Showdown at the Grand

SHOWDOWN AT THE GRAND is a little indie movie with a premise and setting that are right up my alley. It’s sort of like MATINEE for people fixated on the movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s instead of ’50s and ‘60s. To me it doesn’t really build much from there, but it uses two top shelf actors in novel ways, applies elbow grease to areas where I didn’t expect it to, and has an overall enthusiasm that makes it worth recommending.

Dolph Lundgren (JOHNNY MNEMONIC) is in this movie, and that’s obviously what brought my eye to it, but the star is Terrence Howard (HUSTLE & FLOW), who plays George Fuller, owner of an old time one screen theater called the Warner Grand. He’s a larger-than-life figure who dresses like a cowboy and lovingly lectures everyone he sees about the supposed greats of forgotten exploitation movie history, making it sound like a religious sermon. Showing movies is his life, and maybe his home – if he has a house or apartment outside of the Grand we never see it.

This takes place now, though, a time when running a huge one screen theater that only plays obscure old film prints is difficult. The shows seem lightly attended and when he ejects some ’80s movie-style punk rockers for being rowdy during MALIBU MASSACRE III he has to shoot at them with a crossbow from his lobby display of movie props.

There’s a way out, if he wants it. Big time developer Shrader (Elizabeth Righetti, FRIDAY THE 13TH remake) is buying out the whole neighborhood to build futuristic luxury housing. The theater is his passion, and his family legacy, so he says no, but he’s clearly having second thoughts when he talks to his friend Lucky (John Savage, DO THE RIGHT THING), owner of a nearby pawn shop and procurer of some of his screen-used collectibles. Lucky tells him no, we gotta do what makes us happy when we get up in the morning, and for you that’s running the Grand.

Lucky is the only other holdout, but then he gets attacked by underworld thugs hired by the company. The same guys who came nosing around the lobby of the Grand, making veiled threatening comments.

There’s one last hope for earning some money to save the theater. George somehow convinces one of his big screen heroes, the reclusive b-movie icon Claude Luc Hallyday (Lundgren), to fly in from isolation in Estonia to attend a marathon of his classics. One thing I like about the character of Hallyday is that he’s not some alternate history version of Dolph, doing Dolph-like movies. He’s more of a fringe international b-movie star. He’s most famous for a post-apocalyptic movie called NECROPOLIS, but he also fought Dracula and starred in MOSES VERSUS THE NAZIS, where he pulls a gun out from behind the Ten Commandments tablet he’s carrying around. We see bits and pieces of these and they’re mostly more plausible than the Moses one – just right monotone narration, lots of Australian accents, an impressively Albert-Pyun-esque tone and style.

The other thing is that he’s not an egomaniac or Hollywood primadonna, he’s a total wreck, unsure of himself and terrified of public appearances. So Dolph gets to have fun playing against type.

The stage is set, of course, for the titular showdown. During one of the movies, Hallyday tries out a pair of night vision goggles from George’s collection of movie props and sees a bunch of masked thugs (basically ninjas) sneaking in the back. He thinks it’s a fun gimmick but George tells him the truth and pretty soon they’re forced to use various swords and things from the collection to actually kill some guys. Hallyday has black belts but no history of violence. Nevertheless, he starts to get into it.

Filming in a real art deco movie palace brings lots of production value. It really is called the Warner Grand, it’s in San Pedro, and it’s also featured in BABYLON. (I haven’t been able to determine if it’s where he watches the infamous montage or not.) Despite the impressive location and cast this is very clearly a low budget, labor of love, call in every favor you can type of movie. As a result, the mayhem that’s sort of the point of the movie is only okay, nothing too spectacular. And I found myself struggling to push away that ol’ disbelief about the way this theater operates. He has a sold out event with a celebrity guest, and has people interested enough in the theater that he gives guided tours, but he’s the manager, programmer and projectionist, his new unpaid intern Spike (Piper Curda, THE WRETCHED) runs both the box office and concession stand, and there are no other employees. And when the sold out event happens we never see a full theater, a line outside, or anybody in the lobby.

But writer/director Orson Oblowitz (THE QUEEN OF HOLLYWOOD BLVD, TRESPASSERS) makes up for some of that with some clever touches. He does an especially good job of creating this fake history of movies, and having George’s reality sort of bleed into it. At one point he gets knocked unconscious and hallucinates himself in a Desert Storm movie called IRAQNOPHOBIA. At the end he’s (spoiler) bleeding out and sits in the theater watching the end of a spaghetti western where he and Hallyday say goodbye and he walks into the sunset. Spike sits there with him and doesn’t seem to think anything is weird about him being in the movie they’re watching. Movie-magical realism, or something. I love it.

After the showdown, George heads to real estate lady Shrader’s office, because they both know they now have to have a sword duel to the death. The funny thing is I noticed the sword displayed like an art piece in their first meeting, and that’s one of my favorite movie tropes is the display sword to establish that there’s gonna be a sword fight later, but I really didn’t guess that it was gonna be that kind of movie. I’m thankful that it is!

Of the two main goons (Jon Sklaroff [CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER] and Mike Ferguson [CLOWN MOTEL 2]), one doesn’t care about movies, the other tries to show off that he does. He thinks it’s funny to quote them while trying to kill George, but mostly chooses obvious ones like THE GODFATHER and APOCALYPSE NOW. Great movies, but you’re a lightweight at this, dude. (Okay, admittedly George quotes APOCALYPSE NOW too.)

