Sometimes, a movie depresses you with how dull it is. It doesn't happen very often. Usually, bad is bad and good is graciously accepted and the debate is over. But there are those instances where the ideas present, or the production value used, prepare you for a truly original an/or interesting experience and all you get is the cinematic equivalent of narcolepsy. When it happens, it really throws your aesthetic appreciations all out of whack. It has you second guessing your previous approaches to film and augmenting your personal taste. The quandaries pile up until the brain starts to shut down and the bowels open up. Indeed, the most annoying aspect of being bored by what should have been a silly slice of independent fun, or a deliciously derivative genre experiment – usually in the arena of horror or the sex farce – is how many unanswered questions there are: Why was this movie made? Who thought THAT idea was a good one? Are there any of those amphetamine-laced donuts left? Why am I alive?...the list goes on. Though based on what many Internet sites claim is a wonderful graphic novel/comic book/funny pages presentation by writer Michael Allred, the 2000 movie G-Men from Hell is a real snore-fest. Derived from Allred's Madman comic series and helmed by a member of a moviemaking dynasty – Christopher Coppola (brother of Nicholas Cage, cousin to Sophia and nephew to Francis Ford), this noir knockoff detective dynamics drone wants to be a pastiche of several hyper-realistic retro ideas. But thanks to some sloppy scripting, a few flat performances and an overall feeling of low budget bungling, this is one private dick diorama that fails in the hard-boiled department.
FBI agents Dean Crept and Mike Mattress are closing in on an important case when they are shot down in cold blood, gangland style. Adding insult to assassination, Crept's wife and child are also killed in a car bomb explosion. The detecting duo finds themselves in Hell, the result of their crocked, graft-based practices. Hoping to escape the hot as Hades afterlife arrangements, they discover that the Devil has a secret. An intensely miserable demon, Satan takes to Earth after each of his therapy sessions to collect more souls. And he uses a magic crystal to make the terrain trek topside. Stealing his other transporting gemstone, the boys find themselves back on their favorite planet. Hoping that by doing some good deeds they will find a way into Heaven, Crept and Mattress set up a detective agency. They "borrow" some money from a late loan shark, they find a location, hire a sexy secretary and open the doors for business. Their first client is a disgruntled spouse, Gloria Lake. She is convinced her husband wants her dead. The boys decide to investigate. What they turn up is a complicated plot involving murder, counterfeiting, grave robbing, cloning, robots, hand puppets, homosexual policemen, Satanic minions, probate problems, televangelists and depression over dead family members. Apparently this is just another week in the living dead life of G-Men from Hell.
With all the plot points listed above, you'd assume that Michael Allred's G-Men from Hell would be a campy, clever redux of many of the more salient specifics of such Tinsel Town mainstays as crime thrillers, detective stories and surreal sci-fi serials. And for a moment, just a moment, the movie looks like it will have potential. The innovative set designs and overall look of the film throws 50s kitsch and 40s grit into late 90s LA for a somewhat evocative atmosphere. You're never quite sure what decade you're in or the era the film is referencing and this helps give the movie a creative comic book universe to work within. The script is also stripped of many of those nasty self-referential clichés in an attempt to fuse modern imagery and ideals into the concrete settings of nostalgia. The cast has the appropriate era-balancing dynamics, suggesting both contemporary cool with a perfect post war naiveté. Indeed, almost all the elements that G-Men from Hell uses to visually represent its graphic novel ground rules come together in imaginative, intricate detail. With such a solid foundation under it, this film looks like it's ready to rewrite the rules of independent cinema.
Unfortunately, for the majority of its running time, G-Men from Hell feels like an inside joke shared by a couple of peculiar people and a minor cult of compatriots. It acts like a low rent version of Dick Tracy without Madonna mangling songs by Stephen Sondheim or a snot-nosed kid stuffing his face. Indeed, many of the elements of hard-boiled detective fiction are merely hinted at, not replicated in this film. The dialogue is almost witty but truly lacks the rapier rapidity of classic Ho-wood histrionics. Locations fail to provide the necessary mixture of dreary gloom and gin blossom beauty. The femmes are fine, not fatale and the dicks just don't smoke, drink, swear or stink enough. G-Men from Hell is really nothing more than a pop art parody, a big bowl of retrograde goodies blended together with an unusual storytelling slant to produce a unique, if overall uninteresting take on the PI pic. Where traditional film noir uses suggestion, sizzle and ever-shifting shadows, G-Men from Hell employs the goofy and the grating. By the time the conclusion is drawn and the story is over, you don't care who done it, you won't mind if major characters die and could give a good rats patoot if Satan ever sends our paltry protagonists back to the land of sour milk and mud-honey. All we want is for the aggravating characters to shut their festering gobs and pray that this static send-up will just get on with it and end.
