A couple of years back, this critic had the chance to witness one of the weirdest, most outlandish movies of his then short reviewing career. Entitled Outlaw Prophet, it was a vanity project for an actor/writer/director/musician/producer named David Heavener...and it was stunning. A science fiction action adventure parable, it centered on a cosmic reality show in which personified particle beams fought mad mechanics of the living dead who were controlled by an evil network programmer. Oh, and it was also a religious allegory about the second coming of Christ. When working by himself, Heavener is stuck in a kind of personal surreality from which there is no hope of easy escape. Audiences just have to sit back and sift through the strangeness to find the core of creative craziness inside. The same can be said for non-exclusive efforts, like Ragin' Cajun. Though not as unhinged as his own oeuvre, Heavener still finds a way to infuse anything he's in with a determined dementia - and here he has a more than willing partner in cinematic crime to help him flesh out his freak flag.
Vietnam veteran Cage Diamate has some issues. He's indebted to the mob, forced to fight in illegal kickboxing matches. He is also a Vietnam vet who is suffering from a pretty severe case of post-traumatic overacting stress syndrome. Every time he's about to win a bout, he sees visions of that Asian Hell and he slumps over like a ragdoll sans stuffing. His gangster boss is incredibly pissed by his losing streak, and gets even angrier when Cage skips town to "find his way". Apparently, said locale was a VA hospital, where he befriends a freaked out hop head named Legs who suffers from agoraphobia. Released by his doctor when he is not quite cured, Cage heads over to the local nightclub where his old job as a dishwasher is waiting for him. So is his ex-gal pal, a little blond babe who worships the ground this goon walks on.
As he gets back to his normal life of pruny fingers and soiled serving platters, Cage also reconnects with his rural bayou roots. He begins writing songs in secret, hoping to restart a previous path toward musical stardom. When his equally sound-oriented girlfriend hears his tunes, she tries to convince him to join her on stage. When he won't, she goes on and wows the crowd anyway. In the meanwhile, our unhappy hoodlums want Cage back, and plan one final death match for the marked man. In addition, the club where Cage and his honey work is about to go under, and they decide to stage a benefit to save it - the night of the fight. When he refuses to brawl, his crooning companion is kidnapped - and she's headlining! It will take a miracle for this Ragin' Cajun to win the day.
My, oh my is Ragin' Cajun shameless. Like a stand-up comic recognizing that he is just a few fatal moments away from completely bombing, this movie tosses in everything but the My Lai massacre in order to avoid some manner of formulaic flop sweat. As an action adventure drama carved completely out of clichés, there is nothing really original here. But the way in which actor David Heavener and his main muse, writer/director William Byron Hillman combine the standard cinematic archetypes, the way the mesh pigeonholing with pat plotting, becomes a sheer jaundiced joy to behold. They don't care if it's all been done before, as old hat as your Grandmother's glands and more moldering than a sea captain's shorts. This crazy combo just wants to entertain, to tell a standard tale of vengeance and redemption that hits all the right notes. So what if every section of the scale is beaten with a sledgehammer full of hokum - they're still striking all the right beats, aren't they? As a result, Ragin' Cajun is an impossible film to dismiss, no matter how hard it tries to circumvent your expectations with goofy, hackneyed hogwash.
Perhaps the prime reason this movie succeeds in a totally guilty pleasure kind of way is that David Heavener is one of the bravest performers in the business called show. He is not beyond looking bare-chested and broken (that's how he ends up most of the time, even when he's NOT fighting), weepy-eyed and wimpy (dude cries A LOT in this movie) and sexually celibate to the point of near sainthood (he and main squeeze Charlene "Dallas" Tilton share a single, stunted kiss). Add to that his inner rock star (Heavener wrote and performed almost all the music for this film) and the typical psychological licks that come from being a flashback prone 'Nam casualty, and you've got the most completely complex character an actor could ever want. That Heavener attempts to portray EVERY SINGLE facet of this persona in each line reading causes him to resemble a tone-deaf Sybil. Whether it's reliving that fateful day when he saw some "friendly fire" wipe out a young Asian woman and her baby, or trying to get best buddy Legs to overcome his debilitating agoraphobia (via motivational speeches, nonetheless) we are thrust into a frenzied world of one man's mental marsh. So naturally Heavener milks it audaciously, crinkling up his face like he's having fantasy fits and spitting out the script in hushed, hurried tones. If there were an Oscar for most bald-faced bellyaching by an actor, Heavener would have no immediate equal.
The rest of the cast is merely coasting, knowing they can't compete with big bad Dave. Sam Bottoms is inspiring as Legs, since we learn quickly enough that the best way to cure a incapacitating, irrational fear is to have a good friend force you to face it - either physically or by pestering and personal shame. Charlene Tilton, looking like a Madam Tussaud's Wax Museum version of herself (well preserved, with a minor undercurrent of fakeness) is amazing, actually imbuing her scenes with a sense of compassion and caring. Indeed, considering what she has to work with, she's Stella Adler. Samantha Eggar, a one time British lady of red-headed haughtiness, plays the only Veteran's Administration medico who believes in curing her patients through dismissal and avoidance, and there are several pseudo-famous faces portraying the "stars" who want to help out the rundown nightclub where Heavener and Tilton work. From the Mafioso who gets so worked up about money that he bounces around his office like Yosemite Sam with his "biscuits" on fire to Dr. Death, the absolute personification of chop socky cheese, this is a movie loaded with more character color than a dozen direct to DVD duds. This isn't to say all the performances are pitch perfect, but at least we get lots of ancillary oddness to keep us engaged.
