Hollywood loves a good comeback story. When not busy making films about them that sweep the Oscars (look no further than this year’s The Fighter), they’re wringing them out of the life stories of their very own. As Mickey Rourke was making his much-touted comeback with The Wrestler, he rather aggressively attacked the press circuit with the tortuous, dramatic story of his wilderness years. As his star began to dwindle in the early-to-mid-90’s, Rourke had a spectacular run of bad luck and worse choices that included: a not-altogether-unsuccessful but physically punishing boxing career, a string of plastic surgeries to correct the damage done by said boxing career that transformed his roguish good looks into a reasonable facsimile of an anthropomorphic cured ham, a destructive marriage to his Wild Orchid co-star Carré Otis and the ever-popular struggle with booze and drugs, all of which led to Rourke living in almost complete destitution. Rourke and the media often spun this story as to avoid the majority of the film work he did in this era for one good reason: a lot of it is embarrassing.
Although he did appear in some high profile films in his dark decade (most notably Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker), the majority of his work was in the kind of obscure straight-to-video movies that proliferated in the 90’s and bypassed legit video store shelves to end up directly on gas station walls. In what is perhaps the most illustrative anecdote from the era, Rourke walked off the set of a flick called Luck of the Draw when the producers refused to let him have his now-iconic pet Chihuahua on-set. Knowing that he was ostensibly replaced by Dennis Hopper, Ice T, Michael Madsen, Eric Roberts or William Forsythe does a rather bang-up job of establishing the league Rourke was in at the time. Now that his career ebb has probably hit its apex and is on the way back down with dodgy projects like Passion Play (in which he protects a fallen angel played by Megan Fox from a gangster played by Bill Murray – true WDTE material), Rourke’s dark decade is more mysteriously seductive than ever before.
Considering those rather weighty odds, Out in Fifty is probably not the most embarrassing work of Rourke’s dark decade. It is, however, the only one co-directed by a guy named BoJesse Christopher (possibly the only person in showbiz whose name is a composite of Dukes of Hazzard characters) that also happens to star Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It requires a bit of digging (the box features Rourke’s extremely poorly Photoshopped head, a gun, some cars and Christina Applegate: not exactly the most inspirational publicity) but Out of Fifty definitely brings to question its own existence. Although this has nothing to do with the filmmakers, the filmmaking process or anything to do with the production of Out in Fifty, take a gander at this Wikipedia summary:
Mississippi boy Ray Frye (Scott Leet) accidentally killed a perverted woman from L.A. during making love. Now her vengeful husband, an addict cop no less (Mickey Rourke), is waiting to strike when Frye gets out of prison. But Frye goes out of the Frye pen and into the fire when, on parole, he boards with the scheming little family of a chintzy car-wash entrepreneur. There’s also a poison-dart serial killer on the loose who may or may not be relevant.
If that doesn’t make you want to see this movie, you’re on the wrong blog. (Also, a word of warning: although I’m not a fan of totally spoiling every aspect of the plot, there’s no way to approach this fucking movie without spoiling everything. Trust me: anything that may make you want to see this movie won’t and cannot be spoiled.)
From its opening scenes, Out in Fifty establishes a visual look somewhere between workout video and over-excited student film. Its chintzy late-90’s Vegas aesthetic is paired with an over-the-top array of zooms, canted angles, strobe lights and wobbly fish-eye lenses. In the frenetic opening sequence, good ol’ boy Ray (that’s the way he’s described by an overacting bartender in a sequined tux jacket) is picked up by the aforementioned perverted woman. They writhe in fully-clothed, S&M-lite ecstasy (he looks positively panicked) for a while until he pushes her and she impales herself on her spike-lined bed in front of her husband (Rourke). You would think that if you liked to engage in violent, writhing sex with mute strangers, you’d make sure not to have several dozen deadly implements of torture around the bed but I guess that’s what makes her a perverted woman.
