Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory is a periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
From approximately 1997 to 1999, it seemed like most of my job as a writer for The A.V Club entailed trekking down to the local video store (where, in a neat coincidence, I happened to work) to rent, watch, and review an endless series of ridiculously derivative Quentin Tarantino knockoffs—each seemingly more violent, profane, and insufferable than the last—for The A.V Club’s video section.
When I first started writing professionally, we were still lingering in the endless afterglow of Pulp Fiction, so it made sense that the macho, boys’-club section of independent film was suddenly inundated with filmmakers that nakedly aspired to follow Tarantino’s path to glory while stealing his entire playbook in the process. There was a strange symmetry, perhaps even justice, in this skilled borrower being ripped off so liberally and incompetently himself. There was a delusional hope behind this sustained wave of wannabes, an almost poignant belief that the world was somehow full of baby Tarantinos, that an overly intense, acne-ridden record-store clerk diligently plugging away at his screenplay in funky independent coffee shops might change the face of American film the way Tarantino did with Pulp Fiction.
Besides, there was a certain economic logic behind these films. They were overwhelmingly low-budget and populated by so many kitschy, familiar, at least moderately bankable faces from across the spectrum of pop culture that even if they never played in a theater, they could probably still make back their modest budgets via home-video and foreign sales.
Alas, filling a B-movie with profanity, hyper-stylized dialogue, campy pop-culture references, freeze-frame, slow-motion, a punishingly ironic sensibility, bloodshed, fetishistic treatment of guns and women, and a cast rich in second-tier pop icons doesn’t make a hungry young filmmaker the next Tarantino any more than crooning “Baby” in a tortured falsetto makes me Justin Bieber. Not surprisingly, this wave of Tarantino knockoffs has not stood the test of time. Sure, some Tarantino-derived dark comedies have endured, like Go or The Boondock Saints, though the latter’s troublingly persistent popularity has much less to do with its negligible creative merits than its ability to understand and manipulate the worst instincts of its core demographic of 12-year-old boys and people unusually in touch with their inner 12-year-old boys. But for every Boondock Saints, there are dozens of films like Love And A .45 or Destiny Turns On The Radio that have probably already been forgotten even by their own cast and crew. And in the case of Destiny Turns On The Radio, that includes Tarantino himself.
Yes, the heyday of the Tarantino copycat has come and gone. Derivative, low-budget action filmmakers have moved on, for the most part, which makes the release of something like Guns, Girls And Gambling look like a not-so-glorious anachronism. Everything anyone possibly needs to know about the film can be gleaned from its DVD and Blu-ray cover, a lurid, clumsily Photoshopped concoction that puts a busty, statuesque blonde in between Christian Slater copping a Zoolander pose as he makes love to the camera while clutching a briefcase and Gary Oldman in a white jumpsuit, thinning pompadour, and scarf that makes him look like a cross between Elvis and Quentin Crisp. Behind them is Dane Cook in a sheriff’s uniform adopting the classic arms-crossed defensive posture while ice-grilling the camera, and True Blood’s Sam Trammell flanking Cook, also in a sheriff’s uniform. As if all this glowering, hyper-macho man-meat in dress-up gear weren’t excessive enough, the statuesque blonde (played by Helena Mattsson) stands immediately in front of a cowboy-hat wearing, pistols-clutching cowpoke played by Jeff Fahey.
Because there’s only so much room on a DVD case, Guns, Girls And Gambling’s cover doesn’t even reveal that it also prominently features Tony Cox (as “Little Person Elvis”), Chris Kattan (as “Gay Elvis”), and most excitingly, the great character actor Powers Boothe as “The Rancher.” Christian Slater, Dane Cook, Gary Oldman, Tony Cox, Chris Kattan, Powers Boothe, and motherfucking Jeff Fahey in a terribly tardy Elvis-themed Tarantino knockoff? This was one flamboyant offense to cinema I had to see. Merely looking at the DVD was enough to inspire rapt nostalgia for my early days at The A.V. Club, suffering through one desecration of Tarantino’s aesthetic after another.
