So once again we have survived.

Band of the Hand

tn_bandofthehandBAND OF THE HAND is a beautiful combination of elements: underdog juvenile delinquent brotherhood, island survival, stoic badass mentorship, paramilitary vigilante revenge, Miami Vice style and attitude. I mean, literally, it’s the people who made Miami Vice. Michael Mann is the executive producer. Paul Michael Glaser, who is known for playing Starsky but also directed episodes of Miami Vice, is the director. IMDb trivia claims it was actually released theatrically after failing as a TV pilot, but I’m skeptical about that. It seems a little too awesome to have been made for TV. They would’ve had to go back and do reshoots for additional awesomeness.

I think this is Michael Mann’s version of a RED DAWN type teen action movie. It’s hoods vs. kingpins in Miami, great cast, show-offy camera moves and editing, moody atmosphere, restrained dialogue. And as the cover brags, it has a high grade ’80s pop soundtrack – “Broken Wings” by Mr. Mister, “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince, a bunch of songs by some band called The Reds that also played on MANHUNTER – even a title song by Bob Dylan, somehow.

btislI’d had this recommended to me by many people over the years, and it’s always a good sign when RZA references a movie in his lyrics. I knew what it was, and that I should see it, but clearly I didn’t understand just how great it was gonna be, or I would’ve gotten started earlier. Now I can only speculate what those extra years with BAND OF THE HAND in my life would’ve been like.

It opens in mayhem: an energetically cut series of elaborate tracking shots introducing our hoods: two guys fighting in the middle of a big rumble, a guy in a shiny Paisley jacket selling a briefcase full of coke, a punk kid with a Walkman coming home to the trailer park and shooting his abusive dad. They get busted, cut to mug shots. It’s what was called “MTV style” back then, before that was a bad thing, and it’s a style that holds up, it still gets my blood pumping.

mp_bandofthehandThey’re all minors charged as adults, and suddenly they get yanked out of juvi with no explanation, get handcuffed in the back of a truck, taken out on a swamp boat and dumped off in the water near a small island. They wander to land and find Joe (Stephen Lang, Colonel Quaritch from AVATAR), a quiet, head-banded dude (read: Native American) who gives them minimal camping supplies and less explanation. He burns their files, giving them a new start, and tells them “Learn to live… or die. That straight enough for you?”

They complain and they fight each other but this happens less and less as they survive a storm, hunt a wild boar, get growled at by a bear and a panther. Some of them hate each other and get in scuffles, they argue with Joe and are very stubborn, and then all the sudden they start respecting each other and become brothers. I’m such a sucker for this kind of thing. When two guys are fighting over a compass, “Crazy,” who has not spoken a word for the entire movie, starts yelling at them. Soon they’re helping each other out.

“Crazy” is their nickname for J.L., I guess he would be the Mad Murdoch of the crew. He’s a small guy who’s completely confident in his spikey punk haircuts and sunglasses, he doesn’t give a shit that he doesn’t fit in. Also because he’s a little psycho he has spent time learning how to build explosives. I know that’s a little more uncomfortable to think about right now but even in the movie it was to show that he was a maniac. His experience with Joe on the island just helps him channel that crazy so that he’ll use it against somebody more harmful to society than his school building.

The actor is named John Cameron Mitchell, I bet he went on to do some real badass shit, probly lifted some weights and did some AMERICAN NINJA movies or something, let me look him up here… oh, actually he starred in and directed HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, and then directed SHORTBUS and RABBIT HOLE. So he went a different route. But hopefully if he ever gets shit from any homophobes he stares them down and they remember he was in BAND OF THE HAND and then they start crying and run away.

It’s great, largely non-verbal storytelling and real good acting by these guys. I especially like the expressions on Carlos (Daniele Quinn), who looks like a young James Coburn with a little Adam Yauch mixed in. One day Joe sends the band on a tracking mission, and after days of hiking and going in circles they hear music and come to a big party with a band playing. You just watch their faces as they play it cool. They’ve been isolated in the wilderness for who knows how long, they’re dressed in rags, like savages, holding spears, and all the sudden they walk into a crowd of people having fun. They just casually take some fried chicken off the table, go over and watch the band, nod their heads, don’t even say anything. I’m not sure if they realize at first that this is their graduation. At least from the island. They’re not out of the program yet.

I knew from what I’d heard about the movie that they’d end up fighting drug dealers, so I actually thought Joe was training them as some kind of off-the-books Dirty Dozen black ops vigilante crew. In fact he’s just trying to help them. Removing them from their situations (and society), teaching them to work together to survive, to rely on their skills, to have self worth. I wonder if people who send their kids to those boot camps think it’s gonna be like this?

