After the absolute letdown that was last week’s 11 Blocks, I was all but ready to give up on the Independent Action-Adventure genre (Netflix Code 11814). Both of the films I subjected myself to in this sub-category, in addition to all of the problems I listed, were completely devoid of any sort of fun. 11 Blocks, in particular, was so bleak that it really became a chore to finish. I had selected one more film for myself: Ravi Dhar’s “American Muscle.” I chose this film in particular because of how many people on the IMDB User Reviews section indicated that it was a “Grindhouse” film, for better or worse. Which was it, ultimately? Read on, friend, as I delve once more into the “rest” of Netflix.
The film starts out decently enough. We’ve got a slow shot of a car pulling up, adorned with a pentagram and filled with passengers doing their best Cradle of Filth impression. These are some spooky looking characters on par with the wasted potential of the HORROR GANGS from 11 Blocks. This scene is a flashback, and–unlike the previous films–the flashbacks here work, for the most part. What happens when these four troublemakers exit their Satan-mobile unfolds over the course of the film, but we can infer that ultimately, things do not go well. You see, the driver of this chariot of death wound up in prison for ten years. His name is Falcon.
Look at this dude! That is one tough-looking soul patch and handlebar combo. The filmmaker found himself a naturally intimidating main character, as opposed to Weeknd-ripoff “Concrete,” from the previous film. The script wisely gave him very little dialogue, and perhaps even that was too much, but overall this is the type of person I WANT to see heading up a ‘grindhouse’ film. Before he leaves prison, he finds a fellow inmate and reminds him that he is owed a small amount of money. The inmate asks for a pardon, reminding Falcon that his demand puts his freedom at risk. “You owe,” growls Falcon almost convincingly, “You pay.” The inmate pays, and we are introduced to Falcon’s mantra and ultimate motivation throughout the film. The characters from the flashback all wronged him in some way, and he is out to make them pay. He also wants his wife back.
Oh. Did I forget to mention he was married? It’s cool. Despite it being the driving force behind his rampage, Falcon doesn’t seem too preoccupied with the pesky finer points of matrimony, either. Here we find him hitching a ride with a good samaritan when she offers this proposal:
He does. And they do.
As all of this is occurring, we start to get a sense of the man Falcon is, through his aforementioned flashbacks. He has a brother named Sam and a wife named Darling. Sam likes being a bad guy, Darling likes being high, and Falcon likes being the noble soul caught in between them. In order to set himself and Darling up with a peaceful life, Falcon agrees to work with Sam on one last heist. They will be robbing a “typical Hollywood type” of his drugs and money. This particular Hollywood type is introduced in a scene where he demands one stripper suck the amputated arm of another stripper:
Eventually, this deal goes horribly wrong, as is a deal’s wont in films such as these. Sam starts to get greedy during the heist, asking the nub-lover for more drugs, more money. This conflict becomes tense and many are shot, including our hero who is promptly arrested and blamed (and only serves ten years for a multiple homicide, somehow). Falcon has spent a decade in prison thinking about how his brother’s greed cost him a future with his wife, and he’s out for vengeance, and to retrieve his wife and give them both the life he had promised.
Just like in 11 Blocks, all of this works. It’s a simple premise, a great excuse for Falcon to rough up some bad guys, and unlike 11 Blocks, all of this is presented with a degree of fun that makes the film move along at a surprisingly nice clip. One of the first differences that I noticed, when comparing this with the two previous films I reviewed, was that Falcon actually throws punches like a brawler, rather than a Kung-Fu expert. After the overabundance of Asian-influenced choreography in the other two films, it was refreshing to see Falcon throwing his whole body into a punch, instead of relying on a variety of flips and spin kicks.
