It's difficult to describe a film such as Modus Operandi. It is an independently produced, micro-budgeted mélange of such disparate genres as Blaxploitation, giallo, spy thriller and noir, filmed (almost) entirely in Milwaukee, WI. Writer, director, editor Frankie Latina is either a certified film genius, or suffering under a deep obsession. Either way, we get to enjoy the cinematic confection he's whipped up.
The story (such as it is, and at its best it is tenuous and confusing) concerns ex-CIA super agent Stanley Cashay (Randy Russell). After Cashay's wife is murdered, he retires from the CIA to drown his sorrows in booze. When two briefcases containing sensitive material are stolen from presidential candidate Squire Parks (Michael Sottile), Cashay is pulled out of retirement to retrieve them. Cashay recruits two old friends to help, playboy Casey Thunderbird (Barry Poltermann) and the sultry Black Licorice (Nikki Johnson).
The cases are sold, stolen, resold and retrieved through a series of double and triple crosses by various members of the criminal underground, many of whom wear little or no clothing. (While there is significant female nudity in the film, in the interest of equity, Frankie also graces us with several shots of frontal male nudity.) Cashay and his cohorts relentlessly pursue the briefcases, urged on by CIA Director Holiday (Danny Trejo, joyously enthusiastic in his spotless white tuxedo), with no idea of what is in them or how their contents might be important. And in this kind of movie, we know it's unlikely to be girl scout cookies.
Modus Operandi is a film that should be enjoyed experientially, or holistically, not chronologically. Little effort is made to craft a coherent plot, characters drift in and out of the story like will-o-the-wisps, and whole scenes are included apparently for the sole reason that they look cool. And the film indeed looks cool. It's grainy and rough, and switches back and forth between black and white and color, and its miniscule budget is revealed at every turn, but is shot with a verve and style seldom seen in more polished fare. But this schizophrenic approach is actually quite endearing, most of the time. As each new character appears, the viewer can't help thinking if they'll become important to the story, or get killed, or simply disappear. One is charmed by the seemingly pointless asides, many of which involve breasts or Jacuzzis or lingerie clad Japanese girls torturing someone.
It's nearly impossible to follow the convoluted plot, and the putative main character barely does anything, and the performances are not stellar, and the production design is often terribly lacking. But nonetheless, the film is enjoyable. It certainly isn't for everyone, particularly those who are averse to male and female nudity, but for those that have a soft spot for all of those incomprehensible and exploitive genre films that played in the local grind house in the seventies, this is definitely a film to see. Recommended.
The video is in 1.33:1 standard, and is shot on Super 8. As mentioned above, the look of the film is extremely rough, with loads of grain, film scratches, hair and dust on the print, etc. But this is clearly an artistic choice of the director, and indeed adds quite a bit to the experience of the film. As such, these can hardly be seen as flaws.
The audio is Dolby digital 2 channel, and does have some flaws. At times, it is difficult to make out the dialogue, which makes the lack of subtitles all the more frustrating. Other than these three or four spots, though, the dialogue is audible, and there are few other problems, though the entire film was redubbed, so at times it feels a bit odd. No alternate language track is included.
There are a number of extras include. They are:
Special Introduction by Sasha Grey
The cover art of Modus Operandi indicates that it is presented by Sasha Grey (yes, that Sasha Grey), and she is credited as a producer. In the short introduction (it's only 2:40), she describes meeting Frankie Latina and how much she enjoyed the film.
Interviews are presented with actor Mark Borchardt, Mia Letendre, sister of producer Zebedee Letendre, who passed away before the film was released, actor Michael Sottile, actor Randy Russell and Michael Plante, who worked with the CineVegas film festival. The interviews are generally short, ranging from just over a minute, to around seven and a half minutes. Most of them are quite interesting, particularly Sottile's.
Behind the Scenes
Three behind the scenes bits are included, showing recording sessions and working with locations. Danny Trejo is briefly interviewed in the Grand Theater section, and is, as always, affable and intriguing.
One entire scene, and lots of bits and pieces are included here. The "Green Girl" scene, which involves a nude woman painted green, is included, but no indication of why it was cut. There are also ten or so small bits of longer scenes, or just images that were not used.
Audio Commentary by Mark Borchardt and Dave Monroe
This is the most substantial extra, and involves actor Mark Borchardt, who plays the Dallas character, and Dave Monroe, who seems to be a Milwaukee film buff of some sort, but whose connection to Modus Operandi is unclear. (I couldn't find him credited as working on the film on IMDB.) Regardless, the commentary is very engaging. Monroe does most of the talking, though Borchardt definitely makes his contribution. Both are intimately familiar with the film, and point out most of the locations, and the dozens of local filmmakers that are in the cast. There are lots of interesting tidbits of information as well, such as that there is no stock footage used, i.e. every shot was filmed specifically for Modus Operandi. The mark of a good commentary is that it changes the listener's perspective on the film, and this one definitely does that.
Modus Operandi is clearly a labor of love. Frankie Latina clearly loves the exploitation films of the seventies, and expects that his viewers do as well, and that they'll pick up on the numerous homages and references that he includes. Modus Operandi is best appreciated, and enjoyed, as a love letter to those bygone movies. It's at times incomprehensible and very rough around the edges, but buckets of fun regardless. Recommended.