The program moves to an abandoned house in Miami, which they fix up and paint neon graffiti colors. (This being 1986 it made me wonder if all the gaudy colors of early ’90s pop culture came out of Miami.) But chasing the crackheads out causes a conflict with local drug dealer Larry Fishburne, who works for kingpin James Remar, who Carlos got busted working for, and who currently has his girl Lauren Holly as sort of a kept woman. I like seeing young, brash Fishburne, pre-BOYZ N THE HOOD and still willing to rock a fancy haircut with stripes. And Remar being the top villain is great since he was, of course, a Warrior, and the Band of the Hand are kind of like the more positive Warriors. He’s a real slimy motherfucker, best demonstrated by the scene where he asks Holly how old she is, she says 16 and he says “Good” and to go upstairs and take her clothes off. (Plus he has some kind of voodoo shrine up there or something?)

This will eventually lead to a violent confrontation, in my opinion. While the Wolverines of RED DAWN took up guerilla warfare against the invading Russian army, these guys are only taking on a Miami coke empire. So it’s down to earth and believable? No, by any non-RED DAWN standard they’re up against impossible odds, so it’s tense. The best thing about Remar’s compound is the huge turret gun. Paul Calderon (PISTOL WHIPPED) gets inside and you just see him through the crack from outside. He gets sniped and suddenly somebody else takes his place. This thing is powerful and they’re willing to shoot their own fancy cars to bits trying to get the Band. John Cameron Mitchell gets the most badass maneuver in the whole movie when he runs across the roof and tosses one of his bombs inside the turret.

This is a classic, and finally available on DVD as of last year. Don’t make the same mistake I did and fuck around not seeing it. You won’t regret not regretting it.


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.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 8th, 2013 at 12:00 am and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “Band of the Hand”

  1. Whoa. Never heard of this one. Did Starsky direct much else, I wonder?

  2. Band of the Hand. Does anyone else think that sounds like a bad eighties porn?

  3. mac: I imagined it was a metaphor for masturbation. Like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAtUw6lxcis

    (Apparently, the original lyrics were “Wanna’ hold it, wanna’ hold it tight” rather than “Wanna’ hold HER, wanna’ hold her tight” until someone pointed out to Feargal Sharkey that 1977 Belfast might not be the best time and place to wax lyrical about five-knuckle shuffling)

  4. Jam: Oh, just a little movie called THE RUNNING MAN. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

  5. Yeaaaah, baby, BAND OF THE HAND. Absolutely a straight-up Micheal Mann joint. One of the greatest teensploitation action films of the 80s, right up there with YOUNG GUNS, if not quite in the same league as RED DAWN. But then again, what is?

    And Vern, I think we need reviews of both classic 80s RED DAWN and terrible Red Dawn Remake. Along with an entire Milius retrospective.

  6. P.S.: Vern, you might wanna check out TEXAS KILLING FIELDS, produced by Micheal Mann, directed by his daughter Ami Mann (not the lead singer of Til Tuesday) and art directed by his other daughter Aran Mann. It’s not great (or even all that good), but it’s interesting.

  7. Good to know that it’s finally on dvd, I saw it in theaters when it was first released (I was just a kid) and remember liking it a whole lot. I will enjoy revisiting this one! Cool to see it stands the test of time!

  8. Also: if you liked this one, you might also enjoy another film called “The New Kids” directed by Sean S. Cunninghan (Friday the 13th), another cool and obscure 80’s film that not many people have seen.

  9. Majestyk: Doesn’t ring a bell.

    Unlike THIS: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GfdemcL35A

  10. Wow, thanks for bringing this one to our attention Vern.
    I just watched the movie version of MIAMI VICE again last weekend, so I’m in Mann Mode. There are just so many shots in it that still seem too good to be true. I kept wondering this time through if all the lightning flashes in the background were put in later, but then apparently they had lots of weather delays shooting the movie, so perhaps not?

  11. Vern’s never reviewed the original RED DAWN, surprisingly.

    Maybe he’ll do a double feature review with it and its (lousy) remake?

  12. Oh The New Kids. It’s not that great until the final showdown and then it becomes great.

  13. Agreed on THE NEW KIDS. Takes a while to get there but it’s worth the trip.

  14. Sweet one, Vern, I remember watching this one back in VHS days, when I was wee lil´lad. Always thought it was kinda obscure and it did not get the credit it deserved.
    Thanks for digging this out.

  15. This used to be on a pretty steady rotation in the late 80’s along with THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN, COMMANDO, and RANDOM TEEN SEX COMEDY. Even though I haven’t seen this in probably 20 years I can still recall most of the movie from all those afternoon viewings.

    I think it’s also worth noting that John Cameron Mitchell is 50 fucking years old and could still reasonably play an age appropriate Crazy if they remade this film now.

  16. Jam: Thanks a lot dude. I’m never going to get that 2 min and 23 seconds back. That was a horrible song sung by a horrible band! But I laughed my butt off just reading the lyrics.

  17. The Blue Ribbon – Medal of Approval treatment pleases me. I’m sure I’ve mentioned BAND OF THE HAND several times on this websight, always recommending it without fully disclosing the awesomeness that awaits, but now Vern straight up calls it “a classic.” Beautiful.

