June is Pride Month, of course, and I hope it’s been a good one for anybody who it means anything to. I never really knew a way to honor the occasion before, but that’s because I hadn’t yet stumbled across this 1996 gay-themed independent drama that shows two guys with guns on the cover – in fact the tagline is “THIS TIME THE GAY GUY’S GOT THE GUN!” – and mentions John Woo on the back.
RAISING HEROES is about a couple, Josh (Troy Sostillio) and Paul (Henry White), in the midst of a custody battle. Paul’s best friend died of cancer and wanted the two to raise her young son Nicky, but the kid’s grandmother and homophobic case workers are trying to stop that from happening. Then, a few days before a crucial hearing, Josh witnesses a mobster named Victor (Edmond Sorel, also co-writer) executing a guy in a convenience store, and various gangsters spend the next few days following and trying to eliminate him.
The box calls this the first openly gay action movie. I don’t know if that’s true, but off the top of my head I couldn’t name another one at all, just the cheeky maybe-he’s-gay ones like BLACKJACK and TRANSPORTER 2. Googling “gay action movie” has revealed another one called HOT GUYS WITH GUNS that claims to be the first even though it came out almost 20 years after this one. It also reminded me of KISS KISS BANG BANG. Anyway I think it’s a good thing to exist, to increase our understanding of types of masculinity. There’s no reason why shoot ’em ups have to be all heterosexual content. But it should be noted that this one’s not about gay badasses, it’s more of a TRUE ROMANCE “what if a regular guy that could be one of your buddies got mixed up in some gang movie shit, would he be able to step up?” kind of story. Neither of these guys is a Dolph or a Stath. Their closest pop culture analog is probly the couple on Modern Family.
This is also more of a “rooting for it to succeed” type of indie movie viewing experience than a “powerful new cinematic voice has me in the palm of its hand.” The violence is fairly sparse and sometimes feels like a cheat; their stunts are pretty rudimentary, so a spinning camera has to represent the POV of a guy falling out a window. And the relationship drama part has a decidedly film student or rookie regional filmmaker type feel to it. Lots of setups of two people sitting on a couch…
…a few too many sentimental cuts to sunny home video footage of happier times, etc. Josh narrates the story in first person, and it feels like the only reason is to give him a chance to try to justify keeping it secret that he witnessed a murder and now people keep trying to kill him and he killed one of them in self defense and stole his gun. The whole premise depends on us accepting that he doesn’t want to go to the cops for help or tell Paul because he doesn’t want to distract him from preparing for the hearing.
The filmatists made a choice to make Josh and Paul be very normal people, which was important for representation at that time, but it makes them a little bland. They’re nice and have a sweet relationship where they hug and laugh and go on a romantic getaway, they live in a boring, normal apartment, they wear generic (now dated) respectable people clothes. In a corny foreshadowing scene they shoot Nerf guns at each other and look like clumsy dorks doing it. (I feel like those guns are a little intense for a kid Nicki’s age, but oh well!) The scenes shot in apartments always look very home made, maybe because if they moved the camera around it would see things that didn’t make sense in the home of that character, I don’t know.
If it started with scenes like that I might’ve struggled to get through it, but I was already hooked by the opening, which feels much more legit. The movie is shot on 16 mm, has lots of great New York City exteriors, and a cool electronic score by a small time NYC industrial outfit called Fractured Cylinder. None of the actors went on to more than a few bit parts, but if you had told me the gangsters were experienced day players I would’ve believed it.
The most intriguing character, and the only one who gets a subplot, is the handsome, square-jawed gangster Vinny (Stewart Groves, later a production manager for some TV documentaries), who is keeping two things secret:
1) he’s an undercover cop
2) he’s gay
And he keeps brooding and flashing back to a past incident when his boyfriend was arguing with him at the restaurant in front of the gang, and he pretended not to know him, and then Victor shot and killed him for a laugh. I’m not sure I buy how casually they treat this spontaneous murder of somebody they think is just a random guy, and also it seems like a good enough motive for Vinny to turn on them without him having to be a cop. But I enjoyed the anticipation, and it has a pretty good payoff.
It takes a while to get there, but there are some highlights along the way. Josh comes up with a pretty great self defense move when his attacker forgets to turn the safety off: he lifts a mattress and uses it to bulldoze the guy out the window. And Paul gets home right then so Josh quickly makes the bed, shuts the window and puts the silenced pistol in his waistband. Maybe that should’ve been played for laughs.
