by Barry Meyer
Do they call them rednecks in Italy?
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A redneck lunatic from Memphis named Memphis (Telly Savalas) and his mindless partner Mosquito (Franco Nero), along with their female escape driver/boy toy, are on the run in Italy after knocking off a jewelry store and shooting the owner dead. In their botched escape attempts the three galoots steal a car, inadvertently kidnapping a young boy (Mark Lester) hidden in the backseat. When they discover that the loot turned out to be a bag full of bogus jewelry, the goons decide to use the boy as a hostage and take off on a blood soaked journey full of vile and sadistic acts that culminates in a bloody showdown with the authorities.
It’s frustrating to be saddled in an era where mainstream movies—hell, even so-called indie movies—are more wrapped up in pushing their story gimmicks and twists, and where character quirkiness is appreciated over character development. It’s depressing to realize that we’re not gonna find too many films in your local movie house like Redneck—a mainstream action movie with the balls to have some real in-depth characters. No, this is not some arthouse character study on the affects of the criminal life starring some young Hollywood big names who are trying to garner some indie cred. It’s just your typical 70s crime drama filled with cool characters and wicked violence. The difference being, 70s crime dramas like Redneck were not so pretentious as to treat the act of developing a character — even within the simplest of storylines — as such a momentous occasion. It’s called telling a story! What ever happened to having some genuine characters in our stories?
Director Silvio Narrizanno doesn’t hesitate to give the audience their needed dosage of 70s style violence in this Italian/British production crime drame, but he also doesn’t forget the second half of the category — drama. Mingled in with all the car chases and shootouts is a human exploration of the affects of violence of all involved. Not in a hey-look-we’re-showing-some-story kinda way. It’s a lot more honest than that. In fact, so honest are these characters that today’s audience might them controversial at times.
In the portrayal of the kidnapped young boy (played with wide-eyed innocence by Mark Lester of Oliver fame) Director Narizzano makes his riskiest story-telling move. Not content to have this boy be just an innocent pawn in the criminal acts of the grown-up thugs, Narizzano makes the boy a curious accessory, whose motives are hinted at right from the moment he is unwittingly kidnapped. After seeing his mother ripped from their car by the frenzied thugs, the boy doesn’t flee or call out for help. Instead he remains hidden in the backseat as the hoodlums use the stolen car to escape the angry vigilante crowd. He couldn’t help but notice that not once during the whole ordeal did his snobbish mother ever cry out to the thieves or to the crowd that her boy was in danger. In fact she neglects to even inform the police of her son’s predicament until hours after he’s gone. No wonder the boy was willing to be separated from her.
Though the boy is terrorized by the hoodlums, and threatened with violence if he doesn’t cooperate in their kidnapping scheme, the poor little rich kid is still eager to bond. Instead of running in fright from them, he endeavors to engage them in innocuous conversation. It’s not your typical Stockholm Syndrome working here, though. The boy isn’t necessarily brainwashed into siding with his captors, rather, it’s the captors whose steely resistance to humanity that is being slowly melted away by the naive boy. Once the threat of violence and betrayal has diminished, they all grow less hesitant to each other, and a father/son relationship begins to bloom.
This desire for a mentor-like relationship is evident in one particular scene where Mosquito and the boy have a conversation about family and work. The boy sits by, watching Mosquito as he shaves in front of a dresser mirror, marveling at the mysteries of maturity. Throughout the conversation, Mosquito is nude, having just come from a shower. The conversation (and the scene) is wholly devoid of any sexuality, but is designed to show the unflinching trust shared by the boy and the man. It’s as if a son is chatting with his dad. Later, inspired by his mentors masculinity, the boy stands in the very spot in front of the dresser mirror, checking his chin for any hint of a whisker. He pulls of his shirt, searching his body for the obvious signs of maturity that were evident on his mentor. Finding none there, he pulls off his trousers, standing naked (back to the camera), wishfully trying to force his body into manhood. He picks up the razor blade and begins to mimic the act of shaving, when suddenly, like a bout of Catholic guilt, Memphis pops his head in the window, scaring the boy back to his senses.
