When did irony become so all-encompassing as to all but eliminate honest from cultural products? Somewhere in the early 90’s, apathy and self-awareness became a de facto part of creating pop culture. Rock stars were no longer carnal demi-gods completely lost in their own awesomeness; they were replaced by bored-looking dudes from the suburbs in ill-fitting clothes making one hell of a racket. Action movies replaced their own superhuman jingoism with a cynical, snarky self-awareness that turned the movies into big jokes. While films like Commando certainly had a sense of humour about them, they certainly didn’t poke fun at themselves and the genre. They were designed to be awesome to eight-year-olds and crusty academics alike. Twenty years later, we live in a world where blockbuster action films like Machete rewrite the history of low-budget action filmmaking and the only irony-less rockstars are preening chodes like Bono. It has become resolutely uncool to be cool on purpose and resolutely cool to be uncool on purpose. Obviously I’m not against the idea of irony or else I wouldn’t have a website where I wilfully subject myself to cultural detritus, but sometimes I weep for the death of really honest, really dumb ideas. While I certainly could’ve done without pretty much everything Pink Floyd ever did, completely unhinged bonkers shit like The Who’s Tommy would never have existed in a post-ironic world.
Certainly it’s a bit of a generalization and doesn’t take into consideration a myriad of other genres besides action movies and rock and roll. Hip-hop, for one, takes being cool on purpose very seriously. Some action movies take themselves seriously while barely hiding their contempt for their own audience (hello, Michael Bay!) while someone like Michael Mann continues to take his craft with a seriousness that can periodically cross over into tedium (Public Enemies). Mann’s particularly interesting in this case because his career took off just about the same time as irony’s and yet until he became the one of the best American action directors, his biggest claim to fame was a television show that was deeply 80’s, deeply stupid and almost impossible to approach in this day and age without that barrier of irony ruining everything. Miami Vice was a cultural phenomenon, but it was also a show that asked us to take Frank Zappa as a snarling baddie-of-the-week completely seriously.
Mann was certainly instrumental in getting Band of the Hand off the ground. An unholy pairing of Dead Poets Society, The Warriors and the aforementioned Miami Vice, Band of the Hand boasts a truly bizarre roster of above the line talent. Directed by Paul Michael Glaser of Starsky and Hutch fame and written by a couple of Hollywood jack-of-all-trades with credits as diverse as Norman Mailer’s Maidstone and Jim McBride’s ill-fated Breathless remake, Band of the Hand was originally conceived as a TV series but eventually made as a theatrical release. The theme song is courtesy of height-of-Jesusness Bob Dylan (backed by the Heartbreakers for an entirely forgettable slab of bleating dadrock) and its cast of fresh young faces include Anthony Quinn’s son and at least one award-winning director. If the same movie came out today, it would be a non-event; it probably wouldn’t even get any sort of theatrical release (the film was in fact conceived as a television pilot but eventually retooled for theatrical release). In those wild, cocaine-fuelled pre-irony days, though, Miami Vice meets Fame was a surefire winner.
The title refers to five dangerous criminals who we see being apprehended for said crimes in the beginning of the film. Miami Steve-by-way-of-Joe-Piscopo lookalike Ruben (Michael Carmine) and Moss (Leon) are a couple of gang members who are apprehended while beating each other with sticks in the middle of the street. Carlos is a particularly unsavvy cocaine dealer who gets busted selling a briefcase full of drugs to an undercover agent. Crazy (Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s John Cameron Mitchell) is a weirdo kid who shoots his abusive father in cold blood. Dorcey (Al Shannon) is an escape artist who cannot be contained by any prison; together they form the titular band (each of them is a finger, get it?), a sort of low-rent, pastel-clad Dirty Dozen. The five of them cause so much shit in juvie (including Ruben leading the prisoners into a wild, impromptu rumba party?!) that they’re carted off to the Everglades and abandoned in the care of Joe (Stephen Lang), a taciturn Ramboesque Indian who’s been tasked with teaching them survival in order to rehabilitate them (I suppose).
