DESERT HEAT aka COYOTE MOON or INFERNO
When I reviewed Jean-Claude Van Damme’s SECOND IN COMMAND on The Ain’t It Cool News recently I made a shocking admission: I haven’t seen a whole Van Damme movie since 1998’s KNOCK OFF. I understand if that means I lose credibility in some of your eyes, but I gotta be open and honest with you people. I’m one of them straight shooters, in my opinion. So I gotta admit it: I learn more and more about Steven Seagal every day, but when it comes to Van Damme I’m a straight up amateur. And I want to become a more well rounded person so I asked for some advice on the best movies from Van Damme’s post-theatrical days. Two people made convincing cases for COYOTE MOON, or DESERT HEAT as it’s called here in the states, so that was my first stop. (one guy described the plot, the other guy a threesome scene.)
DESERT HEAT is a weird-ass DTV movie from John G. Avildsen, the Oscar winning director of ROCKY. I’m not gonna bother to cross-reference but until somebody tells me otherwise I’m gonna assume Avildsen is the only owner of a Best Director Oscar statue who has ever directed a Van Damme movie. And for some reason, I don’t know why but he decided to play down his involvement in this picture and credit himself as Danny Mulroon. And then later it also says his name. Make up your mind Avildsen – are you ashamed or not? Keep your story straight.
Anyway the movie starts with a Seagalian quote about the coyote’s place in Native American legend, as Van Damme chases and surpasses a coyote on a motorcyle. He parks his vintage Indian motorcycle in the middle of the desert, swigs some whiskey and waves a gun around. Suddenly, a vision of the great Danny Trejo (playing a Native American) appears to him and tries to talk him out of killing himself.
It’s funny to see J.C. play drunk talking to a ghost, especially when he starts firing his gun randomly in the air. Somehow the bullets hit the truck of some sleeveless musclebound porn movie style cowboys named the Hogan brothers. They are one of two gangs that terrorizes the small town, somehow squeezing a criminal empire out of a town that seems to consist of one cafe, one bar, a hotel and some dirt.
Anyway the Hogan Family (probaly named after the old sitcom with Jason Bateman) do what anybody would do if they discovered a drunk man firing a gun in the middle of the desert: they go and threaten to beat him up. It’s weird because they don’t present it like these guys are badass for doing something so dangerous, I think the writer just didn’t consider that maybe it wasn’t smart to threaten a random drunken gunman. But you know what, it turns out they were right, they are able to beat him up and steal his motorcycle. They intend to kill him but one brother doesn’t have the stomach and only pretends to shoot him in the head.
While all this is happening a truck drives by with Jaime Pressley (TICKER) and her boyfriend inside, seeing something they weren’t supposed to see. Think about the likelihood of something like that happening: a motorcycle and two trucks all intersecting at the same spot in the middle of the desert. How often does that happen? The chances of driving by just as an attempted murder takes place in the middle of a desert have got to be pretty slim. What I’m saying is, don’t bring Jaime Pressley to the casino for good luck.
The movie is obviously based on YOJIMBO, because J.C. drifts into town and meets the oppressed people and plays one side against the other and etc. Also because at the end one character asks another character out on a date to go see YOJIMBO and then, in case that’s not enough for you, he explains what YOJIMBO is. (by the way, it’s impressive that a town with a population of less than 50 would have a theater that plays Kurosawa movies).
One thing that’s different from Yojimbo, it’s all about him trying to get his motorcycle back. So I guess it’s like YOJIMBO meets PEEWEE’S BIG ADVENTURE.
Van Damme gets some good chances to kill people, kick people, save people and what not. There are some guns. One of the villains is Larry Drake, another one is named Beserko. Van Damme hires Mr. Early, a “handyman” played by Academy Award nominee Pat Morita, to wrap the dead bodies in saran wrap and dump them in a canyon.
The movie tries hard to be quirky, with lots of annoying Small Town Types and Folksy Old Men and what not. A couple of the jokes are genuinely funny though. He steals a bad guy’s cowboy hat and puts it on. When another bad guy taps him on the shoulder thinking he’s the other guy, Van Damme turns around and says, “Right hat, wrong guy.” And then there was some sort of kicking, if I remember right.
Also there’s a scene where a blonde gal he saved in a bar fight comes to his hotel room to “thank him” and he’s wearing only a towel and boots. He’s holding a gun in case she’s trying to pull something. When it becomes clear that she’s sincere he looks at his gun, clearly uncomfortable about holding it on her, but then instead of putting it down like you think he will, he just lowers it. She drops her dress, revealing she has nothing underneath, and says, “Thank you.” Suddenly Van Damme dramatically whips his towel off so he’s naked except for cowboy boots and says, “You’re welcome.”
(Before you know it there’s two girls involved, plus an elderly, alcoholic religious fanatic watching through the window, sipping booze through a straw and praising the Lord.)
And at the end there’s a good joke about how they explain the overnight disappearance of 28 crooks in a small town.
There’s also a clever idea or two. Or maybe just one. Like THE HILLS HAVE EYES this town is near an Air Force base, and every once in a while they get buzzed by low flying military jets. At the climax of the movie Van Damme is unarmed and has a gun pointed at his head. Behind his opponent he sees a jet coming. The loud jet sound causes the sucker to turn his head and Van Damme seizes the moment to kick him and turn the tables.
DESERT HEAT isn’t as weird as Van Damme’s Tsui Hark pictures, or as some of the classic Seagal freakouts, because it’s obviously trying to be funny in alot of parts. But it’s still pretty bizarre, especially when they start bringing the Native American coyote motif back in. There’s actually a scene where Van Damme intimidates his enemies by sneaking around howling like a coyote (dubbed by an actual coyote, I think). Now there’s something Seagal hasn’t done. Yet.
Later, Danny Trejo’s character Johnny Sixtoes, who previously was invisible to anyone else and seemed to be a ghost or an imaginary friend, can be seen by the bad guys and they kill him. I don’t get it.
And there’s another thing I don’t get. Either there’s different cuts of this movie, or the guy who wrote the summary on IMDb is crazy. He describes a totally different storyline where Pat Morita’s character finds Eddie beat up, brings him to an abandoned mineshaft and nurses him back to health. I’m positive that in the version I saw, Danny Trejo nurses him back to health and Pat Morita sits in a diner until Van Damme hires him, and then he’s just kind of a servant. Anyway, the IMDb guy also says that Van Damme feels guilty about killing the waitress Rhonda’s husband, and has come to the town to deliver her a letter from her dead husband, and the reason he helps her is to find some kind of redemption. If that happened in this movie man, I sure wasn’t paying attention. But it’s good to know.
At the end Eddie and Rhonda (the waitress he fell in love with, not one of the two girls he had sex with a day or two ago) ride their Indian through the desert and they see the spirit of Danny Trejo on a matching motorcycle. Then we see three coyotes running. Which is some kind of symbolism about the three of them being coyotes, obviously. I don’t really know what the implications are of that, that they are coyotes. Maybe it is one of those abstract 2001 type endings that will be discussed for decades to come.
Anyway, if YOJIMBO, FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and even LAST MAN STANDING are checked out at your video store, you might try DESERT HEAT. Or you might not. I don’t really know you well enough to make a solid guess.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.