Saturday, April 07, 2007

John Flynn, R.I.P.

I'll try to post a review of GRINDHOUSE this weekend (short version: I loved it), but I learned on MySpace this morning that director John Flynn had passed away. Both halves of that sentence are related, in that Flynn's fantastic film ROLLING THUNDER is one of Quentin Tarantino's biggest influences, so much so that he named his shortlived theatrical distribution company Rolling Thunder Films.

Flynn is an important figure in '70s cinema because of two films. In addition to ROLLING THUNDER, he also made THE OUTFIT, a tough crime drama based on a Donald E. Westlake novel. It’s a lean, gritty action thriller jammed with punchy dialogue, quick violence and a smart sense of humor. Robert Duvall (coming off THE GODFATHER) and Joe Don Baker (who made WALKING TALL the same year) are a well-honed team that reminds you of a time when tough guys could make a stronger statement with a .38 than today’s wannabes can with an army of Glock automatics.

Duvall is Earl Macklin, a bank robber just released from prison, who discovers that his brother—and partner in the robbery—has been murdered by gunsels working for mobster Mailer (the great film star Robert Ryan). The Macklins didn’t realize that the bank was full of Syndicate money. When Mailer’s subsequent hit on Earl fails, the robber picks up Cody (Baker), the third partner in the heist, and decides to go on offense, knocking off a series of Mob money drops until Mailer pays a hefty ransom. From there, THE OUTFIT is a series of ass-kickings and terse dialogue, and you can see a lot of Flynn's style in PULP FICTION, for instance.

For some reason I can't figure, THE OUTFIT is not available on DVD. I've seen it only on Turner Classic Movies, and even there, it's one of the few films TCM runs from that era that isn't letterboxed. Talk about getting no respect. But THE OUTFIT earns it, no question.

Even better than THE OUTFIT is Flynn's masterpiece, ROLLING THUNDER. It was originally scripted by TAXI DRIVER's Paul Schrader, as is obvious, particularly the ending, which is a ripoff of the Scorsese film. It doesn't matter--by that point, you're so caught up in the character's emotional drive and in Flynn's tight shooting style that the climactic bloodbath feels justified and real.

It stars William Devane (later a TV star on KNOTS LANDING) as a former 'Nam POW who returns to San Antonio after seven years in a prison camp and finds he's not easily able to readjust to life at home, particularly because his son doesn't know him at all, and his wife has fallen in love with another man. Some mean dudes, including James Best (THE DUKES OF HAZZARD's Sheriff Rosco) and Luke Askew, bust in on Devane and torture him for the 2000 silver dollars given to him as a gift upon his return. He doesn't tell them, even after losing his hand in the garbage disposal, but they find the money anyway and then murder his wife and son. Recovering in the hospital with a new hook for a hand, Devane hooks up with a white-trash barmaid (Linda Haynes) and a fellow POW (Tommy Lee Jones) and heads to Mexico looking for bloody revenge.

I can't believe I have to say this, but...even though it's a brilliant film with great performances and action sequences, and even though Tarantino would publicize the release like a madman, ROLLING THUNDER is...yep...not on DVD. I have seen a crisp widescreen print airing on the Showtime networks, so MGM has the elements for a nice-looking DVD. If they would just get off their asses.

ROLLING THUNDER and THE OUTFIT aren't Flynn's only good action movies, but they are his best. Another recommendation is OUT FOR JUSTICE, a wildly violent B-picture starring Steven Seagal back when he was still quite relevant. He's an Italian cop chasing psycho crackhead William Forsythe all over Brooklyn. Flynn stages some fast, bloody action scenes, and Seagal is good. Like Flynn's '70s movies, he arranges a wonderful supporting cast for this one, including Jerry Orbach (pre-LAW & ORDER), Gina Gershon, John Leguizamo and Julianna Margulies (ER).

I haven't seen them recently, but my memories are that LOCKUP (inmate Sylvester Stallone goes up against evil warden Donald Sutherland), DEFIANCE (Jan-Michael Vincent fights a street gang) and BEST SELLER (with James Woods and Brian Dennehy) are also capable, well-paced action movies.

There are few, if any, filmmakers like John Flynn left in Hollywood, but we desperately need more of them.

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