Black Dog

April 10: SPECIES II

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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 10th, 2018 at 11:50 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.

27 Responses to “Black Dog”

  1. The black dog is more than just trucker lingo. Legends of the a ghostly black dog that foretells death or tragedy go back centuries to the British Isles (they say “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was inspired by one such black dog legend) and still persist to this day in Europe and America. There’s even a black dog ghost story nearby me in Connecticut (which has its fair share of ghost stories) and another in Massachusetts. It’s not as common a myth as the whole black cat thing, but it has many examples in folklore and pop culture.

    I always found this Nick Drake song to be quite chilling, as he explicitly welcomes the specter of death in the form of the titular canine. He killed himself soon after.

    Anyway, I can’t remember if I’ve ever actually seen this movie or if I’ve planned to watch it so many times I just assume I have. Maybe I should give it another shot just in case.

  2. Always had a weird fondness for this one. It fits nicely in that 90s-era mid-budget actioner genre, as Vern mentioned. It’s just as much fun as your BROKEN ARROWs or your THE ROCKs, but I think the focus on more blue-collar types rather than military dudes gives it a nice twist.

    Also, I think this movie is the source of my weird fascination with trucking and the trucking lifestyle. My wife makes fun of my collection of the weird country sub-genre of “trucker ballads”, but you try listening to Charlie Moore sing “Tombstone Every Mile” and not imagine just bein’ free and easy out there on the open asphault, haulin’ a load of cold ones down to the Big Easy.

  3. For some reason I was dying to see it when it came out, but it didn’t play in any theatre nearby. Then I didn’t rent it on VHS and actually saw it for the first time three years ago. Not a bad movie. Not a good one either, but it’s completely unoffensive in its competent mediocrity.

    Apparently my town had a castle until the middle of the 70s, when it had to be demolished. They built a farm there and the owner said he saw a fucking huge black dog there several nights. Too big to be a real dog or a wolf or whatever. Then one night he took his shotgun, shot at it, it ran away and never came back. Fucking cowardly mega dog ghost.

    (There is also another ghost story from my area, involving a small castle that sunk with its asshole owner into the ground during heavy rain a few hundred years ago and people still reporting that they sometimes see a 10ft tall shadow in the woods. But it doesn’t involve dogs. I definitely will never use that certain nearby road by night, though. )

  4. The song Black Shuck on the first album from The Darkness deals explicitly with a black dog legend of the area around Cambridge. If it’s on Youtube, I’m not linking to it as I know better than to try to top Nick Drake.

  5. This is one of my favorite Swayze pics. His zen performance elevates what could’ve been an empty headed Good Ol’ Boy movie into something more. I don’t think the man had a moment on camera that wasn’t sincere. I wish he made more gritty actioners like this one, but the ones we did get are a lot of fun.

  6. I’ve never seen this one, which is strange since my friends who are into country all love it. I better check if one of them will lend it to me.

  7. This retrospective is really going to hit home for me: back in 98 I was a budding sports reporter who just landed a job in West Texas. I worked nights, didn’t really know anyone there, and if you know anything about journalism, wasn’t making much money. So I went to see EVERYTHING that came out that summer, including Black Dog and most of the other movies Vern has mentioned so far. In fact, according to an old movie list I used to keep, I saw 58 movies that year, by far the most I’ve ever seen at the theater in a calendar year.

    So I’m very much looking forward to this one. I can’t remember if Vern already did BASEketball, but hoping that’s in the mix.

  8. Trucker Songs are one my favorite sub-generes of country, nearly up there with Sad Rodeo Songs (nothing beats Sad Rodeo Songs). You got the O.G. “Truck Drivin’ Man,” sung by basically everybody. You got the Johnny Cash wilderness years deep cut “Heavy Metal (Ain’t Rock & Roll To Me).” (How deep in the woods was he at the time? He’s wearing stone-washed denim on the cover.) You got Jerry Reed’s SMOKEY & THE BANDIT soundtracks, plus the hilarious “Caffeine, Nicotine, Benzedrine (& Wish Me Luck).” You got Brooks & Dunn’s cheeseball but fun “Independent Trucker.” And of course you got the best example of the form, recommended to me by some fine commenter on this very sight, Alabama’s rollicking and righteous power ballad, “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” which really has it all: full, rich vocal harmonies, driving piano, a little funky chickenscratch guitar, a monster singalong chorus, emotional storytelling, actual suspense, and a happy ending you’d have to be some kind of rat-soup-eating motherfucker not to get a little choked up about. If “Amarillo By Morning” and “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” didn’t exist, it would probably be the best country song ever performed.