I was also impressed with the brutality of the fight scenes themselves. Falcon would often end a brawl abruptly by simply pulling out a gun that he had on his person the whole time and shooting his offender in the face. This happens twice over the course of the film, and in addition to being a nice little homage to the “Harrison Ford had the shits” scene from Raiders, gave the fights a bit of levity and kept things from getting too dragged out. My personal favorite fight scene in the entire film goes the extra mile and ends with an actual punchline, causing genuine laughter:
Falcon, after being stabbed in an altercation a few minutes prior, stops at a motel to tend to himself and have a few more flashbacks about his wife. The woman operating the motel is attractive, so naturally she stops by with a sewing kit and offers of sex. As they are deep in the throes of doggystyle coitus, she pauses and asks our hero if he would care to try a different position. “No,” he intones seriously,
Due to Beyonce’s “Lemonade” having not been released at the time this film was made (or at the time I first viewed it), the motel worker respected his decision (and so did I). Once they had both completed their tender bout of lovemaking, the motel worker excuses herself to the bathroom for a bit of UTI-Avoidance, and Falcon finds himself dealing with an unexpected visitor in the form of a gentleman sent by his brother to kill him. This is a nice close-quarters combat scene, and Falcon and his assailant give it their all impressively. The whole affair ends with Falcon stabbing the uninvited guest in the face with a knife, and the film doesn’t shy away the money shot.
Meanwhile, as all of this is occurring, Falcon’s recent paramour is in the bathroom, trying to think of what she can do to assist her gentleman caller. She finally decides that the toilet lid will make a fine weapon, and exits the bathroom valiantly, holding the lid aloft, ready to do battle. When she finally arrives on the scene, she finds the attacker already dead. Apparently used to this sort of behavior (and itching for a bit of the action) she lets out an audible sigh of disappointment. I would like to also point out the attacker’s shirt and ask that you briefly pause to envision him buying that in a store somewhere. “Yeah, man, this shirt is just so me, you know?” Goodnight, Sweet Prince.
This is amusing enough as it is, but when the motel worker very naturally asks what has just transpired, here is Falcon’s answer:
And her retort?
This was great! What a nice little self-contained scene. It was filled to the brim with action and genuine humor. It referenced Falcon’s ultimate goals, made (somewhat dubious) reference to his wife as the driving force behind it, showed off his fighting prowess, and capped things off with a bit of a chuckle.
That isn’t an isolated moment in the film, either. It’s chock full of delightful little asides and details that serve to elevate the film past the dour flimsy plotlines of films like Guardian and 11 Blocks. There is the strip club that Falcon frequents, named THE THREE HOLES, where a waitress informs him of their rather economically-priced breakfast special, and a patron farts and snorts his way through a pointless and juvenile (but none the less amusing) bathroom encounter with our protagonist.
Even better were the little details I found in our first real encounter with the film’s antagonist, Sam. We find him holed up in his mansion surrounded by his underlings, with guards marching out front in ridiculous garb. While barking orders at his subordinates, he also makes this very specific request to his second in command:
An arch-villain with a weakness for hard candy! I found this singular tidbit delightful, but the scene really goes above and beyond the call of duty once we take a moment to enjoy the set design on display, here. THIS IS A VILLAINS HIDEOUT. Look at that fucking mise-en-scene, folks! We’ve got samurai swords! Pop Art paintings of shotguns and uzis! A confederate flag where the stars are replaced by weapons! Picture Sam decorating his mansion and try not to grin. “I don’t want TOO many shotgun paintings, you know? I want the room to breathe, guys.” There is also a mounted bear’s head, but its out of frame. This set was just too goddamn perfect to be captured in one frame.
The film’s location scouts should also be praised, for their use of something that is referred to as a “metal graveyard,” during another gun battle. I endured far, far too many abandoned warehouse and abandoned park fight scenes in the first two films, that this was so unbelievably refreshing and interesting to look at. This gun battle wasn’t without its use of humor either, as a wheelchair-bound bystander, upon observing the fracas, gets up from his chair and exclaims the following before dashing off into the sunset:
Look at all that weird shit all over the place, too! It’s these little touches that were added, complete with the humor, that rose the film above its predecessors. While the gunplay and fighting that were on display weren’t as technically adept as some of the film’s peers, they were competent, and brief enough to pack a wallop without feeling like they had worn out their welcome. The humor, as well, was very hit-or-miss and often extremely juvenile, but I appreciated it’s inclusion as another means to keep the story chugging along at a pace that hindered my boredom. The writer of the film was clearly in on this joke as well, having written himself into the film as a mute assassin whom we first meet having a threeway with Falcon’s wife and a woman named “Sassy.”
