a punk-inflected sensibility of subversive smarts to a broader audience.

Then he made the one-two punch of "Straight to Hell" and "Walker," both released in 1987, two unapologetically political, inside-out genre pastiches. "Straight to Hell," in particular, was a flaky, sweat-stained take on spaghetti westerns, hitman pictures and corporate intrigue that featured a catch-all cast of actors, friends and rock 'n' rollers.

"My career in features, I started out working for Universal and I ended up working for Roger Corman," said the English-born Cox, 55, during a recent phone call from his home in Ashland, Ore. "It's supposed to go the other way."

Film screenings

A new version of "Straight to Hell," dubbed "Straight to Hell Returns" — which screens Friday at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, where Cox is scheduled to appear in person — might help the movie finally get the reappraisal it has long deserved. This new cut is 41/2 minutes longer, with a few deleted scenes added back in — including a hilarious bit with a bound Elvis Costello being slapped silly by a roomful of women — some newly created animation and insert shots, a new sound mix and a digitally revised color scheme overseen by the film's original cinematographer, Tom Richmond.

Also screening over the weekend is 1986's "Sid and Nancy," which turned the doomed tale of Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (played with incendiary power by Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb) into something of a tragic romance, and "Highway Patrolman," Cox's Spanish-language 1991 story of a Mexican cop.

Shannon Kelley, head of public programming at the UCLA archive, noted that not only is Cox a graduate of UCLA's film program but also that the original elements used for "Straight to Hell Returns" were discovered at the school's archive.

"It's a nice chance to first of all salute a career like Alex Cox's and the conviction behind it," said Kelly, "but also to remind ourselves that it was fostered at this institution."

Shot in Almería, Spain, on locations actually used for classic spaghetti westerns, the film features the Clash's Joe Strummer, Costello, members of the Pogues and a young, chubby-cheeked Courtney Love as an odd assortment of killers, bandits and sidekicks. It's dotted with faces that have gone on to be familiar character actors, including Xander Berkeley, Miguel Sandoval and Sy Richardson, and there are cameos by Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones and Jim Jarmusch. British actress Kathy Burke and future director Sara Sugarman can also be seen in small roles.

Producer Eric Fellner has gone on to be part of the successful production company Working Title Films.

"It's densed up over the years," Cox noted of how the film arguably plays better today than when it was originally released. "Partially, there's a nostalgia aspect to it because some of the people who were in it aren't around anymore. I also think it's gotten better, with all the weird stuff we've just done to the film. Some films you can improve and other films — you couldn't really go and do a 'Citizen Kane' redux, that wouldn't make it any better."

Offbeat origins

The new version had its debut in San Francisco on Halloween and is making a small theatrical rollout at festivals and art houses across the country before being released on DVD in December.

The original "Straight to Hell" sprang from origins as offbeat as the story it tells. When Cox couldn't fund his initial plan of taking Costello, Strummer and the Pogues on a rock 'n' roll tour of war-torn Nicaragua in support of the Sandinista rebels — "Big media corporations do not support revolutionary movements in the Third World," noted Cox — he decided to shoot a feature film in the same period of time the musicians already had blocked off.

A script was quickly prepared, everyone decamped to Spain, and the film was shot in four weeks.

The response to the movie on its initial release in summer 1987 — with a local premiere at a Burbank drive-in — was largely one of derision and dismissal. "It's going straight to nowhere," proclaimed Variety, while the New York Times called it "a mildly engrossing, instantly forgettable midnight movie."

'Badge of honor'

Dick Rude, cowriter and costar of the film, specifically remembers that when "Straight to Hell" made a list of the worst films of the year in the Los Angeles Times, "I was so proud. It was such a badge of honor to me. That meant I succeeded in making people feel something. And it served as a paradigm for years after that when people would write about other films — 'this is almost as bad as 'Straight to Hell.'"

Since "Straight to Hell" and the follow-up film "Walker" — a historical story in Nicaragua filled with purposeful anachronisms — Cox has remained extremely prolific, though off the radar of the Hollywood industry. He hosted the British television show "Moviedrome" for seven years and has continued to make features such as "Death and the Compass," "Three Businessmen," "Revengers Tragedy" and "Searchers 2.0."

Cox is heartened that "Straight to Hell Returns" could receive some retroactive appreciation.

"It's a bizarre fusion of its time and right now," said Cox. "It has become the film that it should have been."

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