Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Angels Hard as They Come (1971)

          Long before he made humanistic dramas and thrillers for major studios, Jonathan Demme paid his dues by generating exploitation films for Roger Corman’s B-movie factory. Demme’s tenure at New World Pictures began with this biker flick, which has some admirable moments but doesn’t make a lasting impression. Scott Glenn, at his most stoic and sullen, stars as Long John, leader of a small gang of drug-dealing cyclists. After escaping cops during an interrupted transaction, Long John and his pals encounter members of another biker gang at a gas station. The second gang has taken up residence in an Old West ghost town, where they’re partying with a group of hippies, so Long John and his buddies are invited to join the fun. Soon after the various factions converge, Long John gets into a heavy rap session with hippie chick Astrid (Gilda Texter). She pushes him to explain why bikers are so violent, and he replies that anyone who flouts society’s rules invites conflict. “Yeah, I dig your problem,” Astrid says, “but I don’t think your solution is right.” “Shit,” Long John says, “What works is what’s right.” In fleeting moments like this one, Angels Hard as They Come almost becomes a thoughtful referendum on the counterculture.
          Alas, Demme (who cowrote and produced the picture) and Joe Viola (who cowrote and directed) can’t linger too long on philosophy. This being a biker flick, the main items on the menu are debauchery and violence. Accordingly, Demme and Viola contrive an iffy plot revolving around the rape and murder of a hippie chick. Eventually, Long John is accused of the killing and subjected to kangaroo-court justice at the hands of General (Charles Dierkop), the demented leader of the opposing biker gang. None of this quite works, since it’s never clear why the bikers are so upset a stranger was killed, or what the General hopes to achieve by incriminating Long John. Plus, the story simply runs out of gas at some point, looping through repetitive scenes of boozing and brawling. That said, Angels Hard as They Come delivers most of the favorite tropes associated with its genre—crazies referring to each other by colorful nicknames (“Axe,” “Juicer,” “Lucifer,” etc.), nasty fight scenes involving broken bottles and other found-object weapons, zonked-out chicks dancing topless on bars, and so on. A young Gary Busey is the mix, too, though he’s rather improbably cast as a pacifist hippie instead of a scary biker.

Angels Hard as They Come: FUNKY

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