May 1, 1998: BLACK DOG
On the same day that Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party died, and Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke got married, BLACK DOG came out. (I wasn’t seeing it, I was seeing HE GOT GAME.)
BLACK DOG is a good old fashioned medium budget summer action movie, which is something that existed twenty years ago (we’ll also see THE NEGOTIATOR later in the summer). It’s an example of the mini-trend of action movies trying to appeal to country music fans (FIRE DOWN BELOW) with its soundtrack of songs about how half your check goes to the landlord and half to Uncle Sam, or how free it is to be “a road man,” with “those windshield wipers slappin out a tempo” when “each mile brings me closer to you.”
Patrick Swayze (STEEL DAWN) plays Jack Crews, a nice and upright Swayzian family man working hard at a warehouse to support his beloved wife Melanie (Brenda Strong, STARSHIP TROOPERS 1-2) and daughter Tracy (Erin Broderick, RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP). He sees his responsibility to provide for his family as his highest calling, and makes time to cook “only the absolute best homemade” for dinner and to go to Tracy’s basketball game. But if somebody at work tells him to stay late for some bullshit when he’s supposed to pick the girl up from school he’ll say “If you need it, it’ll be done.”
So it’s real uncomfortable when his boss (Graham Beckel, ESCAPE PLAN) pressures him to drive a truck. See, three weeks ago Crews got out on parole after two years in prison for vehicular manslaughter. Fell asleep at the wheel. Lost his trucking license. But he says yes because it pays ten thousand dollars and that’s how much they need to not lose their house and he hates nothing more than the thought of having to move back to Newark, where the schools have metal detectors. (Back then that was thought of as a sad symptom of dangerous minds, not a luxurious safeguard against school massacres.)
Crews goes to meet cigar smoking, Bible-quoting, bolo-tie-wearing, coupon-collecting Red (Meat Loaf, STAGE FRIGHT), who puts him together with reluctant partners Earl (Randy Travis, T.N.T.), Sonny (Gabriel Casseus, GET ON THE BUS) and Wes (Brian Vincent, ANIMAL ROOM) to drive cargo which is supposedly toilets but is real heavy and requires a car following for backup. (Because it’s actually over $3 million of guns.)
They get attacked on the road, it becomes clear that Red is actually trying to hijack the delivery, and they have to somehow get out of this without getting killed by Red, having the Crews family killed by the boss, or getting arrested for gun-running. See, they’re also being tracked by agents from the FBI (Charles S. Dutton, SURVIVING THE GAME; Lorraine Toussaint, Almond Joy from HUDSON HAWK) and ATF (Stephen Tobolowsky, THE GLIMMER MAN).
Travis is a likable presence with his deep, distinctive voice and a reoccurring joke about trying to write country songs. At one point a Travis song on the soundtrack segues to him in the truck singing it not as well as on the recording. This is a story about people who call the bathroom “the head” and wear fingerless gloves and measure a man by his ability to to flip a bunch of switches on a dashboard.
An unexpected thing that I really liked is that Crews actually can trust his partners. Usually he would be walking into a nest of vipers by taking this job, but these are just working people like him, also being lied to, also trying to get out of this safely. I suppose that’s kind of a spoiler, because they all have cell phones (not necessarily standard back then) and make private calls that make the others suspicious. Crews, in an unusual move for the hero of a crime movie, straight up calls the FBI and tells them what’s going on. I just like how much this ex-con smuggling guns is trying to be a good guy and all around positive individual.
For example, when things are really coming to a head (not a bathroom, a crisis) Crews offers the others a chance to leave. Cowardly, Steve-Zahn-like Wes immediately takes him up on the offer. But Earl says he’s “got nowhere else to go,” so he goes with Crews and tells Wes to “eat shit.” I’m a sucker for this sort of thing where somehow Earl respects Crews enough to risk his life and freedom to back him up on his showdown with the bad guys, and act like he’s just doing it for kicks. But I suppose any of us would’ve done that for Patrick Swayze.
I think the most Swayze moment in the movie (and therefore my favorite part) is when Crews apologizes to Earl for having made fun of his songwriting earlier. It’s not reluctant, it’s not a joke, it’s something he requires of himself in order to follow a personal code of manhood and friendship. He recognizes that he’s done something dishonorable, so he must confess it instead of just hope it’s forgotten. I try to do this myself, and I feel very self conscious when I do it. But I feel a special bond with someone who has been an asshole to me and then apologized of their own volition, so I know I should do the same. I don’t think Van Damme or Seagal or Bruce would have this sort of apology in a movie. It’s pure Swayze.
Major acting choice: he chews gum in many scenes.
These guys seem to be really good at finding places where they know they can park and no humans will come by and get suspicious. For example this picturesque park under a bridge where they stop to regroup, somehow knowing that not one person will drive by and think “why is that dude covered in blood lighting gun powder on a bullet wound next to an open truck full of crates of guns with a dead FBI agent’s feet sticking out the back?”
The action was, even then, a little old fashioned, harking back to the days of Hal Needham when variations on vehicles crashing and jumping and being jumped onto and off of were the highest aspirations. Second unit director/stunt coordinator Gary Hymes (BROKEN ARROW, THE PUNISHER, ALEX CROSS) was fired and replaced with Vic Armstrong (TOTAL RECALL, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, THE PHANTOM), who rehired some of the same crew. I’m not sure, but the reason for the firing may have been an accident in which three crew members were injured by a premature explosion.