But wait…Carl…is this movie actually good?
You know, I was damn ready to say exactly that. As a matter of fact, once I had reached the halfway point of the film, I had informed fellow writer Graves that it was entirely possible that my Netflix scrounging might have unearthed an enjoyable hidden gem. I believe my exact words to him were something along the lines of, “Well, unless this film totally fucks up its second half, I’m ready to give it a thumbs up!”
One of the final scenes of the film is a flashback to Falcon and his brother Sam sitting by the side of the road considering wind turbines. “Look at them,” John intones to his brother. “They’re all moving, except one.”
Sort of like the momentum of the film and my subsequent enjoyment of it. According to Quora, certain wind turbines are typically powered off automatically to indicate that they need maintenance. The same could be said of the final 45 minutes of the film.
Things grind to a halt, near the end. It was like the writer ran out of humor, the director ran out of interesting locations, and everyone decided halfway through that this was going to be a VERY SERIOUS FILM moving forward. The flashbacks stop giving us new information, and instead we’re treated to far too many shots of Darling admiring horses on a farm, dancing, or engaged in sexual intercourse with her husband. Present-day Darling isn’t fairing too much better, either.
She was my last hope for the film, to be honest. The film did a halfway decent job of introducing a bit of uncertainty around what was going to happen when Falcon finally came to rescue her. Throughout the course of the film, she insists many times that she enjoys narcotics, and, as much as Falcon is used to getting his way, I couldn’t see him forcing her to get clean. What if she wasn’t fully ready to be rescued? She spends a good portion of the final half of the film holed off in a tent in Sam’s mansion, and we are treated to a rather uncomfortable scene where Sam forces her to take some pills against her will. Sam is a far better character when he is munching on hard candy than when he is interacting with Darling.
Even as I trudged through the serious boredom of the second half, I wondered if Darling’s wavering over her own sobriety would provide an interesting ending and redeem things a bit. The film, unfortunately, had other ideas about how to tackle things. Here’s where everything nosedives.
When Falcon finally arrives at his brother’s mansion and prepares for a showdown with him, his brother grins evilly and informs him that he doesn’t quite know the whole story of the ill-fated heist that landed him in prison. The real reason he got shot?
Darling was the one who shot him. She arrives at the showdown in present day as well, with a gun pointed at her husband. She informs him that she never loved him, she had also been fucking his brother, and she likes doing drugs and doesn’t want to stop. Why, then, was she refusing the pills in an earlier scene? No matter. The real question is: What is Falcon going to do with this information?
Within seconds of hearing this information, Falcon has decided to shoot his wife in the face. That did it for me, folks. That single second ruined the film. First, it is a complete disregard of the pill-forcing scene we witnessed moments earlier. Why was Darling even bothering to stay sober if she was just going to surprise her husband with all of this information. Next, it disregards Falcon’s whole motivation throughout the film. Despite the fact that his wife is not the woman he had imagined her to be, I would have hoped for at least some interaction between them prior to the gunshot. Instead, in that split second, he just sort of shrugs and pulls the trigger. Finally, why bother caring about the rest of the film at this point? Sam, who up until now had been pegged as the Arch Villain, is still alive, and still “needs to pay,” by Falcon’s standards. However, he was not the mastermind behind his prison escapades, and his death holds no great emotional weight, so why should we care what happens to him? It’s a shame, too, because Falcon beheads him and puts his head in an oven.
This would have been really cool if the film hadn’t decided to have our protagonist shoot his wife moments earlier. Instead, I was left with no reason to care about this scene, or anything that came after it.
