“Come on Carmen, what do you want from me? I’m just trying to do my job protecting a federal witness from being chased by a bunch of assholes who shoot at us every time I turn around!”
ACTION U.S.A. is pretty much the perfect movie title. I mean, who the fuck knows what it means, it doesn’t describe the content of the story in a traditional way, and yet it exactly describes the vibe of the movie (filmed under the title A HANDFUL OF TROUBLE, referring to some diamonds). The movie opens with a long credits scene of a Corvette with a giant engine sticking out the front, Texas license plate “SLEEK 1,” naked lady airbrushed on the hood, speeding down roads. It pulls up to a house, the driver Billy Ray (Rod Shaft) (beer in hand, gun tucked in waistband) takes his girl Carmen (Barri Murphy) inside and they start to go at it on the couch. The director credit is over a shot of the door right before it gets kicked down and two mob thugs (one lookin like Freddy Mercury) come in and drag Billy Ray to the trunk of their car. Then they take him to a helicopter and fly around dangling him by one leg. Carmen drives underneath saying “Oh my god!”
They accidentally drop him in water, he swims ashore and gets in her car for a crazy chase that involves her hanging out the door, Freddie standing up in the sunroof firing his gun, of course some workers on ladders almost getting hit, and a completely full school bus that through some act of God or careful planning has a tow truck set up as a ramp so they can jump over it. The motor home in front of the bus is not so lucky, though, and the bad guys crash through it and explode into flames of awesomeness.
That’s the beginning, and it continues like that. That’s a movie you can call ACTION U.S.A. all right. I would also accept AMERICA T.N.T. or DYNAMITE EAGLE SQUAD.
Why? How? John Stewart, that’s why and how. Not the former Daily Show host or the Green Lantern, but the stuntman who directed and provided the story (screenplay by David Reskin [SKINHEADS], additional material by James Desmarais [RAW HEAT]). Stewart’s stunt coordinator credits include HARD ROCK ZOMBIES, SAVAGE DAWN, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, DEATH STREET U.S.A., PHANTASM III and LEPRECHAUN 3. He was a stunt player on FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, PHANTASM II, SURVIVAL QUEST, DEATH SPA and SCANNER COP, to name a few. This was his first film as a director – he went on to do CLICK: THE CALENDAR GIRL, CARTEL, HIDDEN OBSESSION, 14 episodes of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and of course FALL GUY: THE JOHN STEWART STORY, a self-biopic.
Some of those other ones sound like stalker thrillers, I don’t know if they go full Baxley like this. But in this one you can definitely tell it’s made by stunt people. You got burning guys falling off a bridge into water, cars exploding from crashes, from detonators, from molotov cocktail fires beneath them, all kinds of good shit. Also it has stunt outtakes during the end credits like a Hal Needham joint.
Carmen ends up in the protective custody of two FBI agents, Clay Osborn (Gregory Scott Cummins, who is in STONE COLD and other great movies, but holy shit he’s the devil in the “Murder Was the Case” video!) and Earl “Call me Panama” McKinnon (William Hubbard Knight), dodging various killers and trying to find the missing diamonds. It turns into sort of a scavenger hunt where they follow vague clues from things she remembers Billy Ray saying. For example they find some place with a windmill and then have to figure out what to do from there.
Osborn and Panama seem designed as sort of a white-black Riggs and Murtaugh type of team. Since they’re in Texas the white guy has an easier time. In one scene they go to a bar called the Melody Ranch to try to get some information. It’s a giant dance club type venue with live country music. All the cowboys stare at Panama and the bartender calls him “boy.” What the fuck?
When a huge brawl breaks out Carmen hides by bumrushing the stage and taking over lead vocals. She’s real good at smiling and swaying like a pro, and the crowd goes crazy for her while Panama is buckled over in pain. Murphy only did a couple other movies and TV shows (two episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger), which surprises me because she’s by far the most charismatic actor in the movie. I don’t ever expect the female lead in a movie like this to have this strong a presence and likability.
This is definitely not a very captivating story, but it delivers more on random crazy shit than most movies. For example, during one of the many car chases there’s one of those little moments where some innocent bystander is driving along, sees the high speed vehicles coming right at him, swerves out the way and crashes into something. In this case it’s the corner of a house, which his station wagon drives clear through, sending planks of wood everywhere and causing the house to begin to collapse. The inhabitants luckily are sitting in lawn chairs outside, and the apparent owner (a big muscleman in a tank top) slams his beer on the lawn and yells in anger. The driver turns and says “Sorry about your house, buddy!” and then drives off. About one second later, the entire house explodes into a ball of fire. That’s just a tangent, a little side moment in the chase. A minute later one of the cars crashes into an errant propane tank, causing an even bigger explosion.
There’s alot of FAST AND FURIOUS type shit with the cars. People taking the wheel so somebody else can climb out and do something on top of the car. There’s an incredible shot that’s zooming in on the back of a car as two guys struggling over a gun both burst head first through the rear window and continue wrestling on the glass-shard-covered trunk of the moving car.
