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The Ideological Content Analysis 30 Days Putsch:

30 Reviews in 30 Days

DAY NINE

Swelter

Saddle up for another hipster riff on the western … Out-of-place big names Jean-Claude Van Damme and Alfred Molina pick up shameless paychecks for supporting roles in this sub-Tarantinoid dose of direct-to-streaming dreck. The actual leading man viewers get stuck with is a tedious congoid, Lennie James, who plays Bishop, the sheriff of a sleazy backwater outside Las Vegas that finds itself invaded by a gang of prison escapees searching for a cache of hidden loot. Van Damme, his accent thicker than ever, plays the implausibly named “Stillman”, one of the gang of psychotic outlaws, which also includes Cole (Grant Bowler), who discovers he has a score to settle with Bishop when he finds him shacked up with ex-girlfriend Carmen (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Annoyingly slapdash, with no sympathetic characters, Swelter is as uninviting, drab, and exhausting as its title advertises, with Van Damme’s charisma criminally underutilized. The great character actor Tracey Walter does add some much-needed color to a few scenes, however, in his role as “Old Man Henry Johnson”.

2.5 out of 5 stars. Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Swelter is:

4. Anti-police. Van Damme’s gang gets the hip Reservoir Dogs slow motion stroll treatment as they shoot down the officers manning a roadblock.

3. Anti-gun. Bishop’s deputy Ronnie (Alan Simpson) is a klutz. Bishop himself refuses to carry a gun until circumstances force his hand. Asked why he performs his duties without a sidearm, he replies, “I’m afraid I might shoot somebody.”

2. Anti-white and pro-miscegenation. White men are vicious, sadistic poison to women. “It’s your DNA,” says Carmen in rejecting Cole’s renewed advances. She prefers the dusky embrace of Bishop. Van Damme also kisses a mutt.

1. Obamist. Swelter unfolds against the backdrop of the upcoming election of a new sheriff. After electing Bishop, a man with a mysterious past, just to rid themselves of the previous power, the townsfolk have grown impatient with what they perceive as Sheriff Bishop’s moralistic stifling of free enterprise and are itching to vote for his lame white deputy as a replacement; but Bishop, the righteous black man of destiny, rides in, rises to the occasion, and manages to protect the townspeople from a descent into white barbarity. (cf. American Hustle)

Rainer Chlodwig von Kook

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In the wild opening scene of Drew Daywalt and David Schneider’s 2002 film Stark Raving Mad, the protagonist, Ben McGewan (cocksure, handsome American Pie alumnus Seann William Scott), is defined in a single moment.  Alone on a savannah and faced with a lion, he keeps his cool and, instead of running, he flips the savage beast the bird.  In addition to instantaneously hooking the viewer’s interest into this character’s story, the gesture also tells the viewer who he is: a masculine, confident, charming rebel with a touch of zen about him.

Stark Raving Mad, living up to its title, is a caper film about teasing the venomous snake and challenging the king of the jungle, and works the way Sexy Beast might have played if it had been a stateside story directed by Danny Boyle or Guy Ritchie: flippant, frenetic, visually inventive, and still a little psychologically pimply.  Foul-mouthed as any Tarantino film and featuring the same sorts of casual hipster criminals, gratuitous anecdotes, faux-profound contemplations, and wacky, depraved situations, Stark Raving Mad is more fun than might be expected from a film of its gimmicky, derivative type.  As in the work of Ritchie and Tarantino, violence is trivialized somewhat, but the ride is so fast and sexy that the sin of it is beside the point.

Sin does, however, figure thematically in Stark Raving Mad and help to energize it, set as it is in a decadent rave club that could double as some other movie’s futuristic Sodom, what with its lurid, luminous greens, cavernous blackness, wet trance music, neon, drugs, and hive of willing bodies.  As Ben and his motley crew of amateurish crooks are in the basement trying to break into the vaults of the bank next door, floozies and incubi rock the dance floor above, with drag queens performing an S&M show onstage with a snake and date rape drugs floating nonchalantly around the club.  At one point the python gets loose (an excuse for a bit of zippy snake-vision camera work) and wraps itself around a party-goer as a reminder that fire is hot but also burns.  It is, however, the daredevil dance around the fire that primarily concerns Stark Raving Mad.

Indicative of the film’s will to party is its decision more than once to break the fourth wall, with two characters, Ben and Rikki (Timm Sharp), addressing the viewer directly.  This gimmick, immediately calling to mind Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, complements the self-conscious mischief of the film as a whole and reinforces a parallel between Ben’s relationship with depressed buddy Rikki and Ferris’s patronage and concern for milquetoast sidekick Cameron.  Stark Raving Mad is a much sleazier entertainment experience than Ferris – to be expected in a film with a list of characters including “Seedy Guy”, “Sickly Thin Guy”, and “Trannie #3” – but also captures something of its anarchic validation of salutary revelry and rebellion for its own sake.

