Stars: Bruce Campbell, Grace Thorsen, Taylor Sharpe and Ted Raimi
We're in the small mining town of Gold Lick, OR (population 333), to hear a folksy song about 1878 and Chinese gods to set up our story. It's very Cat Ballou, but we quickly fast forward to find the connection to the modern day. Jeff Graham drives his friend Clayton to an old Chinese graveyard to meet a couple of chicks, but he's a wuss, falling for the slightest peer pressure. The only time he stands his ground is when Clayton disses on Bruce Campbell, who Jeff idolises. As far as Jeff's concerned, 'You don't like Bruce, you walk.' Given that this is a film that doesn't just star Bruce Campbell, it stars Bruce Campbell as himself, as produced and directed by Bruce Campbell, that's not a bad celebrity crush to have, especially as this is a monster movie. At the cemetery, Jeff takes something from the mine that contains Guan Di, the Chinese god of war and protector of the dead, who promptly emerges to massacre the kids and terrorise the town.
Only Jeff gets away alive and he can only think of one person to save the town from destruction by the vengeful spirit of Guan Di: his idol who is shooting Cavealien 2 not too far away. So off he goes to Bruce Campbell's trailer, and when he gets nowhere telling the truth he bumps him on the head with a baseball bat, throws him in the trunk of his car and hauls him back to Gold Lick to save the day. What makes this lunacy inspired is the fact that Bruce's agent, Mills Toddner, has set up a huge surprise for his birthday and he believes this is it. So he starts playing the hero in this bad monster movie, blissfully unaware that it's not a bad monster movie in the slightest. The townsfolk buy into Jeff's stories about Bruce being a hero and he believes it above all of them, because unlike most vanity movies, Campbell doesn't even remotely try to show himself in a positive light. The Bruce Campbell we see in this movie is a complete asshole.
He's an actor, of course, but this fictionalised version of himself has had something of a career downturn. He's got stuck in the B movie mire, all the way down to Cavealien 2, which looks like a truly awful rubber suit monster movie. He's a drunken loser, one who responds to a bad news report about him by shouting, 'They're trying to make me look pathetic!' as he runs out of booze and starts drinking from the dog's bowl. He's a failed husband, who rings his ex-wife Cheryl at three in the morning to whine at her. When he believes Gold Lick has been set up as a birthday present he acts like a spoiled guest, and when he finally discovers that Guan Di is real, he runs away fast, beginning as a coward and progressively getting worse over a number of scenes that are totally wrong in all the right ways. He's so useless as a hero that when he doesn't show up on the set of Cavealien 2, they just use a dummy instead. Who would notice?
While My Name is Bruce is hardly the greatest movie in the world, it mostly succeeds as the fun ride it aims to be. The genesis for the project was an old time comic book called The Adventures of Alan Ladd, which set the real actor against fictional pirates. Bringing that concept into the modern day, writer Mark Verheiden could only imagine Bruce Campbell in the role and that part of the story works really well. It's a real family affair, with the cast and crew mostly comprised of what seems like everyone Bruce has ever worked with, along with a host of local Oregon actors. The cameraderie is obvious throughout, not just in scenes between long term collaborators like Campbell and Ted Raimi. A good part of the film was shot on a backlot built on Campbell's property, something that helped keep the budget low and the problems lower. This is really a home movie, merely one made by professionals who know precisely what they're doing.
It's a three act play and those acts are hardly subtle. The first follows the standard template for a cheesy horror movie from the eighties and introduces Campbell. The second builds up the jokes because this thrives on the comedy you might expect from a Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell movie: Three Stooges humour, Bruce Campbell one liners, even some more Marx Brothers inspired lunacy. This is where most of the charm of the piece comes from, with Campbell's irreverence a joyous counter to the seriousness inherent in Gold Lick. The biggest successes are most obvious in the initial scenes after his kidnap, as Bruce plays the joker to a whole town of straight men, neatly parallelling the story as a whole, with its real actor placed in a town of fictional characters. This is backed up further by references to real movies like the Evil Dead films, Moontrap and McHale's Navy juxtaposed with fictional movies like Death of the Dead and The Stoogitive.
It's the third act where things fall apart, even as Campbell finds his redemption as a character. It just doesn't have the time to do the film justice, so we have to settle for some cheesy scenes to move us along to the finalé. Had this been a serious movie, the second act would have been full of character building and plot progression, but that would have taken all the fun out of this one, so we're stuck attempting to imagine it was still there. So Bruce's act of cowardice is all that Jeff needs to become a hero and Bruce showing back up to help is all that his mother Kelly needs to fall for the hero. It's really no cheesier than any of the movies it ably spoofs but these scenes are so compressed (sometimes into single lines) that they're about as painfully obvious as can be and actors like Grace Thorsen, who does a solid job as the sassy Kelly Graham, deserve much more definition to their characters than was ever going to be possible here.
I was impressed that Verheiden and Campbell managed to sneak in some subtle notes in what is hardly a subtle movie. When the mayor of Gold Lick explains to Campbell that Guan Di arose out of a mine collapse that killed a hundred Chinese miners, there's a great touch in the story being buried in a tiny paragraph at the bottom of the front page of the Gold Lick newspaper instead of being shouted as a huge headline. It's admirable but hard to notice amongst the blatancy that this film thrives on. Similarly Grace Thorsen acts well but she's lost behind the hams who go all out here on purpose. Ted Raimi is a riot in three roles: as Bruce's sleazy agent, as an Italian sign painter and, best of all, as an old Chinese man called Wing. Of course, Bruce dominates in what is really a glorious send up of himself, on his own dime. If you're not a Bruce Campbell fan, this is so not the picture for you, but if you are this is just another reason to hail to the king, baby.