When BAD ASS came out in the summer I took a look at it and considered it, because it’s that rare Danny Trejo starring role we’ve always wished for. But the title and the tagline “They messed with the wrong senior citizen” made me think it was another one of these post-GRINDHOUSE neo-Troma type tongue in cheek movies that I’m not really interested in. And then I looked up director/co-writer Craig Moss and learned that the rest of his filmography is:
1. SAVING RYAN’S PRIVATES (not a porno, but way worse – a parody)
2. THE 41-YEAR OLD VIRGIN WHO KNOCKED UP SARAH MARSHALL AND FELT SUPERBAD ABOUT IT (a parody of comedies?) and
3. BREAKING WIND (TWILIGHT parody with farting).
This was before his next movie was listed, it’s gonna be 30 NIGHTS OF PARANORMAL ACTIVITY WITH THE DEVIL INSIDE THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. So not only did I put BAD ASS back on the shelf, but would’ve reconsidered everything I believed about civil liberties if given an opportunity to deport Craig Moss just for making up those titles. And what, I’m supposed to believe this guy has no friends or family who could intervene and tell him to have some fucking dignity as a human being and stop making those? Come on, people. You’re just as culpable in this SARAH MARSHAL IS SUPERBAD fiasco as he is. If you see something, say something. What did you know and when did you know it. All that is necessary for the release of BREAKING WIND is that good men do nothing.
But a buddy said BAD ASS was pretty good, so now I watched it.
It’s okay everybody, this isn’t a comedy, it actually is a straight vigilante movie. That’s why it’s not called THE BOURNE EXPENDABLE CRANK TRANSPORTER SPIDER-MAN DARK KNIGHT X-MEN RAMBO MACHETE PREDATORS SPY KIDS. Trejo plays Frank Vega, a vet who had trouble finding work after Vietnam, couldn’t be a cop because of a leg injury, had to become a hot dog vendor, still struggling in his old age. One day he beats up some skinheads on a bus, a video of it gets put on Youtube and he becomes a local folk hero nicknamed “Bad Ass.” Then, on another day, his best friend Klondike Washington (Harrison Page) gets murdered, and he sees the cops fucking around playing trash can basketball at headquarters so he decides to investigate it himself, find out who did it and get revenge. He goes to the crime scene, finds clues that the cops missed and follows a trail from person to person trying to locate the guy who might’ve done it, getting into lots of fist fights along the way, stopping a convenience store robbery, stuff like that.
I guess I would’ve known this was a serious movie if I’d noticed Charles S. Dutton was in it. I don’t think that guy has an insincere bone in his body, not even any of those tiny little bones in the ear. I figured he’d play a neighbor or a guy at the community center who knows about Frank’s cause and righteously backs him up, but to my surprise he plays one of the villains, a vicious gangster named Panther. You can tell he’s not the standard Roc type upstanding citizen because he wears a gold chain and flashy earring and curses. A nice switch for Dutton.
Ron Perlman, on the other hand, is the mayor, and I thought maybe he was getting a different type of role when he was first shown making a statement on TV and enunciating clearly, but of course he turns out to be crooked. In his handful of other scenes he just talks the same way he does when he plays thugs and crooks.
The filmatism is iffy, and the script is simple-minded even for this subject matter. There’s a whole prologue about Frank being a P.O.W. (I don’t buy the guy they have playing a young Danny Trejo, but then again I can’t picture what a young Danny Trejo would look like at all), but they never even say he was a boxer or anything, it’s not clear why he has super punching powers that win every fight even though he’s usually outnumbered and with guns pointed at his head. In one of the more intentionally goofy scenes he gets heimliched by an Odd Job-like giant (Tyler Tuione) and has a cartoonish reaction to how outsized he is, but still punches the guy out a window. The same people who murdered his friend with guns never seem to be able to use weapons on him, because he can punch.
It’s satisfying to see a nice character defend people from assholes, for example when Frank sees his neighbor Amber (Joyful Drake) getting beat up by her husband and Frank comes in and physically stops the guy and makes him leave. Then insists on helping her with her wounds even though she says she’s okay. He has a first aid kit and learned some things from helping the medic back in ‘Nam. But I think it goes too far into little boy fantasy when she seems to fall for him instead of just appreciate him as a good neighbor. I gotta admit I was pretty grossed out when she went in for a kiss. And her young son Martin (John Duffy), despite his characterization as a constant shit talker in the GRAN TORINO tradition, seems to have no hesitation about this grandpa becoming his new daddy. I guess it’s kinda sweet.