A little bit more than just a style-over-substance fix, this one is recommendable for its non-stop neo-disco-gothic visual sensibility, but also for its humor, some adequate suspense, and the anchoring performance of Seann William Scott and supporting players Sharp as Rikki and Lou Diamond Phillips as scary gangster Mr. Gregory.

4 out of 5 possible stars.

[WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS]

Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Stark Raving Mad is:

9. Anti-Christian/anti-religion.  Oriental mythological beliefs, characterized as superstition, receive more attention than western spirituality.  “Help me, Jesus, help me!” a DJ (Jody Racicot) says in sarcastic despair when told to play a song he dislikes.  Ben, in a tight spot, irreverently invents a lie about a character’s religious tenets to fool an FBI agent.

8. Feminist, at least with respect to the intelligent, technologically adept Betty (Suzy Nakamura).  “Stop bustin’ my ovaries,” this probable lesbian sasses.  “I said have a seat and have some kung pao chicken,” she asserts with menace at one point, transforming hospitality into a threat.

7. Homosexuality-ambivalent.  From the standpoint that all publicity is good publicity, Stark Raving Mad gives an endorsement.  “I feel love,” pyrotechnics man Jake (John Crye) says, arms around a man and a woman, probably under the influence of ecstasy.  The transvestites, though loutish and ugly behind the scenes, put on a sexy show with their makeup masks and tacky regalia.  However, Rikki fears the inevitability of prison bitchery should he be caught by police, imagining that he would emerge from incarceration looking like a doughnut.

6. Anti-state, presenting an unflatteringly seedy portrait of one public servant.  A character eventually revealed to be an undercover FBI agent (NewsRadio‘s Dave Foley) talks about how he likes his chickens frying size.  “These dirty little meat flowers nowadays, they’ll just like strip and jump your donkey anywhere, huh?”

5. Racist!, specifically in its depictions of Asians.  Betty, while smart and confident, is also sarcastic, mannish, and unpersonable.  Most of the other Asians in the film are superstitious gangsters, the only other one being an unseen and apparently stupid or English-challenged Chinese restauranteur with whom Ben has difficulty communicating his order over the phone.  A shrilly annoying rendition of “Sayonara” plays over the denouement.  Also, “mongoloid” is employed as an insult.

4. Drug-ambivalent.  Jake is incapacitated by a drug-spiked drink.  “I work better stoned,” he says earlier in the film, but events fail to bear this out.  Cigarettes, however, lend an air of experienced toughness to Ben and Betty.

3. Family-ambivalent.  Parents receive poor representation, but Ben is motivated all along by a desire to seek revenge for his brother’s death.

2. Misogynistic, sexist, and slut-ambivalent.  With the exception of Betty, no female character in Stark Raving Mad has a shred of dignity.  Women are sluts, fickle in their affections, and exist to serve men drinks and sensual pleasure.  Ben, after describing a type of bird that eats its mate’s heart after sex, explains, “I think it’s because she’s just a bitch.”  Vanessa (Monet Mazur), a former recipient of his attentions, once broke out his windshield, cooling his desire to have a woman in his life as a permanent fixture.  Later, after telling her “Fuck you”, he has sex with her but breaks off abruptly when caper business intervenes.  At the end, after the heist is accomplished, he throws her out of the getaway van.  Hungry club cutie Kitten (Reagan Dale Neis), after settling for dweeby Rikki by default and pleasing him on a sluttish whim, only earns him a brutal beating when her father (Foley) discovers their dirty deed.  On the pro-slut side of the equation, however, is Ben letting a bevy of underage girls into the club and a scene in which one woman receives cheers for flashing her crotch to be let into this apparently very happening nightspot.

1. Outlaw/anti-capitalistic.  An announcement of “X marks the spot” serves to cast the robbers as modern-day pirates and adventurers.  Crime, fraught with danger for them though it may be, works out in the end for Ben and his friends.  “I got the money, I got revenge, and nobody got killed.  Hell, Rikki even got laid.”  Which is to say that it pays.  A nasty split-screen montage with a drill equates bank robbery with sex.  The film’s representative businessman is club proprietor Mr. Partridge (Adam Arkin), who is punished for attempting to assert his prerogatives as a property owner.  Also, Betty’s former employer at a software firm is described as “some asshole”.

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