Guns, Girls And Gambling does such a bang-up job of capturing the film on its cover that it makes actually watching it redundant. Like the rest of its peers in the sorrowful class of Tarantino wannabes, it’s so relentlessly intent on standing out in its quirkiness and in-your-face attitude that it ends up feeling strangely generic.
Christian Slater, a long, long way from the good old days of True Romance quality-wise, if not thematically, stars as the film’s wisecracking, rasping narrator and protagonist, a seemingly hapless, luckless small-timer who goes by the name of John Smith and finds himself in all manner of trouble involving Native Americans. Do you find that kind of irony gut-bustingly hilarious as well as inconceivably smart? (See, ’cause there’s a famous John Smith who also dealt extensively with Native Americans!) Well then, congratulations! You are the film’s target audience and apparently unfamiliar with the many, many films it so limply rips off. Everyone else should have an all-too-accurate sense of the film’s strained cleverness.
In an even more dispiritingly accurate portent of what’s to come, the gun-toting, gratingly badass Mattsson is leeringly introduced via lascivious shots of her ass in tight pants and her breasts in a low-cut top before she begins reciting the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, just the first of an endless series of self-satisfied quirks that define the film’s pseudo-hip aesthetic.
The seemingly directionless Slater competes unsuccessfully in an Elvis-impersonation contest at a Native American casino (Christian Slater doing a callow impersonation of a beloved pop icon? That’s unpossible!), and whiles away the evening trading overwritten banter with fellow Elvises Cox, Kattan, Oldman, and Anthony Wong (as the “Asian Elvis”). In keeping with the film’s Tarantino worship, the banter repeatedly veers into subject matter and language that aim to be button-pushing and provocative in their irreverent take on race and identity politics but just end up seeming hokey and dated, most notably in running gags about whether it’s acceptable to call little people midgets and Native Americans Indians, yet another throwback to the pet obsessions of the identity-politics-obsessed era that spawned Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
Slater wakes up the next morning to find himself framed for the theft of a priceless Native American war mask the Elvis-loving and all-powerful Chief of the Casino holds responsible for the prosperity and well-being of his tribe. Now he’s caught between the warring factions of the Native Americans who run the casino and “The Rancher” (Boothe), a land baron who is eager to buy the land where the casino resides.
Slater joins forces with Megan Park, a cute, bubbly girl who refers extensively to herself (and is referred to by other characters) as “The Girl Next Door,” just as other characters are given entirely too generous freeze-frame introductions accompanied by their archetypal identities, such as “The Rancher,” “The Chief,” and “The Cowboy.” Guns, Girls And Gambling seems to think that all it takes to render a character instantly iconic is a dramatic introduction, but no amount of stylization can transform Jeff Fahey into the Man With No Name, and I say that as someone who is always happy to see Fahey’s name pop up in a film’s opening credits.
The corpses of the other Elvis impersonators begin piling up while a pair of corrupt lawmen played by Cook and Trammell enter the fray, and Slater must figure out who framed him as well as the location of the war mask that serves as the film’s McGuffin. This all builds to a third-act twist that reveals Slater to be a patently unreliable narrator, but twist endings only resonate if audiences have some level of emotional investment in the proceedings. Otherwise, there are no real stakes when everything is turned upside down and characters reveal themselves to be vastly different from what they appear to be.
Guns, Girls And Gambling is never one-10th as clever as it thinks it is and desperately feels the need to be. If there’s a new angle to be found in all the Elvis mythology and iconography, the film never finds it. Instead, it coasts lazily on the cultural baggage that comes with putting a bunch of poorly developed characters in Elvis jumpsuits and leaning hard on the audience’s enduring affection for the King in lieu of anything even vaguely approximating wit, originality, or invention. And all this incessant winking at the audience to let them know the film is in on the joke seems less playful and knowing and more like an affliction or a debilitating tic.
A glib, facile celebration of kitsch involving flamboyantly costumed musical icons, cops, Native Americans, and cowboys, Guns, Girls And Gambling isn’t the instant cult classic it aspires to be; it’s the fucking Village People. Then again, at least the Village People had catchy songs and smooth moves. All of this film’s moves are shabby and secondhand.
Just how bad is it? It’s fucking dreadful.