The idea of a bunch of criminals dropped off into the wild to fend for themselves is not a terrible one; it’s at the very least good enough that it was cribbed for Nimrod Antal’s Predators. But it’s never quite clear (to us or to the characters) what series of cockamamie ideas led to this rehabilitation project. From what I understand, there’s some sort of VP of Problem Solving in US government who spins a giant wheel covered in dumb ideas his eight-year-old son comes up with in the sandbox. This time, the wheel fell on ‘send bad people to the jungle w/ Rambo’ and that was that. At the very least it makes for more movie material than ‘fire bad people out of a cannon into the sun’ or ‘make bad people eat spinach forever’. You would think that the government doesn’t want to put across the idea that particularly thorny criminals only need to learn how to use a Bowie knife in the creation of a thatched hut to get rid of those pesky crime-doin’ feelings but that does not seem to be a concern.
While our quintet is out getting their ass bit by snakes in the swamp, Carlos’ girlfriend Nikki (Lauren Holly) is out trying to find out what happened to her boyfriend. His sleazy-ass partner (the great James Remar) is a coke-snorting Satanist who basically orders her to be his slave if she ever wants to see Carlos again (not that he knows where he is). This scene is quite cool in a sleazy, sub-Scarface way but of course the movie wants nothing to do with this character and returns us to the comfortable mediocrity of watching five dudes run like little girls from a boar. They eventually complete their final jungle task (it’s not unlike a video game if the object of said game was ‘get used to eating gross things’) and move on to the second part of the plan: living together in a house in Miami, presumably learning to cook and clean after themselves in the process.
The first half of Band of the Hand is extremely slow and boring, unless you’re the kind of person who was chomping at the bit to see the parts of Lord of the Flies where they go foraging for berries stretched out past their breaking point with characters even whinier than pre-pubescent British schoolchildren (so whiny that they get their own different term for whining, the always-welcome whinging). It’s all the more annoying when you consider that these kids are supposed to be around sixteen; it never even occurred to me until one of them mentioned their age since the actors are pretty much all in their late 20’s. A good actor is able to sell you that they’re pretty much anyone or anything; a bad actor will have you confused that a grown man could really puke uncontrollably when faced with the idea of eating snails. The whole survival training aspect of Band of the Hand is undoubtedly a large part of why the movie remains soundly ignored today when even the dumbest crock from the period is subject to nostalgic fawning. Pre-irony or post-irony be damned: boredom never went out of style.
Thankfully, Band of the Hand is cleanly bisected into two parts of extremely unequal entertainment value. The idea of the second half is that the kids have had the balls to cut it in the jungle (even though I’ve noticed no change in their behaviour, I do not possess the wise soul of Stephen Lang), but will they have the balls to cut it in Miami? In order to test this, Joe has leased a dilapidated old house from the city (supposedly for a dollar a year) that’s overrun with chickens and crackheads while also housing a family of Haitians. He’s in hot water with the government, who believe that this dumbass program doesn’t work (well, I never!) and are threatening to pull the plug on the whole thing. To make matters worse, it turns out the house they so callously stole from people who actually needed it falls on the territory of one Cream (Laurence Fishburne, sporting a rather fetching hi-top hairdo), a notorious pimp and pusher who just so happens to be in cahoots with the aforementioned coke-snorting Satanist currently using Carlos’ girlfriend as his sex slave. Cream isn’t taking too kindly to the fact that this Hollywood Indian and his band of underwear models are setting up shop in his neighbourhood, and soon you have a turf war.
In a post-ironic world, the last half of Band of the Run would be the entire movie. The jungle training would comprise of a three-minute montage and the part where roving packs of interracial street gangs dressed like Carmen Miranda take on the director of Rabbit Hole with shovels would be the main event. Perhaps not coincidentally, this would also make Band of the Hand a significantly better movie. It all takes itself very seriously but also wastes half of its runtime on the least productive bit of character development imaginable. It feels somewhat miraculous when shit actually starts to go down, but it also feels like too little, too late. Fishburne and Remar are pretty damn great in the realm of overly eccentric villains (Remar spends one scene eating cocktail shrimp, clad in a black toga) but they’re squaring off against five cardboard cutouts from a magazine spread. All I want to see is some juvenile delinquents shooting at drug dealers. Is that too much to ask?