One unusual detail about Frank: he wears a fanny pack. I don’t think I’ve seen that in a movie before. The guy’s in his late 60s, he doesn’t give a fuck what you think of his accessories. That’s just a costume detail, they don’t make a joke out of it and I don’t remember them actually showing what he keeps in there. I heard Trejo interviewed on a podcast about this movie and he said he was embarrassed to wear the fanny pack but had to admit it was really useful.
I don’t think Frank is supposed to be crazy, he’s just supposed to be a sweetheart whose rough background gives him the ability to stand up for the standupless. He’s good friends with one of the cops and likes to go on ride-alongs. He loves to drink but doesn’t seem to have an alcohol problem. He steals a giant bag of weed from a guy he beats up, but is not seen smoking it. He’s a good guy, but sometimes when he’s interrogating people in his murder investigation he goes a little DEATH WISH 3 on some guys, and that’s probly the most enjoyable parts.
I like when he chops the tips of a guy’s fingers with a garbage disposal, asking him who he’s working for. “I can’t say!” the guy screams.
“Are you sure?”
“I can’t say!”
“I respect that,” Frank says, then flips the disposal on again.
There are a few other joke type deals in the movie. Some are clunkers, some are better than you’d expect from the asshole who makes that fucking parody garbage that soils our culture by even having titles and covers that our eyes have been exposed to. It never gets all out comedic, but in my opinion it gets too silly in the climax when Frank and Panther play chicken in stolen buses. I can imagine an alternate version where it’s somehow poetic that the final showdown uses the same form of transportation that turned Frank into “Bad Ass” in the first place, but the way they obtain the buses is a groaner, the scene is full of cheap CGI (and a shot of a train that I’m pretty sure they jerry rigged out of plywood and junk metal), and anyway they’re Greyhound type buses, not public transit like the one from the beginning of the movie. It’s a little too dumb.
* * *
There’s a weird backstory to this movie. The back cover says it’s “inspired by true events” because the producers paid for the life story of a real guy who became a Youtube celebrity under the nickname “Epic Beard Man.” I made the mistake of pausing in the middle of the movie to look up the video and find out what the deal was. Based on what I’d heard I thought it would be like a WALKING TALL type deal, a highly fictionalized version of a real guy’s underdog story. The reality is a little more complicated.
In the fictional Youtube video of BAD ASS, two skinheads are harassing a black man on the bus. Frank (whose long beard, baseball hat, fanny pack and “I AM A MOTHERFUCKER” t-shirt all come from the real guy) intervenes, stops them from hitting the man and beats them up.
In the real video, “Epic Beard Man” or “Viet Nam Tom” isn’t a guy who’s quietly minding his own business and goes to defend someone else. He’s a loud mouth who gets in an argument with one other man, not a skinhead but a black man named Michael. Tom does at one point move away to the front of the bus, but then he continues yelling back to Michael about “slapping the shit out of” him. Michael makes the mistake of going up to the front of the bus and getting in Tom’s face, and then hitting him, which leads to the legendary beat down, and Michael in the back of the bus bloody and dazed asking for an ambulance while the women who egged him on through the whole thing continue to record him on a phone. Classy.
On its own there’s definitely something funny about Michael’s misjudgment of how badly this confrontation is gonna go. But in context it’s more sad than funny. In the movie version the other people on the bus applaud at the hero standing up to the two presumably racist bullies. In the real version they gasp and scream “What the fuck!?” and “Jesus Christ, oh my god!” and try to help Michael. There’s blood all over the seats and everybody’s panicked. Tom screams Sam Kinison style “I TOLD YOU NOT TO FUCK WITH ME AND YOU FUCKED WITH ME!”, repeatedly stepping on and off the bus and scaring the shit out of everybody.