The casting is one of the big problems in G-Men from Hell, a main reason why it just doesn't quite come together. Of the diverse collection of actors ambling about, only William Forsythe, a B-movie minion who once plied his trade in Tinsel Town triumphs like Raising Arizona (as John Goodman's jovial brother Eville) and American Me, even comes close to bringing any kid of imagination to his portrayal. He provides Dean Crept with the proper soul-hardened two-fisted familiarity. On the other hand, Tate Donovan is atrocious, playing Mike Mattress like a suckling pig caught in a slaughterhouse holding bin, awaiting the bolt gun. He shrieks out his lines in castrati-like squelches and seems constantly in a state of body lice infested nervous motion. Perhaps director Christopher Coppola thought this would make a clear-cut distinction between his Fed fellows, but all it really creates is an anti-entertainment issue that's hard for an audience to overcome. The rest of the performances are passable, with only Robert Goulet as the Devil (a role Carol Lawrence really relates to, possibly) and Gary Busey as a leather-man homosexual police detective (with some Airplane! like suggestive lines) making any headway into humor. Everyone else, from Vanessa Angel to Zach Galligan seems stuck in a bad comedy sketch from the early 80s TV variety vomit Fridays, milking a dumb premise loaded with lame, uninspired gags.
As for filmmaker Coppola, his direction can best be described as ambivalent with a great deal of forced foolishness. He employs far too many weird angled shots and obtusely framed sequences, hoping that this design will recall comic book panels as well as the kitsch camp of 60s superhero shows Batman and The Green Hornet. Most of the time, his narrative seems to be lurching along, stopping every few sequences to catch its breath, make up its mind as to where its going next, or just hoping that inspiration strikes it before the whole shebang tumbles into incoherence. And while he does keep the rambling plot elements aloft just long enough to have them all congeal and pay off, he fails to recognize when certain aspects just aren't working. Charles Fleischer may have parlayed a strange stand-up act and a voice-over victory as Roger Rabbit into a license to act however he wants, but his mute mad scientist sidekick with a hand puppet is not very much of a performance. Allred's comic design calls for multi-era iconography, a mixing of 30s – 80s ideals, but Coppola can't actually get them to gel. Instead of successfully incorporating the natural combination of 50s sci-fi bachelor pad with 90s computer tech, we wonder what kind of sad sack dared try and combine the two. It's a good indicator of how ham-fisted the fashion issues are, that when someone mentions CDs vs. vinyl to Angel's character, we are shocked that any character in this film would know what a compact disc was. The movie seems forever locked in the past without enough formal nods to the present to make its point.
The end result then is a film that can't quite fathom why it exists outside its peculiar pen and ink platform. Since the basic ideas don't offer anything novel or new (how may times have we seen characters escape Hades to right wrongs on Earth and win their souls back?) we have to rely on characterization and creativity to win the day. G-Men from Hell hardly has any of either. All the people populating this poor man's Mickey Spillane are as flat and faceless as they appear on the pages of Allred's graphic glad-handing and the awkward amalgamation of vogues and variations isn't enough to elevate it above basic low budget independent intentions. G-Men from Hell is not ironic enough to zing with satirical wit, not broad enough to induce slapstick-inspired belly laughs and not knowing enough to sell its strangeness as cleverly crafted camp. When all is said and done, it's merely reminiscent of a very personal labor of love, a paean to a much-admired work that only a few individuals are directly tuned-in on. Fans of Allred and his work will probably have a blast with this faithful reconstruction of his crime and punishment playground. And for anyone sick and tired of the overblown issues in current cartoon-based blockbuster features, Coppola's subtler approach will suit you fine. But most film fans will be struck by how shallow this entire endeavor feels, missing much of the heft and weight that similar style films seem to have in virtual hectares. Make no mistake about it, this is no Batman...or even Darkman. In fact, it's hardly a Howard the Duck. Michael Allred's G-Men from Hell is a whole-hearted attempt at what turns out to be a half-hearted movie. While it has a frisky four panel feel, it's really nothing more than a one-dimensional dolt.