I’ve noticed that there’s a disturbingly detailed Wikipedia article that sums up pretty much every shot in this movie that you can peruse at your own disposal, so I’ll make it quick. After yet another overlong training sequence (Jesus fucking Christ) and ridiculous dialogue like ‘Let’s retake the house. Again!’, they decide to re-take the house (again). Cue the movie that everyone wanted Band of the Hand to be. Cars explode, appropriately relatable characters die tragically and the film briefly inhabits that Red Dawn-esque overlap between deadly serious and ball-shatteringly dumb. For what’s essentially an 80’s action movie in the purest sense (no shirts, racially insensitive, the timeless Mr. Mister track Broken Wings used to underline a dramatic passage), the film spends a disturbingly minute amount of time being inappropriate and awesome. Whether this is due to a slight on the filmmakers’ part (i.e. suckage) or simply a sign of the times is still up for debate.
I found that memories taint a lot of pre-irony staples; the whole point of reviewing this movie is that it was a forgotten relic of a time when someone wearing a suit with a hand-drawn pattern looked cool and not like a jackass. As it turns out, Band of the Hand’s main contribution to popular culture was probably the way it inspired several missions in Grand Theft Auto : Vice City. It’s a tiny kernel of a good idea (and subsequently a tiny kernel of an effective, though thoroughly retarded, action film) coated in bland, boring crap that I can’t fathom ever worked. In that sense it’s probably more typical of the era than any number of Tango & Cashs or Cobras. Band of the Hand is exactly as old as me; I was a morning-sickness-causing non-entity at the time it failed to garner any attention. To say that I don’t get it would be implying that there’s a contingent of people out there to whom Band of the Hand speaks to as a generation. Aside from the guy or gal who wrote the summary on Wikipedia, I can’t imagine.
So why does it exist?
Although I’m not too sure what the ensuing TV series would’ve been like (a pack of juvenile delinquents make their way across the USA, dispatching drug dealers vigilante-style in scenic locations?), it certainly wouldn’t have been a worse idea than The A-Team or Airwolf. What’s more mystifying is what the filmmakers were trying to achieve by putting this into theatres. My guess is they assumed they had a new The Outsiders on their hands, judging by the near-constant shirtlessness of the principals. Unfortunately, this is about as a good a Tiger Beat-baiting vehicle as Cocoon. The principals have little to no personality and their careers suffered tremendously because of it. Carmine tragically died a few years later while Shannon stopped acting by the mid-90’s. Quinn’s career was middling (with much work being done in his native Italy) and, Mitchell, of course, became a critically-acclaimed filmmaker fifteen years after Band of the Hand. When your springboard movie project yields Leon as its most recognizable name, you’ve got a problem.
The only person whose career truly got a lift from Band of the Hand would be Glaser. Apparently showing enough chops to handle features, he went on to direct such fondly-remembered flicks as The Running Man and the inexplicably beloved ice-skating movie The Cutting Edge until the classic Shaq vehicle Kazaam landed him in the director’s jail that is major-network cop shows. He’s also basically the best part of Band of the Hand, showing undeniable talent in the (way too infrequent) action scenes and a knack for setting important setpieces to embarassingly dated 80’s cheese-rock (a tactic shared by executive producer Mann).
Still, as boring as Band of the Hand can get, I sort of admire its unrepentantly fabricated spirit. Unlike many embarrassing relics, no one seems to be that invested in the proceedings. I don’t think I’m shitting on anyone’s dreams by saying that Band of the Hand is a terrible movie (although I’m confident the statute of limitations on dreams you may have had in 1986 is probably safely passed). It’s the kind of thing where the words ‘this could be big’ were spoken way more than ‘this could be good’. There’s a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of purity in that. Tiny.