    Vern didn’t mention some of the other “This couldn’t really have been intended as a tv pilot” touches, like James Remar’s racist slur.

    Besides the explosives thing, other reasons this movie would be a sensitive topic to approach today might include the fact that it’s about a damaged war veteran arming & training youths to use large firearms in the middle of Miami. It’s awesome, but beyond ridiculous. Well, shit, actually the un-American gun nuts in this half-redneck country might think this movie is an educational tool, who the fuck knows?

    Hard to say which is the most gnarly —
    Larry Fishburne’s hairdo or
    the Seagalian injury to his elbow or
    the paint job at the Band’s house/training grounds.

    Great strategic use of a female dog at the end, too.

    The mid-’80s was such a great era for un-pretentious yet deliberately-trying-to-be-cool music-centric action fare. I consider Walter Hill’s STREETS OF FIRE and producer Michael Mann’s BROTHER’S KEEPER (actual tv show pilot episodes for Miami Vice) to be superior, but they make nice elevated-macho companion pieces with the slightly more youth-inspirational BAND OF THE HAND.

    Be careful of watching all these films on the same day, though; the experience will not only ruin all other cinema for you for a long while, but it will leave you in a daze that, once you let its hold of you relax, will cause massive disappointment in your mundane, non-musical reality where young coolguys-cum-[anti-]heroes don’t find catharsis by taking down kidnappers & drug dealers every 90 minutes.

  18. And don’t front on John Cameron Mitchell. Dude is a brilliant badass motherfucker as far as I’m concerned. BAND OF THE HAND is only his 2nd best work.

  19. Knox Harrington

    May 8th, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    Hedwig and the Angry Inch was excellent. Great music too.

    Finding out that John Cameron Mitchell was in Band of the Hand was a lot like when I first realised that Shane Black was in Predator. Instant badass kudos.

  20. What you’ll want to see now (if you haven’t yet) is “Toy Soldiers”. The best of all the Red Dawn-ish clones, including Red Dawn. (*Especially* better than “Masterminds”.)

    It comes with Louis Gossett as “Mister Tepper sold you a bottle of mouth wash with vodka in it. You will not be punished if you give it to me in five seconds.”

    Also, Andrew Divoff as Pablo Escobar, if Pablo Escobar was two times thinner, three times crazier and four times more badass.

  21. only in the 80’s could a movie with as silly a premise as this actually turn out to be a good movie

  22. I too have always meant to see BAND OF THE HAND and never gotten around to it. Will have to rectify that.

  23. The Original... Paul

    May 9th, 2013 at 1:54 am

    Wooooow. Never heard of this one before (Except for a few mentions of it in the comments) but I will check it out ASAP.

  24. Thanks,Vern for bringing it to my attention. It truly is great. Now what the hell am I going to follow up on this? Miami Connection,perhaps?

  25. I love this movie. There is not much I could add that Vern didn’t already cover in his review or I havent already said about BAND OF THE HAND on this site (I recommended it in the forum and in the suggestions section). As Vern mentioned in his review BAND OF THE HAND is jam packed with classic action film motifs and elements and they are all executed pitch perfectly. It is also a unique product of its time. I am excited for Vern and the rest of you that are just now discovering this under appreciated gem. Based on the comments in this thread I would bet many of you disagree, but I would argue that BAND OF THE HAND is better then RED DAWN. That is not a knock on RD but BAND is just so much fun.

  26. Awesome movie, one of those 80s VHS rentals like The Hitcher or Repo Man that came from nowhere and just totally kicked ass. I remember having the Bob Dylan song on a cassette. Will definitely get the DVD. Have never forgotten Crazy holding out his bowl for more lizard stew.

  27. Great write up, Vern. I’ve been a huge fan of this one for years. The original dvd release has long been out of print. For this reason, I opted for owning the laserdisc. Everyone I have turned on to the film has really enjoyed the ride.

    Another 80s film that is similar is The Annihilators http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088729/?ref_=sr_1
    I highly suggest you seek this one out. It’s not available on dvd so it might be tough to track down. There is a violent scene which has stuck with me over the years that involves a handicap person and a meat tenderizer. Good stuff!

  28. I never saw this one either, it always sounded fairly awful, but after reading your review it it’s on my must see list.

  29. For those who care about such things (like me), BAND OF THE HAND is getting a North American Blu-ray release on January 10 of next year. Pre-order price on Amazon is $9.98, which in my opinion is a steal. The fact that it’s being released by Mill Creek could be a cause for concern with regards to transfer and encode quality but what’s the point of dwelling on that negative shit now? Mill Creek’s discs are almost always region free, which is a much more positive thing to dwell on.

    Anyway, just thought I’d flag this for those who’ve been waiting for a HD release of this classic to drop.

  30. Ahh. Mill Creek. God bless their 50 movies on 12 discs-packs.

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