And then there is the music. That's right, Ragin' Cajun is a kind a musical, in the way that Rhinestone or Shout are song and dance extravaganzas. Every time an emotion needs to be over-emphasized, whenever the action is getting a little too frisky - Heck, whenever the Hell Heavener feels like it - someone breaks out in semi-melodious mawkishness. Supposedly selling himself in the country and/or western genre, Diamond Dave is all over the map with his harmonious hooey. There are a couple of power ballads, some inspirational singalongs (one with a tell-all title, "We Can Make It") and lyrics of such lunatic fringe facets that you have to wonder why Heavener's not a constant on The Doctor Demento Show. Titles like "I Slipped on My Best Friend (and Fell in Love)" or the classic "I L.U.V.Y.O.U." just resonate with cornball creativity, and as delivered by Heavener and the cast (Tilton has talent, while Dave drones on like a lost eunuch member of Up with People) you can't help but smile with saccharine satisfaction. Perhaps the best bits are when Dave tunes up and sings solo. The minute his fingers hit the guitar, entire orchestras and bands blare behind him. As he's picking away, trumpets are trilling and basses are thumping in a whacked out wall of sound.
All of this adds up to a movie that can do nothing but amuse. There are barrelfuls of badness here, umpteen ugly moments that make no sense within the standard cinematic showcase. But Heavener and Hillman don't care - they just keep shoveling the substance, hoping no one notices how impractical and illogical it is. In a sense, Ragin' Cajun is like a compendium of old Hollywood storytelling. It's not enough to have the suffering hero with a bad brain and criminal ties. We need the gentle girlfriend with the glowing spirit and the incredible talent. We have to have the floundering nightclub and the owner desperate to bring in some bucks. In addition, a movie like this requires a well meaning mental patient, eager to be cured, a mobster with his back to the wall, a couple of hired goons who locate their prey and then mope around LA like lost raccoons, and a selection of set-pieces - both musical and muscle based - to give us the necessary emotional uplift. Add in minor nods to religion, gun violence, the American policy in Southeast Asia and a single sequence of narrative invention (it's so surreal it sticks out like a strange sore thumb) and you've got a cult classic just waiting to be embraced. Ragin' Cajun has nothing new to offer at the core of its creation. But how it shamelessly puts those moldy old ideas together is the stuff of B-movie magnificence. This is a wonderfully weird film.
As direct to video fare with very little professional production value, Ragin' Cajun looks pretty good in its 1.33:1 full screen image. The colors are kind of washed out and the details a little dulled, but overall, the transfer does a decent job of giving the movie an atmosphere of melancholy and menace. It may be a tad too dark at times, and speckled with irritating grain, but this is still an acceptable print.
Sound seems to be a constant problem for Troma. The music in their DVD mixes is so overmodulated that it usually wipes out everything in its aural path. Dialogue drops out constantly and conversations are often muffled. For Dolby Digital Stereo, this is blatantly unacceptable. Besides, the entire sonic scenario is flat and lifeless.
Unfortunately, Troma is a tad stingy when it comes to added content. For Ragin' Cajun, we get a three minute interview with Heavener (very superficial), a clip from the Make Your Own Damn Movie DVD Box Set where John G. Avildsen discusses Rocky, and a featurette where our pal Lloyd Kaufman pimps his Roan product (some of which are actual boxing movies). That's it. No commentary or making-of material. As for the corporate merchandising, there is a trailer for Poultrygeist, another classic Kaufman intro (this time mocking Hurricane Katrina - oh my!) and The Troma System of Self Improvement. This mock-infomercial, which aired on Comedy Central in the 90s, is really nothing more than an ad for the company's movies and merchandise, but it is done is the typically terrific Troma style and is well worth a watch.
Formulaic plotting...bad as boiled bunions musical numbers...a lead whose laborious and loony...and a bottomless pit of crazed casting...and yet because it is done in such an effortless, easygoing manner, because David Heavener and his cinematic sidekick William Byron Hillman will stop at nothing to entertain, Ragin' Cajun earns a solid Highly Recommended rating. Such celebrated scoring is more the result of an overall feeling of promise fulfilled and opportunities met and addressed than anything specific or special. Frankly, there is nothing more that these two quasi-talented men could do but make a movie like this. It's all about the effort and the effect, ideas and execution. Heavener would go on to give his own internal insanity a solo showcase with Outlaw Prophet. But Ragin' Cajun is proof that any genre, no matter how mundane or overused, can be a spark for befuddled fun. This is one craven, crass kickboxing epic that's a technical knockout all its own.
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