You’re not going to see such a revealing scene as that in mainstream cinema today. Though the scene is entirely innocent, many ignorant viewers would cry “exploitation” without understanding the honest character revelations. Somehow I think that today’s blockbuster audiences are much more comfortable watching young teeny bopper girls flit about the screen in inappropriate outfits, acting like adults, rather than watch an honest and realistic portrayal of a child discovering that his body is betraying his aspirations to be a grown-up.
Far less controversial, but still risky by today’s standards, is Telly Savalas’s portrayal of the multifaceted character Memphis. The southern-fried thug may seem like he’s about to tear the head of a canary, but under Narizzano’s direction, Memphis is a man struggling with his violent inner demons. There’s no doubt that Memphis would blow the head off a wheelchair bound old lady if he had to. He’s certainly not a man of high moral fiber, but surprisingly, he does have his own set of personal ethics. He’d only hurt someone if they were a direct threat to his own self preservation. The old lady in the wheelchair would’ve had to call the police on him before he’d harm her. Right from the opening robbery, Memphis gives a jewelry store owner every chance to cooperate with the robbery, literally begging him not to make a false move. But the man had to go and put his finger on the alarm. Memphis has no choice but to empty his gun into him, all the while pleading with the guy that he warned him not to cross him. Memphis definitely is a man in need of some anger management classes.
Later, in the movies single most disturbing and subversive moment, Memphis sends an entire family to their untimely and horrible death. After a few days on the run, the escaped cons and their captive come across a German family having a sunny weekend picnic in the beautiful Italian country side. In a moment of compassion, Memphis allows Mosquito and the young boy to beg food from a German family, who happily obliges the two disheveled beggars. Memphis is inexplicably and uncontrollably turned off by the site of all this generosity. He’s seems disturbed by their simple act of charity, and decides to disrupt the harmonious scene by forcefully taking the food that was already charitably given. Further, he feels compelled to humiliate the family for their hospitality by looting their camper and stealing their car, and he insists that they be locked inside the camper, so they can’t contact the police. Even though the trailer is poised to roll down an incline and straight to the lake below, Memphis pulls the trailer hitch from the car, preparing for their escape. All at once he recognizes that his rage had gone beyond simple self-protection. The family had fully complied with his every demand, but that wasn’t good enough. Not only did Memphis want to prevent the family from turning him into the police, but he subconsciously wanted them to pay for being so nice and happy, and has now sent them careening to a watery doom. Just as the young captive stood in front of the mirror wishing his body into manhood, Memphis now tries to stave off his burgeoning sadistic side by digging his heels into the roadway, desperately trying to hold onto the camper. Like the Grinch on top of the mountain, Memphis slides down the hill, burning the soles of his shoes and the seat of his pants off as he begs and pleads for the trailer to stop. The struggle with the rolling camper becomes the personification of Memphis’s struggle with his inner demons. It’s a struggle that he will inevitably and regretfully lose. In an instant Memphis went from an outlaw who did only what was necessary to protect himself to a bloodthirsty sadist who punishes people for their humanity. It is a shocking scene to witness.
Try finding a murder scene in any mainstream movie today that would echo such poignancy. I don’t think Hollywood has that kind of gumption. Again, American audiences would much rather see someone like Michael Madsen or John Travolta climb atop the careening trailer, whooping and hollering like Slim Pickens straddling the Dr. Strangelove bomb, gleefully riding the family filled camper to it’s terrifying demise. That’s so much more entertaining! And far less involving… just right for mainstream.
Now that I sit back and look over all this that I’ve written, it seems like an awful lot of fuss over such a simple, cool little action crime drama. Redneck is certainly no groundbreaking effort that shatters moviemaking boundries beyond their means and moving us all into a new era of enlightenment. It’s just a simple crime story with real characters in it. It’s not self-congratulatory about that, nor is it self aware or self absorbed. And that’s just the thing. No longer are we satisfied to just hear a good story about people who we know or want to know. That’s too bad.
Barry Meyer is a writer living in the hills of New Jersey.
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