“Jacques, as long as I’ve known you you’ve been in deep shit. I expect this.”
Even though I have this weird feeling that French kickboxing champion turned VHS-era action icon Olivier Gruner doesn’t like me, I’m open to watching his movies. I actually didn’t realize while watching it that ANGEL TOWN was his debut, but it makes sense. This is his L.A. gang movie, which came out after COLORS but before BOYZ N THE HOOD or MENACE II SOCIETY (or New York movies like NEW JACK CITY and JUICE). And I’m not saying it’s as good as any of those, but it’s a fun b-action take on the subject, and it makes a decent argument for why Gruner should be in movies.
He plays Jacques, a Frenchman renting a room in a gang neighborhood while attending graduate school in East L.A. He ends up there because he gets into town late and all the student housing is filled up, but also we learn he was born in a French ghetto and lived in one in Hong Kong too. It’s not relevant, but I want to mention why he’s late to school: when he was about to leave he went to visit his father’s grave and then his girlfriend showed up distraught that he was leaving and she took off her fur coat and she was naked so he fucked her right there on his father’s grave. And that must’ve taken a couple days, I don’t know.
He does go to school a little bit, and courts a woman from there. There’s an asshole dean guy straight out of the worst fraternity movie, who tells Jacques to his face that he hates him and does not welcome him. Later, when there’s an impossible math problem on the board and no one has an answer, he says “Perhaps our learned Frenchman can give us the answer.” Of course Jacques does, surprising everyone. How do you like the apples or whatever.
But mostly he helps the house owner Maria (Theresa Saldana, RAGING BULL, THE EVIL THAT MEN DO) and her son Martin (Frank Aragon, who had previously been an extra in LA BAMBA, STAND AND DELIVER and COLORS), who keeps getting threatened and chased by the gangsters. Although Jacques immediately gets in conflict with these guys himself he doesn’t seem to understand at first that the gangs are bad. When Martin explains that this is all about them trying to pressure him to join, Jacques asks “And you don’t want to? Why not? I thought every kid wanted to join a gang?”
“My mother and my grandmother don’t want me to,” he says.
“What about your father?”
His father is dead, but no, I’m guessing he wasn’t pro-gang even before they killed him. Then Jacques asks him why he doesn’t fight back. “I know you can do it!” This is after they have just fled from multiple car loads of armed attackers.
It’s about half an hour into the movie before Martin asks “Who are you?” and it cuts to a photo of Jacques with his championship belt on the wall at his friend Henry (Peter Kwong, GLEAMING THE CUBE, STEELE JUSTICE, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA)’s gym. Henry helps out, loans him his van, lets him do a training montage in his ring set to crazy jazz music.
Gruner has an appealing boyish quality to him, like Van Damme in KICKBOXER. He never seems arrogant. He happens to be able to beat everybody up, but he seems a little disappointed whenever he has to do that. He has it instilled in him to protect women, children and the bullied, partly because he got picked on as a kid. But that sort of chivalry is not always rewarded in this world. Even the little kid who he saves from being clubbed like a baby seal by a gang of bullies flips him off and yells “So whaddya want, a fuckin medal?”
But when he dresses in a suit the old lady who owns the house he’s staying in swoons like Ooh, my handsome boy!
He also impresses the black gangs, who we know (mostly from the opening gigantic gang melee in a park) are feuding with the Latin gangs. He comes into their territory and they consider killing him or something, but they admire his balls too much. Kind of a Seagal move.
Because of this combination of innocence and being able to handle himself he ignores everybody’s pleas to not move in. That includes both the white people who fear “bad neighborhoods” and the locals who don’t want him there. He finds himself harassed on the porch, inside, on the sidewalk, everywhere. And when he sees other people being threatened he doesn’t put his head down, he tries to help. (Help the people who are being threatened, not the threateners.)
He does save this family (except for Grandma), so technically he’s a bit of a White Savior, or at least a French Savior. But at least he’s not very paternal about it, he just acts like he’s earning his keep as a tenant. Still, I do have to knock off a point for calling a guy in his class “raghead.” He does it after being called a “frog,” but he says it with so much pride, like it’s an amazing, argument-winning quip.
