Straight to Hell

Alex Cox, 1987

A year after The Clash announced an indefinite hiatus, singer/guitarist Joe Strummer made an attempt to redefine his career, and cross over into the world of acting, starring in Alex Cox’s third feature length movie after the critically acclaimed Sid and Nancy. The film centres around three hit men, who, after an erroneous job, hold up a bank, then seek refuge in a small Mexican village, populated by coffee-addicted psychopaths. The film was a by product of a failed Nicaraguan concert tour, which after being cancelled left a multitude of musicians out of work for a short amount of time. In place of this, Cox assembled a hurried script, a disused location in Almería, Spain, with four weeks of shooting, the purpose being to cast the artists in a low-budget homage to his favourite genre; the Western.

In turn, Straight to Hell transpires to be a movie of two very different aspects, the first being the direction and cinematography, which, in keeping with Cox’s previous work such as Repo Man, is highly idiosyncratic, reflecting the ethos and influence of the late 70's/early 80's punk movement. Cox merges this with further influence from directors such as Luis Buñuel, Akira Kurosawa, and most notably Sergio Leone; in fact, in one scene there is a clear homage to Once Upon a Time in the West, as a wheezing harmonica plays during a standoff, echoing Ennio Morricone's haunting score. The second aspect of the movie is what proves to be its downfall, as Cox’s use of non-actors and poor scripting override any degree of positivity the movie might have. This really is a case of style over substance, and Cox’s off-beat direction, is let down by terrible dialogue and irritating characters, one example of which being Courtney Love's character ‘Velma’, a heavily pregnant, underage love-interest of Sy Richardson's ‘Norwood’, who screeches her way through the script, mimicking Cloe Webb's character in Sid and Nancy. Her performance is excruciating to watch, think ‘DJ Ruby Rhod’ in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. However Richardson’s performance as Norwood is the exception of the piece, as his righteous persona and sharp style brings to mind Samuel L. Jackson's role as ‘Jules Winnfield’ in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, predating it by seven years.

Straight to Hell could be labelled a surrealist or absurdist comedy, constantly using non-sequiturs, with statements and events having no relation to previous ones, which gives the movie an unpredictable quality, for example, in one scene, Sy Richardson’s character dons a pink shower cap in the build up to a duel, for no apparent reason. Other humorous aspects of the movie appear in bad taste, almost becoming dark and sadistic in their use, such as the abuse and eventual death of a young hot dog vendor, and the shooting of his dog earlier in the film. Whereas in other directors hands, this use of ludicrous and bizarre humour could be used to their advantage (for example Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) Cox’s twist of preconceptions comes across as unoriginal and non-intelligent. 

The movie itself seems to exist purely on the basis to exploit the audience, capitalizing on the cult devotees that follow the artists in the film, such as Elvis Costello, The Pogues and even Strummer himself being the main attraction, the title of the movie being named after his 1982 single, from the album Combat Rock. Beyond the amateur performances weighing Straight To Hell down, there is a decent movie trying to get out. Cox obviously has a good artistic scope, and a range of respectable influence, borrowing styles from the likes of John Ford, shooting on location, and using wide shots of desolate terrain, composing asymmetrical frames and using the depth of field to his advantage, with the placement of characters and objects contributing to the impression of the depth. His mix of striking and ludicrous imagery is strangely reminiscent of the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, such as El Topo or The Holy Mountain.

Alex Cox released his next movie Walker in December 1987. The film was a commercial failure, ending all involvements with Hollywood Studios, and effectively blacklisting him. With no work left for him in feature films, Cox next found work 5 years later with Mexican crime-drama EL Patrullero. In 1996, Cox was employed by producer Stephen Nemeth to write and direct an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his first creditable project in over nine years, but after creative disputes with not only Nemeth but Thompson himself, he was kicked out of production (the film later being taken over by Terry Gilliam). Cox self proclaims himself to be a ‘cult director’ and a ‘radical filmmaker’, in fact the only true cult movie he has produced is Repo Man, which is retains popularity with film lovers because of its originality and ability to distance itself from standard conventions, unlike Straight to Hell, who’s cult appeal appears preconceived, as to appeal to fans of the musicians involved.

The Clash sang in 1980 “Death or glory, becomes just another story”. While there is death and bullets, Straight to Hell lacks any glory, and is easily forgotten in the pantheon of great Westerns, such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and The Wild Bunch.
words by danny walker.