Monday 5 June 2023

Stand Alone (1985)

Director: Alan Beattie
Writer: Roy Carlson
Stars: Charles Durning, Pam Grier, James Keach, Bert Remsen, Barbara Sammeth, Lu Leonard, Luis Contreras, Willard Pugh and Bob Tzudiker

Index: The First Thirty.

That’s such an eighties font on the opening credits and such eighties music behind them that we’re almost expecting Charles Durning to star in his very own eighties Arnie movie. That music has a patriotic bent to it and that matches the huge American flag on the poster. However, all these things are misleading.

This is a drama before it’s an action movie and the patriotic angle is never overplayed. It goes for character over setpiece and the hero is as scared as he is brave. Of course, if we’re true to definition, he’s a hero because he does what he needs to do even though he’s scared, not because he happens to be a U.S. army vet who killed five enemies in a cave back in 1943 with the bayonet they stabbed him with.

Also, while Arnie is doing some interesting action work now he’s in his seventies, Durning was never the muscleman and doesn’t try to be here, at the age of 62. He’s Louis Thibadeau, who merely wants to live a quiet life with his grandson, Gordie, and Gordie’s mum, Meg, so Louis’s daughter-in-law rather than daughter. That says something about his character right there and it’s an excellent way to start.

He lives in a small town, which initially feels like a nice place. He hangs out at the Virginia Cafe, which is run by an old army buddy called Paddie who constantly talks about the hero in their midst. There’s a parade every year and Gordie’s going to march with his trumpet this time out. Louie’s going to join him.

Of course, there’s a dark side, as there tends to be in small towns. You don’t need to listen to Jason Aldean songs to know that. One day, with Paddie in the back, a young man comes in and steals a couple of doughnuts. Louie tries to get him to do the right thing but a couple of others show up and shoot up the place, taking the thief down with extreme prejudice.

They’re memorable villains: sunglasses, gold teeth, tattoos on their hands. And very large weapons. Maybe this isn’t such a decent small town after all. This is gang territory and Louis escapes that skirmish with some shrapnel in his arm after diving into one of the booths.

The cops want him to come downtown and look through the photos of the usual suspects, and that’s where we meet Pam Grier, who’s an attorney who works for the public defender. She’s Cathryn Bolan and she’s known Louis all her life, so she gives him a lift home and they talk about the details.

Of course, through the magic power of plot convenience, one of the people she’s assigned to defend next, charged with stealing a car, is a gangbanger with a gold tooth and a tattoo on his hand. So, she warns Louis. That wasn’t just street gang violence, she explains. That was an assassination by professional killers, part of an international drug smuggling ring. It’s serious stuff and he needs to take it seriously.

Initially, Louis shrugs it off: “I haven’t done anything to them,” he points out. “They’re not gonna do anything to me.” And, if you believe that, then you’ll be wondering why we’re only half an hour into ninety. What could the script possibly have in store for Louis Thibadeau?

Well, yeah, most of you could write the rest of the script yourselves because it’s clear what will happen. However, you may not write it as quite the character study that Roy Carlson did.

There are other characters involved, but not a lot of them. This doesn’t turn into Road House with everyone in town joining forces. It’s a bit more akin to High Noon with Louis doing what he needs to do mostly on his own. He gets his family out of there and Cathryn shows up not because he asked her to but because she has a feeling she knows what he’s planning.

Yes, Pam gets to kick some ass. No, she does not get to be a kickass lead the way she did in what must have now seemed like a bygone era in films like Coffy and Foxy Brown. This is firmly Charles Durning’s show and she gets to barge in on his action rather than save the day.

The bad guys are bad guys and that’s all we need to know, but there’s a cop in the middle. He’s Det. Isgrow, in the capable form of James Keach, and he’s definitely not in the pocket of the cocaine cowboys but he also wants to take them down more than he wants to keep Louis safe, which puts the ball firmly in the court of the pudgy 62 year old U.S. army veteran, who learns quickly just what he’s got himself into.

I liked this movie, which feels rather tame compared to the usual eighties action fare. It’s about character rather than muscles, Durning bringing some serious depth to his role, and it feels far more believable because of it.

There is one scene that we can easily see in Arnie’s hands, when Louis walks into a billiard hall, where he knows the bad guys hang out, and puts his gun right into the one dude’s face and tells him that he’s Death. Then he leaves, goes back home and puts up his American flag.

The thing is that Arnie would have made it a tough guy moment, with a cheesy one-liner to underline it. Durning does it because he knows he needs to, given that they’ve just beaten up Paddie as a message, but we can also tell that he’s crapping himself and collecting himself at the same time in order to get the job done. It’s a far more meaningful act and scene.

Talking of cheesy one-liners, that’s not how this film rolls. There’s a great line when Louis suggests, “I tried to do this right but I did it all wrong.” That’s not Arnie-catchy but it’s a heck of a lot deeper.

Without attempting to spoil the movie, I’d suggest that it doesn’t quite end the way we’re used to either. The good guys do beat the bad guys, don’t worry. Like you expected anything else? However, it doesn’t feel like they won. It feels like they survived, which is different to a large degree. And they survived for now.

Durning is excellent here and I’m trying to remember last time I saw him play a lead. I’m used to him being given prominent supporting roles that are pivotal to movies but don’t lead the credits. It’s great to see him not just at the top of the bill but justifying it at 62 years old.

I’d have liked to have seen more of Grier but it’s fair that she wasn’t given a chance to steal a show that was never intended to be hers. It’s more screen time than she’d had recently and in longer scenes too, but she’s definitely firm support alongside James Keach. She’s decent, of course, but it’s not her best acting, the part not close to being as challenging as her role in Fort Apache, the Bronx. I’m waiting for another one like that, but with more screen time.

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