This is one of those movie gangs where seven or eight armed adults threaten a young bookworm for being hesitant to join their gang. It’s totally exaggerated, but for balance the French bullies glimpsed in his flashbacks seem even more ridiculous. They wear berets!
The best supporting character is Frank (Mike Moroff), the disabled ‘Nam vet who’s always out on his porch drinking. He watches Jacques beat up half a dozen gangsters who jump him, and raises his whisky bottle in tribute. It doesn’t seem like a character you’ll necessarily see again, but later he’s there to gesture and warn Jacques about impending gang activity. Then out of the blue there’s a potent dose of melodrama as Frank angrily slams his fists against his useless legs and cries out in anguish about not being able to help.
Finally there’s a scene where he says fuck it, gets a machine gun and rolls and crawls his way over to the house next door to back Martin up. “They may have gotten your legs, but they sure didn’t get your balls,” Jacques says when he sees him there.
Toward the end Jacques goes a little more hardcore. He sneaks into one guy’s place and wakes him up with a knife to his throat. They end up slashing a woman’s throat, not him, but he’s the one that puts the body in someone’s car to freak them out. Kinda creepy.
The gang leader Angel (I guess it’s his town?) is asking for protection money. In a residential neighborhood. Huh. But you really know this gang shit is getting out of control when they send a little kid to do a drive-by shooting at the college.
I guess maybe Martin is like Luke Skywalker, he’s too old for the training. Anyway, the kid announces “I got him! I got him!” but actually he got some random dude that wasn’t even standing near Jacques. Jacques takes charge, pulls the kid out of the window, takes his gun, deputizes some other guy to hold the gun on him, and yells “Call the police!” to the people tending to the bleeding, dying dude. THANK GOD somebody who knows what he’s doing was there because who knows if any of the dozens of people who had just witnessed a shooting would ever have thought of calling the police without being commanded to.
One of my favorite parts is when they’re hounding Martin and the house is surrounded, so Jacques opens the door, grabs a guy by the throat, yanks him inside, yells “THAT’S ENOUGH!” in his face, then pushes him back out the door yelling “GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE! LET THEM ALONE!”
This guy could be useful in alot of situations, if you just had him around to grab guys by the throat and yell in their faces. Like, if you’re on the bus and some guy talking way too loud on his phone, or if you’re in a store and you see somebody being a pain in the ass to the employees, you get Jacques to handle it.
But he’s best at dealing with gangs. It’s hard to beat the part where Jacques blows up Angel’s beloved car, causing him to yell “You fuckin blew up my car!” It’s the vehicular equivalent of “My balls!”
By the way, here’s Mark Dacascos in one of his first movie appearances, as “Stoner’s driver”:
The DVD has a making-of extra. I’m not sure what the deal is but the Australian interviewer guy clearly recorded his questions in a different room not talking to anyone. So there’s some really awkward fake interaction. But it’s cool that they bothered to make it, that’s rare for this type of movie.
When asked if the portrayal of gangs is realistic, Gruner admits “Well, I think Angel in real life would use his weapons. I mean he would kill me. Right away.” But then he goes on to say that “they are dressed the same, you know, they looks the same, and the attitude, it’s exactly the same. You know, the way they walk, you know the way they talk, the way they do with their hands, you know, it’s the hands talking, it’s real. This is real. Because actually we used the gang members to do the picture. Some of them.”
I don’t know about all that, but his point about the guns is true. There are numerous scenes where they stand there with uzis while Frank beats them up. Then, when the tables are turned and Martin and Frank are on the porch shooting at them one of them says “You’re gonna have to shoot us all,” confident that they can take on guns at a distance with their bare hands. And sure enough our boys are not able to kill most of them. Guns don’t kill people, people without guns kill people with guns.
In the end Jacques convinces everybody to settle it with a fight that nobody can interfere with – between Martin and Angel, two non-martial-artists. Little Martin beats the gang leader to death and Jacques has to pull him off of the dead body. But Henry gives him this proud smile:
As the theme song by The Hot Heads explains, “Angel Town / yeah, you’ve got to be strong / stand your ground / ain’t much mercy in Angel Town.” Now that he’s kicked a human being’s head in he’s finally a man.
And then I assume Jacques goes back to school and does more math.