Saturday, March 23, 2019

Steel Arena (1973)

The debut films of prolific directors have a certain innate appeal, because it’s always interesting to see where a noteworthy filmmaker’s journey began. In the case of Mark L. Lester, whose subsequent affronts to cinematic quality include Roller Boogie (1979) and Firestarter (1984), watching his first feature-length project, Steel Arena, is illuminating albeit unsurprising. Very quickly, one notes baseline technical competence and even occasional evidence of visual style. Yet just as quickly, one marvels at laughable ineptitude with regard to acting, characterization, logic, and storytelling. Lester, who began his film career making documentaries, apparently befriended a group of low-rent daredevils who toured the south, then persuaded the daredevils to play fictionalized versions of themselves. Never mind that none of them could act, or that the “story” Lester imposed upon them is a flimsy frame connecting lengthy vignettes of demolition-derby carnage. One can almost feel the film straining every time Lester tries to add dramatic weight with a tragic moment, especially because most of the film is utterly bereft of interpersonal conflict. Nonetheless, Steel Arena offers plenty of guilty-pleasure signifiers common to vintage southern drive-in schlock—there’s a corpulent redneck sheriff, a car chase involving moonshine, a busty waitress with a thirst for adventure, and a hilariously overlong sequence in which people bitch about mosquito bites. Through it all, leading man Dusty Russell, sort of playing himself, manages to avoid forming a single facial expression. The cars he crashes give more convincing performances.

Steel Arena: LAME