There are a lot of film parodies, but not so many films that function as commentaries. Offhand, the best known example might be The Freshman, in which Marlon Brando both spoofs his Godfather persona and simultaneously creates a new, ironic character.
Road to Hell, the new film by Albert Pyun, is a commentary film, in a sense. Michael Pare plays Cody, a riff on Tom Cody, the character he played in Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire. There’s also a pair of characters named Ellen, the original of which was played by Diane Lane in the Hill film. And although the film stands on its own, its fannish shout-outs to the earlier film give it a special sort of resonance to fans.
Not that the films are that similar. Streets of Fire was a big-budget flop, a kind of music-video adventure set in a timeless city that was half 1950s, half 1980s. It celebrated innocence: guns were fired but no blood was spilled, punches and kisses were exchanged but no real damage was done by either. Jim Steinman contributed a couple of his trademark overwrought songs. I loved it, and still do, but I can also see why others wouldn’t: it requires a special mind-set to step into that world and accept its stylizations.
Road to Hell is like the hallucinations of someone with a fever who’d just watched Streets of Fire and perhaps read too many “true crime” novels. Working against a green screen, Pyun creates a surreal desert landscape in which this version of Cody collides with a spree killer (Clare Kramer, with great demented eyes) and her girlfriend (Courtney Peldon). The heart of the movie takes place in and around a broken-down jeep, where violence is ever-present among the three, although you can’t quite be sure how it will manifest. Cody is waiting for one Ellen, but it’s ultimately the other Ellen he finds.
The actors–it’s essentially a four-hander–are uniformly good. Kramer (a Buffy alum) is totally uninhibited, and Peldon is surprisingly subtle as her sort-of accomplice/girlfriend.
But the real surprises are the veteran Pare and the newcomer Roxy Gunn. Pare, whose career as a leading man never quite took off after his debut in Eddie and the Cruisers, shows every mile on his face as this alternate-universe Cody whose skills as a soldier and killer have become his whole life. I’ve always been a fan of Pare’s, one of those actors who does his best even when the whole film is against him, and here he’s subtle and affecting (as well as shockingly brutal). He shifts with ease from being iconic to pathetic and back.
Gunn, making her debut, is a real find. In a time when all young actresses tend to blur together into one generic face, she really stands out. An actual musician (that’s her singing, her band The Roxy Gunn Project performing, and she wrote some of the songs), she has a natural ease onscreen that makes every moment seem real. In a movie where the main landscape is faces, she has one that conveys everything her character is thinking and feeling.
So I enjoyed Road to Hell for what it is: a riff on a movie both I and the filmmakers clearly loved, filtered through Pyun’s own unique aesthetic (which you can experience in a purer form in his recent Bulletface). I’m glad Pare got a chance to really chew into a part, and Roxy Gunn’s debut is magical. Will the general public like it? I don’t know. But then, it’s not every movie that includes both disembowelings and rock concerts, severed heads and love ballads. If you enjoy this sort of mash-up, done irony-free and with its own agenda, you’ll probably dig it. I sure did.