10:16 pm Apr. 12, 20124
It’s frustrating to see a naturally charming actor get stuck with subpar material. Danny Trejo (Machete, Predators) is a character actor turned action star. Having appeared in more than 200 movies since the ‘90s, Trejo’s got what has become an increasingly precious commodity: screen presence. When Trejo cold-cocks a guy, you immediately want to see him do it again.
Trejo plays a butt-kicking Vietnam vet out to avenge a dead buddy in Bad Ass, a Death Wish-style action flick that’s very loosely inspired by real-life events.
This film’s ultra-conservative politics and ludicrously stilted characterizations might have been negligible if the its creators had just let Trejo, a guy who exudes natural charisma, be. Instead, director Craig Moss (Breaking Wind, a Twilight parody that Trejo also has a bit role in) and writer Eliot Tishman screw up something that should have been a sure thing, and fail to give Trejo material worthy of him.
Trejo plays Frank Vega, a California-based decorated war veteran who looks back on his life with bitterness because he never got to be a cop (something to do with having failed his physical, though it’s never explicitly stated). Frank’s life changes for the better after he beats up a pair of skinheads on a bus before they can beat up an old black man who refuses to give up his seat. This incident is loosely based on the incident that made 67-year-old real-life Vietnam veteran Thomas Bruso a viral video sensation. (A YouTube video of him beating up a 50-year-old on a bus made him a local hero in Oakland.)
So Frank goes around doing the work that negligent cops should be doing but don’t. But Frank bites off more than he can chew, beating up neo-Nazis one minute and then inadvertently exposing a conspiracy involving the mayor (Hellboy star Ron Perlman) by going after a gang that killed Klondike (Harrison Page), Frank’s best friend. Frank doesn’t stop there, though. While he looks for Klondike’s murderers, he also makes time for romance and woos his next-door neighbor Amber (Joyful Drake), a dutiful mother who is abused by her lazy husband Martin Sr. (Chris Spencer) and takes care of her son Martin (John Duffy) alone.
This scenario should be fun. It’s certainly ludicrous enough that at the very least it should be ludicrous in a good way. Tishman and Moss all but acknowledge the ridiculousness with the CGI blood that rockets out of bad guys’ cheeks, as if Trejo were a modern-day Batman. (All that’s missing is cheesy “Kapow!” and “Zip!” intertitles.) Tishman and Moss also make light of the fact that Frank gets around by bus and carries a fanny pack that he wears like, well, Batman’s utility belt.
But these camp flourishes are the exception. More often than not, Frank is presented semi-seriously as a moral, right-minded codger. Worse, Martin Jr. is made into an intolerable caricature of a know-nothing African-American kid you might find on a bad sitcom. (At one point, Frank even calls Martin Jr. a Gary Coleman look-alike.) When Martin Sr. splits Amber’s lip open with a smack, Martin Jr. pouts that his “momma” is “leakin!’” And when Amber playfully throws a napkin at him, Martin Jr. jokes, “Damn, momma, you got skills!” This is right after Frank talks Amber into letting him tend to her wounds with the line, “You don’t want [Martin Jr.] to see you like that.”
Even judging Bad Ass by the low standards its creators set for it, the film still comes up short. Almost none of its fight scenes are memorable. It says a lot about this otherwise sleepy revenge thriller that the two only really striking moments are (spoiler alert) when Frank shoves a bad guy’s hand into a trash compactor and then later when he duels with Charles S. Dutton, a bad guy, while both men drive big Greyhound-type buses.
Trejo is a star and he deserves a good role. He shouldn’t be stuck mouthing lines that only a young Clint Eastwood would be able to sell, like when Frank barks at Martin Sr., “You don’t deserve this family. You don’t deserve any family. Either straighten your shit up or get the fuck out of here.”
What Bad Ass really needs is more midgets with shotguns peeping up over fences (yes, there is one) and more stupid quips like, “That’s too bad because I’m really fuckin’ up this kitchen,” when Frank makes the blood of one his victims spurt all over a white sink.
It would be fine for the film’s creators to laugh at their hero out of one side of their mouths and cheer him on out of the other, if Bad Ass were at least entertaining. Instead, it’s just sad.