In any case, Ray goes to prison for 7 years and is eventually released into a pensive montage of him watching some ducks while Rourke (decked-out in full Rourke regalia: colourful printed Western shirt, leather cowboy hat and boots) drinks, pops pills and is haunted by the ghost of his wife. He waits for Ray outside the probation office with his partner (Peter Greene, fulfilling the film’s contractual clause that a cast member from a Tarantino film must be in any Tarantino-esque crime film produced between 1994 and 2001) and roughs up Ray, establishing that his ass is grass.
Leet is an extremely shitty and monotone actor from the Chuck Norris school of stoicism. Watching him drawl out the expository dialogue (pearls like ‘I done my time. I do advise you to get off mah back.’) opposite a mumbly, overreaching Rourke pretty much sets the tone for every dialogue scene from here on out. Interestingly enough, the dude seems to have had an acting career past this film, appearing in critically-acclaimed productions like Mark ‘Commando’ L. Lester’s groupie slasher Groupie. A talent to be discovered, surely.
The film then proceeds to show us the two sides of the coin: on one hand, Ray attempts to make good by straightening his life out. Ray is the kind of stoic protagonist who dreams only of the love of a good woman and his own piece of mind. He also happens to be dumber than a bag of hammers. He gets a room in a shitty motel run by a pimp-suited Balthazar Getty (!), applies for a job with everyone’s favourite transsexual member of an acting dynasty (Alexis Arquette) and gives the pimpin’ hotel manager’s girl (a slumming Christina Applegate, looking all the world like a Kristen Wiig character) enough money to get back home. On the other hand, Rourke becomes consumed with the idea of revenge. He’s constantly shown beating up motherfuckers who get out of line (spouting such inspired tough guy dialogue as ‘We can handle this one of two ways. I can kick your ass or… I can kick your ass.’) and talking to himself in darkened rooms while visions of his dead wife berate him for not being a hero. Rourke nominally plays a cop in this movie, although he usually dresses like Mickey Rourke and generally spends his time being an extremely shitty cop.
It’s pretty impressive how outlandish Out in Fifty can get without really making any sense whatsoever. In one scene, two kids in full face paint, trench coats and Hawaiian-print shorts (apparently played by Justin Piece, of Kids fame, and Johnny Whitworth) mug a guy dressed like Evel Knievel on a basketball court. The ever-cool, ever-stoic Ray steps and saves Knievel’s life for reasons known only to him (presumably). Knievel turns out to be Steven Fisher, played by the ever-elusive BoJesse Christopher. Steven is the Vince Vaughn of the duo: a quick-talking jokester who’s as grating as Ray is a laconic bore. He twitches constantly, weaves from side to side, intermittently delivers his lines as bargain-basement raps and alternately appears on screen decked-out in kimonos, leopard-print pants, a USS fez and Hawaiian shirts. In the pantheon of annoying cool-cat characters, he is the king. Some choice lines:
– ‘So whaddya say, Raimundo? You my Karate Kid? Wipe on, wipe off, motherfucker?’
– ‘She’s hotter than a fresh-fucked fox in a forest fire.’
– ‘Prop 215, medicinal, motherfucker. And I only smoke the doobie when you torture me.’
– ‘I love you guys, man. Rayski… you too, monkey nipples.’
It turns out that Steven works at a car waxing facility; he offers Ray a job that pays ‘two-fiddy’ a day, surely an honest and logical choice that won’t put our protagonist in danger. Another fantastic idea: falling into love-at-first-sight with a sexy bubble-gum slinger (?!) at a bar that happens to look a lot like the picture Steven has of ‘his girl’. Yes, yes, she turns out to be his new best friend’s wife Gloria (Nina Ofenbock) a struggling actress and so-called ‘angel without the wings’.