Between the rig and the Camaro they drive on grass, through trees, mailboxes, fences, ponds, catch air, get shot at, sideswipe the cars that shoot at them, drift, run a car carrier off a cliff, run over a motorcycle so that another motorcycle runs over it and flips, throw a guy in a Confederate flag jean jacket onto Red’s windshield so that he crashes through a power line and gets showered in sparks, and more.
The first time they get chased, Crews pulls the ol’ “suddenly slam on the brakes when they’re right behind you” maneuver. The car rear ends him and instantly explodes.
I don’t think you’ll be surprised to hear that they cause another truck to drive through a gas station and into a gas truck (all involved explode) and another through a mobile home (it cuts it in half and flips and slides upside down and rolls a couple times and sheds about fifty pieces before landing upright).
And of course Crews has to climb around on the moving truck and fight a guy and stuff. There’s an amazing shot zooming in to Swayze for real climbing across the side because “I gotta get this guy off the back of the truck.”
And there are shots like this one, which is not really Swayze, but is a hell of a scary stunt.
What seems to be the climax happens with guns and fists and wrenches on a dock with a crane and police cars, which I guess is good for variety, but feels pretty generic and off-topic for a trucker movie. The movie is nice and short, so it feels really off when after that his boss is busted and he’s with his family and Tobolowsky gives him a trucking license and he says goodbye to Earl and Tracy says hello to Earl’s dog Tiny and everything seems to be resolved in time to make it to the basketball game but it’s only 77 minutes in.
Never fear! There’s a little bonus round where Red is still alive and trying to crash into him. It’s pretty dull that they’re just driving around between shipping containers, but it’s cool that the wife and kid get to be in the truck with him to see him in action. And best of all Red yells “Witness the resurrection, brothers and sisters!” and Jack suddenly becomes a dude who refers to himself in the third person:
For the finale, Red drives into a building and crashes (CRASH SPOILERS) through stacked barrels full of water, a pile of dirt and a window and then rolls and slides upside down and (this is some really unlucky timing here) gets hit by a train and explodes.
I had forgotten why it was called BLACK DOG. I was thinking it was the name of the truck or something. Actually it comes from… truck driver mythology? When Earl hears about Crews’ fatal accident he asks “You saw the dog, didn’t you?” because “I’ve heard truckers talk about it on the yard. They say it comes when you’ve been on the road too long and pushin too hard, when you get greedy. They say it comes to take everything away from ya.”
Only Wes acknowledges that this is ridiculous. “Yeah, and I bet you see U.F.O.s and aliens with big eyes!” he says.
“No,” says Crews, who has indeed seen this demonic vision. “Just the black dog.”
What I’m getting at is that the title should be THE BLACK DOG. They fucked up.
But anyway, Earl complains in another scene about Red being greedy. So Crews is the black dog coming for him.
Screenwriter William Mickelberry’s only other credits are the tv movies WOMAN UNDONE and ESCAPE: HUMAN CARGO, and directing for the tv show Super Force (which I don’t remember ever existing, but it comes up weirdly often in my reviews). His co-writer Dan Vining is also mostly a TV movie guy, though he has a credit with Scott Frank on the Martha Coolidge movie PLAIN CLOTHES.
Director Kevin Hooks started acting as a child in movies like SOUNDER, AARON LOVES ANGELA and A HERO AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT A SANDWICH, and later was on The White Shadow. In the early ’80s he started directing TV shows including St. Elsewhere, Fame and V as well as TV movies including ROOTS: THE GIFT. The Tommy Davidson comedy STRICTLY BUSINESS kicked off his brief ’90s fling with the big screen which also consisted of PASSENGER 57 and FLED. As far as I’ve noticed he’s rarely been cited as part of the ’90s wave of African-American directors, though this is his only movie with a white lead. I guess because he’s such a journeyman nobody knew anything about him. These days he’s more prolific in TV than ever – in the last couple years he’s directed episodes of the mini-series Madiba, Genius, Mr. Mercedes, The Punisher, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Castle Rock, The X-Files and The Good Cop.
BLACK DOG did not light up the box office. It opened in fifth place, beaten by fellow debuts HE GOT GAME and LES MISERABLES, but also below CITY OF ANGELS in its fourth week and THE BIG HIT in its second. By week two it was at #9, a couple notches below that movie WOO starring Jada Pinkett. Although I couldn’t find any reports on its budget, I gotta assume it was more than the $12 million it made. But I bet it would’ve done worse if they’d stuck with their original star, Kevin Sorbo.
It also got poor reviews and even a C+ from the notoriously easy CinemaScore. (FIRE DOWN BELOW and KULL THE CONQUEROR both got a B-. ) Even the soundtrack didn’t do that great, peaking at #30 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums.
Still, I approve of BLACK DOG for low pressure Saturday afternoon type viewing situations. It’s pretty middle of the road, but it has a nice meat and potatoes appeal strengthened by the purity of Swayze and anchored by Travis and Loaf.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.