There’s a bunch of different bad guys. Cameron Mitchell is in there a bit, and William Smith a little more. There’s an older bounty hunter guy in a duster who it makes a real big deal about, he talks alot of shit. (I believe that’s Ross Hagen, AVENGING ANGEL.) Then during a scene where he sticks his torso out the window to fire at the other car – something they’ve been doing all throughout the movie – the hero car gives his car a little bump and he falls out with a scream, rolls across the ground and it seems like he’ll never be seen again, which would be funny and appropriate to this movie. But he does show up again.
“I thought you were dead?”
“They don’t build a bullet big enough.”
Another time he’s defeated by Carmen hitting him on the back with a 2 x 4 and then kneeing him, and he says “God damn it, I’m gonna nail you!” and stumbles off camera and then it dissolves to a different scene. Again, it seems like that very well could be his exit, but it’s not. In his final scene he does get shot by William Smith with an uzi, but then he crashes his motorcycle (which catches on fire) and flies off a bridge. So if he died – which we don’t even know for sure – it could be from drowning or head injuries or something. So his claim about bullets is never definitively disproven.
This would be pretty great to watch in a theater with the right audience. Another crowdpleaser is when a henchman is referred to as “Lucky” and also says “that’s why they call me ‘Lucky'” in case you missed it. Right after that he has the misfortune of trying to shoot Osborn and discovering he’s out of bullets.
“You’re not so lucky now, asshole,” Osborn says, and punches him out the window. There is a spectacular falling stunt dragged out and shown from multiple angles before he lands on a car and blows out all the windows, also shown in weird collage form on the VHS cover. The car doesn’t blow up, which is actually a little disappointing. This is ACTION U.S.A., after all.
In some looped dialogue at the end they talk about using the diamonds they ended up with to fund a trip to the country of Panama, as the character Panama has mentioned at other points in the movie. Clay says, “Look, do you have any idea what’s going on down there right now? I don’t know about you, but I am tired of getting shot at.”
I thought that was a rare movie reference to the American invasion of Panama, but the movie was released a couple months before that happened. It does seem like a post-production addition to the movie, so it must’ve referred to mounting tensions as Panamanian elections were contested and Noriega was pressured by the U.S. If it was added at the very last minute it could’ve referred to an attempted military coup that happened that month. But some version of the movie premiered in Waco in June, so I don’t know.
Think about this. Richard Linklater – a future Academy Award nominee for best director – was filming SLACKER in Austin in 1989, a movie all about conversations, having no idea how important it would be for the city and for independent film as a whole. And not long before that, less than a 2 hour drive away in Waco, these crazy motherfuckers were flipping cars, throwing guys off buildings, jumping burning motorcycles over the sides of bridges, etc., never getting the same kind of credit for it. But they probly didn’t care.
Sometimes it’s tempting to think of a place where something bad happened as evil, or cursed, or tainted. Nobody wants to live in a house where somebody got murdered. So I’m interested in places where something really bad but also something really good happened. Until it burned down a year or two there was a bar in Seattle where Ted Bundy was known to have picked up many of his victims. Evil. But about 5 blocks away there’s a little boutique in the building that was Bruce Lee’s first Jeet Kune Do school. Good.
Consider that while John Stewart and company were putting all this crazy shit on film, actual real life crazy shit was going on with the Branch Davidian cult, whose compound is only a 17 minute drive from the Melody Ranch club where the big brawl takes place.
In ’87 David Koresh (then known as Vernon Howell) and seven other men got in a gun fight with George Roden, who was the presumed successor as the president of the Branch Davidians, until Koresh moved in and started fucking Roden’s mother Lois, who was in her 70s. Roden was pretty pissed and said it was rape, so Koresh moved out and took most of his followers. But when Roden challenged him to a dead-raising competition, Koresh and his posse dressed up in camouflage and snuck into the Mount Carmel Center with five assault rifles, two regular rifles and two 12-gauge shotguns. Roden tried to stop them with an Uzi and they shot him and chased him off, but were found innocent of attempted murder (Koresh had a mistrial) after claiming they were just there to take photos to prove that Roden had illegally dug up a dead body. Since it’s Texas they were given their guns back and I’m sure probly also got an apology and a gift certificate to Chick-fil-A.
In ’89 Roden thought his roommate was sent by Koresh to kill him, so he ax-murdered him. He was found insane and spent the rest of his life in mental institutions, give or take a couple weeks during escapes.
ACTION U.S.A. came out in late ’89, so I’d guess it probly filmed right in the middle of all that, around ’88. If they hadn’t been putting all that positivity and awesomeness out into the universe the whole balance of good and evil would’ve been thrown out of wack and who knows what would’ve happened? I’m sorry to get spiritual, but sometimes you gotta when faced with a miracle like ACTION U.S.A.
Today the balance feels off again. Orange dawn rises over our proud country to threaten and humiliate us on a daily basis, hoping to sleaze and slime us into submission. But that’s not who we are. We’re the fucking country that made ACTION U.S.A. We must rise to the occasion, and embody our ideals more fiercely than ever. Soon their luck will run out, and motherfuckers are gonna be falling off of metaphorical bridges and buildings, many of them on metaphorical fire, causing things to metaphorically explode.
Happy 4th of July, everybody. We will get through 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.