    I mean, listen to this motherfucker. This is my jam right here.

  9. Oh, and Kurgan, thanks for recommending “Tombstone Every Mile.” I hadn’t heard that one before. It’s a banger. Thanks for the heads-up.

  10. Mr. M- well, I hadn’t heard “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old” til just now, so it’s an even trade!

  11. grimgrinningchris

    May 10th, 2018 at 5:53 pm

    Dude… “Roll On Eighteen Wheeler” is my karaoke JAM!

    I normally only do booty-rap party songs cuz I can’t sing a lick… but that Alabama song is one of the few songs I love that IS ALL (or at least mostly) in the one key that I CAN actually kind of carry…

  12. I’ve listened to my share of country over the years, but I’ve always approached the genre from the rock’n roll side; Dwight Yoakam, Bob Woodruff, Steve Earle etc. The 80’s revolution. Making NOWHERE ROAD my best bet on the BLACK DOG soundtrack.

  13. This is fantastic. Looks like ‘98 was an interesting summer for midbudget non tentpoles overshadowed by crappy blockbusters.

    I’m just sad we have to wait all weekend for the next one.

  14. I watched this for the first time last January, when I did free month a streaming service. I remember I really wanted to see this one when I saw the poster, but I don’t think I saw it in my local video rental shop, or in any stores.

    It’s okay. Good to see a low rent action vehicle, with an above average cast. I guess this made when Patrick Swayze’s character was in the shit (or perhaps it was just a break), but this an Letters From A Killer, might be his worst films (ok, Father Hood might be considerable worse than both of these) .

  15. Orlando SyFyst

    May 11th, 2018 at 7:17 am

    Swayze’s wife, Lisa Niemi, was in the first season of Super Force. SuFo existed as a companion Orlando production to the Superboy (The Salkinds held onto the rights after selling Superman to Cannon) for Viacom to sell in television syndication. SuFo has a following in Nigeria going by my research on Twitter/forums. The creator/producer of SuFo, James J. McNamara, produced Hardly Working for future SuFo guest director Jerry Lewis, and later a weeknight syndicated sketch show, The Newz. SuFo star Ken Olandt would later co-found UFO Films in Bulgaria with Phillip J. Roth. Roth is probably second behind Albert Pyun for 90’s cyborg movie directors and a fan of SuFo’s suit action it would seem.

  16. I need to see if I can figure out what DTV movies came out in the summer of 1998.

  17. Good luck with that Sternshein. Probably need to find a video magazine from 1998. Even imdb is kinda lacking in release dates for old DTV films. I did find one for you, Recoil with Gary Daniels, released May 12th.

    I guess you could do an Advanced search on imdb, and put in the summer season dates, and check under Video, instead of Feature film. Judge the results for yourself. Two of the films in the top 5 are Playboy films. You got Pochahontas 2, Dennis The Menace Strikes Again!, Overnight Delivery (this was DTV? or just the video release?). Young Hercules, The Swan Princess (there is a lot of animated films).

    I link the search for you: https://www.imdb.com/search/title?title_type=video&release_date=1998-04-01,1998-08-31

  18. Ghost, Recoil is fucking awesome. Vern, you need to review that for this series.

  19. This series is a little weird to me because in 1998 I actually worked as a film critic for a free weekly. Well, actually I was “junior critic.” Meaning I had to cover shit the two other guys wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot-pole. In other words, it means I had to cover Black Dog.

    For the record, I pretty sure I gave it a mostly positive review. And generally liked the fact that it seemed like a script written in 1978 at the height of “keep on truckin’/being free/Johnny Paycheck take-this-job-and-shove-it” mania, that sat in a drawer for twenty years.

  20. Fun fact: my dad was briefly a trucker in 1997.

  21. I actually wanted to be a trucker when I was younger, but then I learned what a shitty job it really is.

  22. I’ve always hated driving so being a trucker sounds like hell to me.

  23. Waited a long time for this review. It definitely delivered.

  24. What made my dad quit was he disliked the amount of time he had to spend away, I think he actually did like the job itself though and the one big benefit was he got to see basically the whole country.

  25. I would rather be a prostitute than a truck driver. Well…maybe not. Definitely would be a hooker before coal mining, though. And anything to do with heights, like you see those old timey photos of the construction workers sitting on steel beams way the crap up in the sky.

  26. All this talk of truck driving songs and no mention of Red Sovine? For shame.

  27. In the words of the great Charles Bukowski; “How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 8:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so? ”

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