When it gets to the climax it becomes pretty endearing because you can tell that like many of us in that era, these filmmakers were enamored with Hong Kong action and RESERVOIR DOGS and excited about trying it out for themselves. So there are lots of repeated shots of people pulling out their guns in slow motion before a standoff…
…there’s the one where you lean against the wall holding the gun up listening for the person on the other side (see also DESPERADO)…
and yes, of course Josh leaps sideways through the air holding two guns.
Or I guess more “onto the ground” than “in the air.” But he would’ve hurt himself if he jumped higher.
Back then it was kind of a cliche to call Woo movies “homo-erotic” because of their themes of brotherhood. Notably RAISING HEROES doesn’t play with that. There’s a brief bond between Josh and Vinny, but no tension there. The homo-erotic part is a happy, stable couple making out in a heart-shaped swimming pool.
A film student action movie made now is one thing. It’s gonna be shot on slick digital video and you’ll be able to tell they’re just holding fake guns and digitally adding muzzle flashes and blood splatters. You gotta do a really good job to make that exciting. But I have a soft spot for the old way, represented here, where they were shooting on film and their guns were firing caps or blanks or something and they had to mix up a bunch of fake blood and rig small explosives to launch it out the exit wounds. You can tell they made a whole lot of squibs and were sure as shit gonna use every last one of them. When Josh has Victor at his feet he could shoot him once in the head. Instead he shoots him over and over in the back with both guns, making him bounce up and down on the ground. I don’t know how satisfying this movie would feel if it didn’t turn into a bloodbath. Luckily I don’t have to know.
It ends with saccharine narration over a happy family photo, and when Josh says that all this taught him to never keep secrets from Paul it seems a little “no shit, buddy.” But then it goes back into the industrial score and the end credits are written partly in military stencil font, and all is forgiven.
Obviously I was curious about the background of a movie like this, so I was grateful for the DVD’s commentary with director/co-writer/editor Douglas Langway and… a producer or somebody. (I’m sure they said who it was, but I didn’t write it down, and it’s not on the box.) They say they started writing it in ’93 while still in film school. As you might guess, Langway (who later starred in the 2010 documentary BEAR NATION and made a comedy trilogy called BEAR CITY, released in 2010, 2012 and 2016) is both gay and a fan of action movies.
“I was looking to entertain, I really wasn’t going for a huge message here,” Langway explains. “I wanted to have something that, you know, a gay couple or gay people could just go and pop in – anybody could pop in – and have a good time with. Gay, straight, it didn’t matter, it was just something you could have a good time with.”
“Like a Seagal movie,” adds the other guy. “Like a Steven Seagal movie, you pop it in, it’s just entertainment. I don’t want to say mindless, because there are a lot of interesting things going on here.”
One example of an “interesting thing” is Langway’s professed philosophy of characterization: “I was trying to go for absolute stereotypes in everybody except the gay characters.”
The two talk about going to Chinatown in those days to watch John Woo and other Hong Kong movies and admit that RESERVOIR DOGS inspired the scenes of gangsters sitting around a table shooting the shit.
Langway also mentions TETSUO: THE IRON MAN as an influence on a dream sequence, though it’s a subtle one.
Of course they had no money, and counted on connections and favors. Langway’s apartment, sister, nephew, dad, and dad’s car all play parts in the movie. It’s kind of disturbing when the director explains how his sister was able to get her kid, who played Nicky, to cry on cue. Supposedly she prepared him for months by telling him a woman named Barbara was going to come and take him away from her. So when they introduce “Barbara” to him on camera he loses it.
“That’s terrorism,” says the other guy, and I agree.
Aside from its novelty as maybe the first gay action movie, RAISING HEROES has two other things to give it a place in the history of the genre. First of all, they apparently shot some scenes three blocks away from where DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE was shooting. So maybe it’s some kind of sidequel.
Second, and most important, it’s the first movie for cinematographer Stephen Schlueter, who was also working on John Hyams’ debut ONE DOG DAY at the same time. The two productions often borrowed each other’s equipment and crew, and Hyams loaned RAISING HEROES his dad’s dollies to use in the parking garage scene. Schlueter continued working with Hyams on THE SMASHING MACHINE, FIGHT DAY, RANK and DRAGON EYES.