I must admit I have a soft spot for this kind of ridiculous Tarantino knockoff, especially for the kind of impossible universe these characters inhabit. It’s totally normal for homicide cops to wear leather pants and silk shirts depicting the Taj Mahal, just as it’s totally normal to take a sweet job offer from a dude in an Evel Knievel suit. Rourke goes around beating people up for no particular reason and doesn’t seemed at all perturbed by the fact that there’s a killer on the loose with possibly the showiest and least effective gimmick in the history of serial killing. There’s a go-for-broke quality to Out in Fifty that’s as ingratiating as it is the cause of an absolutely terrible movie. To think that you’re making an original, hard-hitting movie while ripping off dozens of previous flicks is inexcusable. Making a movie where Balthazar Getty wears a long purple velvet coat and one of the main characters periodically delivers his dialogue as a rap is… something.
Ray eventually moves in with his new employer and his sexy wife, ramping up the sexual tension considerably. (One ingenious/dumb touch is to intercut footage of Leet doing push-ups and Ofenbock masturbating to simulate them having sex – only it isn’t! It was a visual illusion! Ho ho. The power of editing.) It’s quickly established that Steven is a shitty husband and self-obsessed dork that takes fashion tips from 1999 beefcake favourite Mark McGrath. He constantly refuses to pay attention to his wife, instead hitting on her hot painter sister and pawning her off on Ray when she wants to go see a subtitled romance flick.
Oh, remember the potentially-unimportant dart killer from the Wiki summary I quoted up there? It turns out that when Rourke isn’t having an alcoholic blackout in a Denny’s washroom (which amounts for about 40% of his footage), he’s investigating a series of murders by a cape-clad figure on rollerskates dubbed a ‘Cupid motherfucka’ by Rourke’s superior (James Avery AKA Uncle Phil). Rourke’s on thin ice for being such a shit cop, so heads will (presumably) start to roll.
Christopher and Leet paint everything in the broadest strokes possible only to subvert our expectations with the most extreme and unlikely scenarios imaginable. Early on in the film, we discover that Steven would want nothing better than to fuck his sister in law Sarah, but she refuses to cheat on her ancient husband. This is cleanly resolved later on when the gold-digging sister shows up at a superfluous dance party wherein her husband has a heart attack while getting jiggy on the dance floor. As he falls to the ground, she runs directly to Steven in a fake panic, smiling broadly that he’s died. It truly leaves you on the edge of your seat, wondering exactly how this will leave the blossoming love triangle. In case you aren’t too sure what happens and where that leaves our protagonist, Rourke and Greene spell it out in the following scene. But do read on, gentle readers. Read on.
It gets kind of convoluted from here, but stay with me: while drinking 40s in the park, Gloria concludes that Sarah is being a selfish bitch. Ray takes the time to meet his long lost father, a dude only four years older than Scott Leet… or maybe it’s a dream. He walks in on Steven and his new squeeze in the shower (Steven is fully dressed and she’s in an Esther Williams type of get-up), prompting him to explain to Ray what the plan is. Apparently he’s struck a deal with Gloria’s sister: he’s going to impregnate her, and she will use her newfound riches to buy him an art gallery (I haven’t the slightest fucking idea why this hyperactive lounge-lizard dork would dream of an art gallery but that’s really the least of our worries at this point), thereby leaving Gloria in the dust.
At this point the revelations come fast and loose: Gloria and Steven are getting a divorce because they haven’t gotten along since a car accident that caused Gloria to have a miscarriage (this is also a major plot point in Norman Mailer’s legendarily cracked-out Tough Guys Don’t Dance, come to think of it, but the implications of these two films somehow being connected hurts my head). Also, Gloria’s sister is pregnant but stiffing Steven for the 1.5 million she promised him. This angers Steven enough to threaten Sarah with a fireplace poker; meanwhile, Gloria and Ray finally make out in a particularly cringe-worthy scene where our good ol’ boy gives a hacky speech about a person’s self-worth and begins crying when she kisses him.
Remember earlier in the movie when Ray gave a hooker played by Christina Applegate some money? It didn’t make much sense, did it? At the time, it sort of seemed random. Well, guess what: the filmmakers know what they’re doing! They’re not ones to just put random shit in their movie! It all makes sense in the end. After his little crying jag, Ray meets a cleaned-up Applegate who gives him his money back ‘because you’re worth it’. This, I believe, is what we call ‘driving the point home unsubtly’. The basic message of Out in Fifty is that every person is worth something, even if it seems like they don’t. Of course, this moral really only applies to Ray, who believes he’s worthless because he’s been to prison. A couple of tears seem to redeem him to the filmmakers’ eyes, but the characters of Steve and Sarah (and presumably Rourke as well) aren’t redeemed by anything.
