Alex Cox’s punk western Straight to Hell, long out of print on home video, has been dug up from the dregs of oblivion by Kino Lorber and handsomely given a long-overdue director’s cut Blu-ray treatment. This is less the preservation of a cult classic than of a significant artifact of 1980s indie cinema. The film, which suggests an obscure B-side from a fascinating filmmaker who was probably a recalcitrant iconoclast to his detriment. Cox’s Repo Man and Sid & Nancy are now recognized by many as classics of the period—as punk in their approach as in their subject matter. Yet Straight to Hell replies to the raves of those films in the same way Sid Vicious did to dignified applause in Julian Temple’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, taking out a revolver and firing into a bourgeois audience.
Straight to Hell is Cox’s most punk endeavor, the film equivalent of a drunk raising a middle finger to the Man and rambling about revolution in between rounds of malt liquor. A musical homage to spaghetti westerns with intermittent convulsions of sadistic vitriol for the moneyed apparatus ensuring its production and exhibition, the film is For a Few Dollars More by way of Salò, with the finesse of neither. Still, there’s something to admire in its unruly spirit, demonstrating as it does Cox’s courage of conviction.
It’s not surprising that the film was misbegotten from the beginning. The disc commentary by Cox and co-star/co-writer Dick Rude tells the story. Following Sid & Nancy, Cox and producer Eric Fellner planned a musical benefit in Nicaragua supporting the Sandanistas. Joe Strummer, the Pogues, Elvis Costello, and the Circle Jerks had signed up for a month-long tour, but no company would fund it. With a lineup of musicians booked, Fellner procured the money for a low-budget film instead, with Cox and Rude writing the script in a matter of days, and launching production in Almeria, Spain, where several iconic spaghetti westerns were filmed. The result, peopled by Cox’s stock company of actors from his other films (Miguel Sandoval, Sy Richardson, Courtney Love, Fox Harris, and so on), is a benefit concert where everyone’s too fucked up or tired to know where they are or why they’re there.
Straight to Hell‘s plot is loosely and hastily held together, keeping the stakes low despite the western’s emphasis on mortality. Three drunken hitmen—Norwood (Richardson), Simms (Strummer), and Willy (Rude)—can’t stop fucking up. On the bender, they sleep through their target’s hotel checkout. With Norwood’s pregnant and obnoxious girlfriend, Velma (Love), in tow, they flee the hotel and sloppily rob a bank, with half of thier take flying out of the getaway car. To evade the wrath of their employer, Mr. Dade (Jim Jarmusch), they take sanctuary in a foreboding desert town mainly populated by a family of coffee addicts. Hilarity, or a garbled variation of it, ensues.
As the three hitmen take on the archetypal roles of mysterious gunfighters in a hostile western town, Straight to Hell becomes a somewhat episodic gallery of grotesques, and it’s fun to see Cox’s cast chew things up: Costello is a hoot as an anachronistic Jeevesy butler; Kathy Burke deadpans as a schizophrenic caretaker; Zander Schloss (playing a variation of his Repo Man convenience store geek) is a superfluously abused hot dog salesman; Sandoval almost walks away with the whole film as a cuckolded shopkeeper who’s long repressed his gung-ho militaristic impulses. Even Dennis Hopper and Grace Jones show up, functioning as a last-minute deux ex machina to help the heroes, dropping off a suitcase of assault weapons.
For years, the only way to see the film was in a full-screen version that, according to Cox’s commentary, wasn’t even panned and scanned, not only muffling cinematographer Donald McAlpine’s widescreen nods to Sergio Leone, but destroying any rhythm to Cox’s clever visual gags (at one point, a pair of gunslingers stray from a town-wide shootout and the camera catches them in a composition you’d expect to find on a billboard as the men take sips of coffee before being blown away by crossfire). The new disc also lets Cox’s cuckoo soundtrack of Foleyed effects to breath more fully, adding to the raucous proceedings, as the film embraces a fuck-all juvenile cartoonishness that flies in the face of the adulated respectability of Sid & Nancy.
The madness goes on a little too long, and after a while the humor comes to feel strained. Cox’s huge cast suggests a talented band that hasn’t bothered to rehearse or even tune its instruments. The plentiful gags fly like riffs, but Straight to Hell resists harmony, which, granted, may be the punk-rock point. Repo Man and Sid & Nancy had characters and peak moments a viewer could latch onto; both films are anchored by the eyes of cinematographers Robby Müller and Roger Deakins, respectively. Other than a kooky “Last Supper” scene sporting a preternaturally graceful rendition of “Danny Boy” by the Pogues’s Cait O’Riordan, Straight to Hell dwells only in chaos.
Which isn’t to say that Cox is rudderless. He knows his stuff, having written his thesis on the intersectionality of spaghetti westerns and Jacobin theater. Which is to say that the film is a film-as-thesis, and in service of flipping off the sociopolitical system in which he works. Repo Man and Sid & Nancy concluded with their heroes on spectacular journeys, one in a flying car and the other in a taxi headed to the afterlife. Conversely, in Straight to Hell, the car breaks down before it can exit the frame. Cox won’t ride into the sunset and release us. Revolt and release yourselves you coddled twits, Cox seems to say, because he’s not playing that game anymore.
Straight to Hell is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.