Overall, G-Men from Hell looks decent in its 1.33:1 full screen transfer. This is a movie that uses a lot of bright colors and interesting visual components to create its unique universe, and the print here captures everything quite well. There are occasions where grain and compression defects muck up the blacks with sparkling gray squares, but with decent contrasts and nice brightness and clarity, the picture is one of G-Men from Hell's strong suits.
Employing a pop-jazz junket score to sound both retro and sinister at the same time, the Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack is interesting. The dialogue is always crystal clear and the limited audio effects are reproduced in perfect harmony. The music can be a little invasive, especially when Angel is trying to do her breathy blond babe shtick. But considering its budgetary limits - and that aural issues are usually the first financial factor sacrificed - the sonic circumstances within G-Men from Hell are very well done.
Razor Digital goes a little gaga over the bonus offerings for this DVD package. We are treated to a first film, a commentary, some trailers, an interview featurette, and a comic-to-film comparison. Of all these interesting contextual treats, the side-by-side look at the funny pages to movie frames is perhaps the best. Seeing how faithful Coppola was to the visual style and sense Allred sketched into his story is very engaging. The interview and commentary, on the other hand, are far too starstruck to be of any added value. Allred's take on G-Men is very fanboy frenzied, filled with so many golly-gee-whiz wonderments that it never gets beneath the subject's surface. With irritating regularity, Allred stops his cheery comments to say how amazed he is that the movie was ever made. He loves to praise the casting, the colors, even the individual items in the set design as part of his stalker-like obsessive discussion. While it's fine for an outsider artist with limited exposure beyond a minor cult of very selective animation lovers to stare in amazement at his own work playing back to him in live-action, Allred's commentary is crap (even with his wife helping out some of the time). At least the interview gives us the rundown on how Crept and Mattress found graphic novel life...and it doesn't take near 90 minutes to get there.
But to get a real sense of Allred's unhinged ideology and visionary vexations, one need look no further than the 85-minute no-budget first film he made as part of a multi-media triumvirate (comic and music album being the other facets) for his Astroesque story. Revolving around an extraterrestrial guardian ancient astronaut angel who comes back to save the man he first met as a small boy, this Reservoir Dogs meets the Pacific Northwest Militia mixed with some of The Man Who Fell to Earth and El Mariachi is a flamboyant, fracas failure. Though loaded with evocative imagery and silent running ruminations over slow motion mannerisms, the lack of easily identifiable characters to care about really kills whatever Allred is trying to construct here. We never once wonder about the man our enigmatic ET is helping and the arch-alien is so noble as to stink of sincerity. So unless you dig anti-government goons blasting away with reckless (not to mention, criminal) abandon or the wheezing, wasted sonics of a horrible backing track (the music here is mind-numbingly non-descript) Astroesque will be one visit from the Great Beyond that you wish would head back for home, pronto.
In his interviews and commentary – and even in his leading role as the shoot-em up seraphim in Astroesque – Michael Allred seems like a swell guy. He is sincere and humble, never once flaunting his minor fame in everyone's flummoxed face. His comic creations have a cleverness based in understanding and a certain scope thanks to their philosophical underpinnings. But all Bible quotes aside, G-Men from Hell is one battle between Satan and stupidity that even the dominant Dark One can't win. Lost among all the style-checking charades and twisted lyrical limpness is an attempt to turn detective fiction freaky by the use of era evocative elements combined with the general genre homage. Yet it never really delivers on its brash blueprint of nostalgia teamed with brass knuckles bluntness. Perhaps had a different cast taken a swing at the shenanigans here, or maybe if Christopher Coppola had more money to work with, the result would have been more memorable and merry. But the one thing you are struck by, again and again, while watching Michael Allred's G-Men from Hell is how boring this war within the Underworld becomes. Film Noir, as a notion, always gets singled out for reinvention and reinterpretation every time a writer and/or director has a notion to canoodle with the classic Hollywood model. And all innovation aside, G-Men from Hell just can't seem to rise up against the tide of tedium it leaves behind. This is a movie that looks like it will be good. But in practice, it falls apart and flounders.
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