But Carl, this was a pretty fucked up movie, can you honestly expect it to have a happy ending? C’mon.
You’re totally right. This film shouldn’t have a happy ending. Luckily for you, I’ve figured out exactly what they would have needed to do to fix things.
What if, instead of that awful twist about Darling and the heist, Falcon and his brother simply had their showdown as intended (complete with all its head choppin’ gore). Meanwhile Darling, hiding in her tent in the other room, gets to thinking about what being with Falcon really means. She likes drugs, sure, but she’s willing to give that up for her husband. She stares sadly at the bottle of pills next to her in the tent and decides to indulge just one last time before going clean. When Falcon finally defeats his brother and comes to rescue her, she sadly has overdosed, and he is left cradling her in his arms, thinking back to happier times.
It would have kept the moral ambiguity of Darling intact without resorting to her being a “backstabbing slut” (Sam’s words, not mine), and the film would have had a dark ending befitting of the genre. Instead, his actions towards his wife only made me feel increasingly uncomfortable about his actions towards women throughout the course of the film. There is one last attempt at a flashy fight scene in the film, prior to all of this going down, but it features Falcon squaring off against the aforementioned Sassy, and ends with him ripping her tongue out. After everything was said and done, I decided not to show it off. Just felt gross. The film ends with Falcon walking off into the California dessert so that he can WHO FUCKING CARES.
Fans of this movie, should they exist, will no doubt excuse the ending and the gratuitous violence towards women as a product of the ‘grindhouse’ genre. This film seems to have its roots planted firmly in the ‘vigilante’ sub-genre, most prominent in the 1970’s. In particular, “American Muscle,” shares many thematic similarities with the sub-genre’s pioneer film, “Joe.” “Joe,” (featuring Susan Sarandon’s debut performance) centers around a man who loses his daughter to drugs and goes on a hippie murdering rampage, eventually unwittingly killing her. Much like the protagonist of “Joe”, our hero Falcon has lost his girlfriend to drugs, goes on a murderous rampage, and kills her. A careful observer of the film, should one exist, will note that the film takes place in the Yucca Valley of California, which a quick google searched revealed has had its share of meth problems. Could “American Muscle” be making a morally grey point regarding the destructive nature of drug culture? Were there clear similarities between both leads killing someone they loved? “Joe,” earned screenwriter Norman Wexler an Academy Award nomination, while screenwriter John Fallon…well…he has that one website people really seem to like?
The Bottom Line: I suppose, at the end of the day, “American Muscle” is a sort of grindhouse film. It’s just not a very good one. Much like the studios of the 60’s and 70’s were continuously grinding out pictures to fill the Drive-in theaters, Netflix as a distributor has continued to grind out awful films to pad its ranks. All three of the films I reviewed will disappear into the ether in the coming months, to be replaced by more dregs. “Joe,” while thematically similar, had a bit more to say regarding its subject matter (a shockingly identical case was reported in Michigan around the same time), and “American Muscle,” drifted too often between wacky and darkly serious to be the kind of thing I can look back on fondly. It wasn’t nearly as terrible as the other two films, but it left me feeling ashamed of the parts I had actually enjoyed.
Recalling that its writer wrote himself into a three-way sex scene:
I award this film Three Holes out of a potential Six Holes.
NEXT TIME ON THE “REST” OF NETFLIX
Well, we’ve had a fun ride with Independent Action-Adventure films, haven’t we? With “American Muscle” behind me, I feel as though its time to say farewell to the genre and turn my head towards the bright future and infinite potential that Netflix has in store for me. Fellow writer Graves, lover of Horror films that he is, requested that I focus on his favorite genre for my next series of films. Netflix has an almost intimidating number of titles to choose from, so luckily he was able to curate several films for me.
I was confident that, given his expertise, he would choose films of a higher caliber than those I had found in the Independent Action-Adventure Genre.
…The first film is entitled Little Dead Rotting Hood.