It seems to be a case of two blowhards, one drunk, the other mentally ill, getting into a fight over stupid shit. Youtube commenters and this movie pretend it’s a good guy vs. bad guy story, and a generational clash (Tom claims to be 67, video descriptions call Michael a “teen” or “young attacker”, though in actuality Tom was 63 and Michael 50). All of these interpretations ignore what started the argument that turned into the fight: Tom asking Michael “how much you charge to spit shine my Stacy Adams?”
It seems to me like Tom is deliberately demeaning Michael, trying to get a reaction out of him, but it might just be his mental illness talking, he might not understand what he’s saying. Either way it’s pretty hard to make him into a hero. Clearly from Michael’s point of view he’s the one standing up to a bully, some asshole on the bus who randomly started telling him to shine his shoes.
Unfortunately, the not-so-enlightened Youtube commenter community feels it’s a case of a white hero standing up to “black thugs,” so the movie takes that underdog sentiment, makes the bad guys the white racists to be safe and makes a DEATH WISH type story out of it. As fiction I’m okay with it but I hope nobody believes this “based on true events” horse shit. For the truth read this thorough investigation by SF Weekly. Among other things it reveals that “Viet Nam Tom” was not in Vietnam. He was forced to join the military to stay out of prison, but showed up drunk, got clubbed in the head and was discharged for psychiatric reasons in ’69.
Like so many fictionalized movies, the true story is actually more interesting than BAD ASS. Here’s this notorious mentally ill dude, kicked out of the military, evicted from many homes, banned from many establishments, tased at an Oakland As game (his first Youtube appearance), always getting in fights, inspiring restraining orders, causing disturbances, prone to sudden weeping, never did make it to his mama’s funeral… this story could’ve (and still could) easily end in tragedy. But first somebody records one of his public assaults, puts it on Youtube, kids think it’s funny and ironic, somebody makes t-shirts, Hollywood manager smells money, gives him $6,000 which he uses to buy weed, guy from farting vampire movie tries to make him star in an “internet movie,” but he’s too depressed to do it so they get Danny Trejo…
I mean, that’s modern living in a nutshell, isn’t it? We can’t get mentally ill people help, so we get them agents. Turn them into licensed properties. Hey, this guy caused a violent racial incident on a bus, then screamed and punched a newspaper machine, what can we do with this? Can we get a treatment on this? It’s not even a story. It’s a beard and a fannypack, and they had to get an option on it.
The movie is sure to take any possible racism out of the equation, except when Frank and Martin jokingly make racial jabs at each other. Frank isn’t white and is against racists, so it’s okay. But it is a little weird that the belligerent but harmless Michael of the video is transformed into a criminal kingpin with a name suggesting black militancy. To make the connection clear, Panther asks for an “am-bee-lanz” at the end just like Michael did in the video.
There are other weird references to the video, but most of them in very different contexts. When Amber gets beat up by her husband her son tells her she’s “leakin'”, which is what the girls in the back of the bus said about bloodied Michael. There’s even a nod to the shoe-shining comments when Frank shows up for a date with Amber dressed in an outfit like the one Tom was describing on the bus: a powder blue suit and what appear to be Stacy Adams shoes.
There are a couple interviews with Tom on Youtube, and those inform the plot too: he has a black best friend who’s homeless who he lets live in his house, his mom just died. It’s kind of like making a Batman movie or James Bond or something. You take little things from throughout the mythos and try to work them into a new dramatic context. Something new, but something familiar for the fans. It’s just that instead of having decades worth of books and movies to look at they just have a couple cell phone videos of a crazy guy flipping out in public.
* * *
Despite all its cinematic and arguably moral failings I do think BAD ASS is a fairly enjoyable movie, and for exactly the reason you’d think it might be: Danny Trejo. It’s great to see him not only playing the hero, but a relatable, sympathetic human. He does some crying, he loses hope in life, he makes a difference, he gets real fuckin lucky, he hangs a guy out a window, does a little bit of mugging. And all without owning a car. His travels are shown on transit maps. So it’s not bad. For sure by far the best movie this director has ever had anything to do with, for crying out loud. I mean not to keep harping on this, but somebody do something about this guy. Bad Ass, you want to help your community, go break the fingers that typed those scripts.
Anyway, okay job. Baby steps. Next let’s give Trejo an action vehicle that’s not a joke or a weird exploitation of a mentally ill guy. I think we can do this.
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.