Rourke and Greene find Sarah’s body with a fireplace poker conspicuously placed next to it and go straight for the obvious culprit: Ray, finally busy having a soft-focus sex scene with Gloria when Steven barges in and exacts vengeance on his former best bud. The two brawl awkwardly, sending each other flying into the IKEA furniture; Gloria pulls a gun on Steven when she finds a big bottle of strychnine he’s used to poison Sarah’s geriatric husband. While Ray is unconscious, Gloria and Steven have a mostly incomprehensible fight in which a lot of backstory is revealed and Gloria shoots Steven in portentous slow-mo.
The shot rouses Ray from his narratively-convenient sleep, prompting Gloria to explain everything that hasn’t been explained yet. I have to point out here that Nina Ofenbock, who plays Gloria, has a noticeable but usually buried accent that comes out in full force here to the point where I can’t be sure what happens but it’s something like this: Gloria was totally aware of all the wheeling and dealing happening here. Her plan was to kill Sarah herself and make it look like Ray did it so she could get all of her money. With a stream of makeup running down her face, she threatens to shoot Ray… but who’s that outside? Why, it’s top-billed star Mickey Rourke who still has a bone to pick with Ray for killing his wife all those years ago!
And pick a bone he does, shooting Ray stone-cold dead after he shares a last kiss with Gloria. Ray bleeds to death while Rourke throws away the booze and pills that have been supporting him through this tumultuous time. ‘Don’t fight it. I just put you away for a hundred years,’ says Rouke. I’m gonna let you guess what Ray’s witty retort is. The title of the movie, by the way, is Out in Fifty.
After re-reading this summary I noticed that the movie I depict essentially reads like a Lynchian bunch of weirdness and surreal non-sequiturs. In a way, Out in Fifty does share some similarities to films like Wild at Heart. But where Lynch uses a potboiler framework to play fast and loose with the typical Lynchian cadence and obsessions, Out in Fifty works backwards. It uses a bunch of heightened, over-the-top scenes and tries to fashion an old-fashioned potboiler out of it and, in case it wasn’t clear, does a piss-poor job of it. From its noir-inspired skeletal framework grows a unstoppable tumor of a film that never ceases to build on itself in increasingly confusing and ill-advised ways.
There are parts of Out in Fifty that are truly inspired in a sort of ham-fisted way but they don’t seem to enthral the filmmakers nearly as much as the non-stop twists and turns taken from superior films. It’s almost as if the filmmakers desperately wanted to make the generic neo-noir claptrap they’ve always dreamed of but a scum-sucking Hollywood producer begged them to add more original touches and arty moments. Despite being more or less being the same film (on paper, at least) as a dozen Tarantino rip-offs, it actually has its priorities in a mirror.
So why does it exist?
Good question. The market for this type of thing was huge at some point in the 90’s, but it had pretty much been saturated by 1999. It may have seemed like a decent financial venture in 1996, but Out in Fifty is a case of too little, too late. It doesn’t have enough action to satisfy the Lundgren crowd, but isn’t hip enough to draw in the Boondock Saints bucks. Hubris again plays a part, with the film being directed, written and acted by the same two lunkheads with enough of a Hollywood presence to attract the attention of exploitation mogul and Golan-Globus pal Ami Artzi (Emmanuelle 7, Death Wish V, The Forbidden Dance). It sank without a trace and rather deservedly at that. It has some enjoyably camp moments despite two fucking horrible lead performances and an awful, overstuffed script but too many long stretches of boredom and confusion prevent it from rising above the shitheap.
Oh, and that rollerskating poison-dart killer that may or may not be related to the events? Turns out, he or she’s not related to anything whatsoever.