There’s a credit for original music by Daniel De Lara (guitars, TRIPLE FRONTIER) but the music throughout – both in the fake movies-within-the-movie, and the scoring for the movie itself – is so authentically retro that I wasn’t surprised to see on the credits that yes, it’s mostly library music or cues taken from existing movies. Titles listed on the credits include “Action and Emotion 1,” “Japanese Technology” and “Gunfighter (Whip & Harmonica),” all courtesy of APM Music. It’s great stuff and really put the movie over for me. The only thing that doesn’t sound vintage is “World Gone Crazy,” the end credits song by Howard.

And that’s the other thing – the fact that they got Howard to do this. Sure, he’s in plenty of smaller movies, but he’s usually playing some crime boss villain or something. Not the main character, and not an eccentric movie theater mogul trying to make it cool to nerd out on everybody. If you haven’t heard, Howard has lived experience as a legit weirdo. I present to you now an actual quote from him talking to local news station KTLA on the red carpet of the 2019 Emmys:

“I’ve spent 37 years pretending to be people so that people can pretend to watch and enjoy what I’m doing when I’ve actually made some discoveries in my own personal life with science that Pythagoras was searching for. I was able to open up the flower of life properly and find the real wave conjugations that we’ve been looking for for 10,000 years. Why would I continue, you know, walking on water for tips when I’ve got an entire generation to teach a whole new world to? Let me put it this way. All energy in the universe is expressed in motion. All motion is expressed in waves. All waves are curved. So where do the straight lines come from to make the platonic solids? There are no straight lines. So, when I took the flower of life and opened it properly, I found all new wave conjugations that exposed the in-between spaces that’s — it’s the thing that holds us all together.”

So I’m just saying that when you have acting talent together with that kind of mania and you put it into an oddball character like this instead of a standard archetype, it’s pretty interesting. George is both a heart-on-his-sleeve idealist and a lunatic. I don’t know who else could’ve brought that specific energy to the role. Maybe Mickey Rourke, but he wouldn’t have the discipline to show up for a whole movie.

I had time to listen to a little bit of the director commentary on the DVD. Oblowitz says that the reason Spike name drops Tsai Ming-Ling in her job interview is that the premise is a riff on GOODBYE DRAGON INN. He’s clearly one of the L.A. film lover guys who goes to all the revival houses and seems to have pretty broad tastes. On a long list of “Filmmaker References” included on the end credits the first two names are Pyun and Godard. I also noticed “M Oblowitz” on there and yep, as I was wondering, Orson is the son of Michael Oblowitz, director of Seagal’s THE FOREIGNER and OUT FOR A KILL. His mom, Rosemary Hochschild, starred in his first movie and is seen in the scenes from NECROPOLIS (which he says is inspired by NEON CITY starring Michael Ironside, Vanity and Lyle Alzado).

I’m definitely more room temperature on this than hot. It’s not a must-see. But I think anyone who perks up at that premise, or who would at least briefly consider wielding a sword to defend an old movie theater, would get some smiles and chuckles out of it like I did.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 28th, 2024 at 10:41 am and is filed under Reviews, Action. 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.

8 Responses to “Showdown at the Grand”

  1. On a long list of “Filmmaker References” included on the end credits the first two names are Pyun and Godard.

    Say no more. I’m in.

    (Okay, you already had me at Dolph, even if, purely based on the character’s name, it sounds like it was written for JCVD.)

  2. I’m of the opinion that every subgenre deserves its own MATINEE, so, despite never really warming to Terrance Howard (his mania seems less like a charming quirk and more like a tragedy waiting to happen), I will try to check this out.

  3. You’re right, but I think “tragedy waiting to happen” works for a guy killing people to protect his theater. Having him be a little unsettling but presented as cute serves the material well I think.

  4. I’m not sure this review is really selling the movie to me, but yeah, Dolph. That said, GOODBYE DRAGON INN is kind of wonderful. If you can imagine the cinema fight scene in ATOMIC BLONDE playing out over 90 minutes, but instead of Charlize opening up a big can of 87North whup ass, we just get the cinema cleaning lady going about her business while the audience, some of whom are ghosts, slowly dwindling away, during a screening not of Tarkovsky’s STALKER, but King Hu’s DRAGON GATE INN – a movie I adore – that’s GOODBYE DRAGON INN. Your mileage may vary.

  5. This does sound like a pleasure. I had Howard’s album from a decade ago. A little corny, but not bad! A little spiritual woo-woo, as if you didn’t already know that about him. What an odd, delightful career he’s had.

  6. Since Dolph came out about his by now fairly long battle with cancer, I’ve appreciated him even more so (always did to begin with

    I mean, the guy is still making the best out of his career even if the movies he’s in aren’t very often films that are destined to be all that memorable (I love his performance in the otherwise terrible Shark Lake for instance).

    I love that’s he’s finally gotten to be a somewhat recurring fixture in ‘big’ movies. But this is a guy who hasn’t been dogging it despite having every good and understandable reason to do so.

    Whatta guy.

  7. Everyone considers the Coen brothers to be Hollywood royalty but I will NEVER forgive them for cutting Dolph Lundgren from HAIL CAESAR.

  8. Pretty much sums up the verdict that I came to on this one. Feel free to check out my podcast in which we discussed this one and AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM… :)


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