by Jack Sommersby
Phillips gives a bravura comic performance in this weakly plotted, unremarkably directed film.After seeing Lou Diamond Phillips in his first starring role as real-life singer Ritchie Valens in 1987's La Bamba, I knew this handsome young actor would have a more lucrative career in the supporting rather than starring ranks. He was photogenic, no doubt; but his charisma, his wattage as a star, was decidedly lacking. Some people are blessed with star presence, and the talented actors who aren't are simply destined as character actors. So when Phillips continued with starring roles thereafter (Dakota; The First Power), he was vapid and weak, whereas in supporting ones (A Show of Force; Courage Under Fire), he was vivid and forceful. Still, something potentially great within Phillips just wasn't being tapped by the right director, or Phillips just hadn't encountered the appropriate role as of yet. You couldn't help but sense there was another dimension to him practically begging to get out, something extremely volatile. That something: comedy -- which the action film Lone Hero gloriously showcases.
"Medicore Stuff, yet Lou Diamond Phillips is Dynamic."
Phillips plays Bart, a psychopathic biker who pretty much takes whatever he wants and kills whoever he wants -- just so long as the coin he flips before a kill comes up heads. At the beginning, a patrolman has the unfortunate luck of stumbling upon Bart and his gang's hideout; after he's killed, Bart swoops up the man's badge and adds it to the collection of others on his belt. Not only is Bart innately violent, but he's so cocky and sure of himself he makes for a most appealing megalomaniac: he wears his ego on both sleeves yet with the self-awareness to humorously mock himself. And Phillips plays him to the max. Without ever indulging in buggo eye-rolling shenanigans, he's lithe and darting and incredibly alert, convincing you there's nothing Bart doesn't notice or pick up on within any given situation. Remarkably, as outlandish as his antics are, the character never comes off as either baffoon or cartoon, due in large part to Phillips combining imagination and technique to unify Bart's eccentricities into a believable, cohesive whole.
Phillips' bravado is Lone Hero's biggest asset, even though the far-from-great scripting and directing don't hurt matters as much as expected. This is the kind of undemanding film that actually plays out better as it progresses, and not because it increases in quality but due to our gradual acceptance of its being so harmlessly unremarkable. It makes for a perfectly suitable entertainment when, for instance, one is stuck in a motel sans dvd player, as I was when I viewed this. (If the film served no other purpose, it at least provided a passable segue into Dennis Miller Live.) Basically, it's hasn't much of a story, aside from Bart & Co. terrorizing a small town until one of its citizens, John (The Boondock Saints' Sean Patrick Flanery), a playacting gunfighter in the local Wild West show, courageously takes a stand against them, which paves the way for an inevitable showdown between Bart and himself.
Actually, John and Bart have quite a few confrontations throughout, but each time John hesitates in taking him out, opening up a split second of opportunity that allows Bart's allies to arrive in untimely fashion. This kind of thing would normally grow tiresome, yet the key to the film's ultimate (though slight) success is that it doesn't rest on its laurels in wait for the final confrontation to arrive. Not only are there the quiet, affecting moments with John and his closest friend, the reclusive Gus (the magnificent Robert Forster of Jackie Brown fame), but the telling ones between John and Bart, who, instead of heatedly carrying on, soon establish an easygoing rapport. Bart's an expert at picking up on human weaknesses, and he immediately fastens upon John's: he's capable of so much more but scared to venture out of town and explore the possibilities. (His ex-girlfriend summed him up earlier as being "allergic to opportunity").
The way he's been presented, John's a well-meaning doofus when he thinks yet a stalwart hero when he instinctively acts. When Gus tutors him on the finer points of shooting, John misses while concentrating yet hits a succession of bulls-eyes when just winging it. So it's perfectly feasible that after Bart robs a bar and assaults poor Smokey the owner, John draws down on him while on the street the next morning with a gun full of blanks. Bart threatens not only him, but his family and friends and anyone else he's affiliated with, yet John doesn't back down and awaits the local law. As steadfast and sturdy as John can be, though, he still tends to overthink a situation, and it begins to cost him dearly. That's where Bart comes in -- as some some sort of surrogate wise older brother who teaches John the better points of survival, even while teasing him with the nickname "Opie".
(At times, Lone Hero plays out like a less-menacing version of 1986's unsettling The Hitcher, where psycho Rutger Hauer "made a man" out of wide-eyed teen C. Thomas Howell by exposing him to and framing him for a series of horrifying murders, which eventually ended in the 'pupil' blowing his 'tutor' away.)
Aside from its blatant machismo underpinnings, the film also addresses the issue of civic responsibility. Even if threatened, is it not every American's duty to stand up to adversity, to look out not just for own's own but others as well, even if that means suffering potential harm, as we'd hope they'd do for us in turn? If one witnesses a crime, is it not just on a legal but moral plateau that we should stand on in reporting and testifying to it? You'd think John's close-knit fellow citizens would come stepping up to the plate when needed, but virtually all of them start disappearing into the woodwork when needed and come out bellyaching when the face of adversity starts staring down on them later on.
In Clint Eastwood's classic Western High Plains Drifter, the townfolk trained and were armed to the teeth by the time three vengeance-seeking thugs arrived, but they soon turned to pieces and it was up to Eastwood's Stranger to save the day. But the difference is that the townfolk in Drifter were corrupt and arranged for their sheriff's murder at the hands of those thugs, so their winding up on the receiving end of their wrath added some moral weight to the mix. In Lone Hero, the townfolk are merely made out to be irrefutable cowards but decent-hearted ones, at that, and it's this clear-cut take that softens the issue.
The writer/director, Ken Sanzel, isn't exactly graced with a stupendous camera eye or much in the way of staggering artistic vision, but considering the shallow depth of artistic terrain Lone Hero finds itself in, his work is a wee bit more than adequate. Lots of good stunts are on display, with each one aptly framed and juxtaposed smoothly with non-action scenes, which are given just as much individual weight as their noisy counterparts. If the narrative rhythm seems to go sluggish at about the mid-section, that's because the story starts to repeat itself due to Sanzel's skimpy premise and half-realized ideas. But the percentage of twists and turns is decent, as they were in Sanzel's only big-screen foray, 1998's slight but enjoyable The Replacement Killers. Here is a guy who may never be able to write something outside a specific low-budget genre but at least is capable of adding some occasional oomph! to tired stories. (If not an original artist, he can at least lay claim as an able recycler.)
Lone Hero isn't anything more than it could ever be. With the genuine lack of vision and panache, it's strictly face-value stuff that'll likely never completely entice nor repulse a viewer. Still, achieving little yet sidestepping outright embarrassment isn't the worst line to walk in the Hollywood circle. But make no mistake: while Ken Sanzel's work is functional, it's Lou Diamond Phillips who gives the film its staying power. (Sean Patrick Flanery is basically fine as John yet comes off as a poor-man's Owen Wilson.) Whether making naughty use of guns or blunt objects, slyly tweaking a bartender's nerves by inquiring just how safe his establishment actually is from robbery, or taunting his arch-enemy with the paternal tone of a wise father ("Good for you, John. All this time I didn't think you were listening."), Phillips seems to be having the time of his life as retribution for having wasted more than the better half of his career in a dire quest to be an earnest leading man when his calling all along was as a supporting-rank cut-up.Nothing bad, but nothing particularly noteworthy.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=6533&reviewer=327
originally posted: 01/08/03 03:54:48