Sunday, June 12, 2011

June 11 - The Killing Grounds (1998)

The cover of my VHS copy of The Killing Grounds

The Killing Grounds (1998)
Director: Kurt Anderson
Format: VHS (Video Box Office)

It's always interesting to see an actor try to break away from an unwanted stereotype. Whether it's the "girl next door" doing something edgy (Katie Holmes in The Gift), the action hero trying comedy (Sly Stallone in Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot) or a comedian playing a dark character (Robin Williams in One Hour Photo) it can be refreshing or a train wreck, but almost always at least interesting.

I grew up watching Anthony Michael Hall during his brat pack heyday. When I watch John Hughes' 1980s teen comedies they bring forth a great deal of nostalgic feeling. To me, Hall will always be the geeky kid from those flicks - Rusty Griswald from National Lampoon's Vacation, The Geek from Sixteen Candles, Brian Johnson from The Breakfast Club and Gary Wallace from Weird Science.

I watched The Breakfast Club the other night with my wife and my sister. Tonight, while perusing my shelves of VHS, I spotted ol' AMH staring at me from the cover of The Killing Grounds, much older and brandishing a gun. An obvious attempt to break the geeky stereotype and one I had to view for myself.

I'm aware that Anthony Michael Hall has successfully broken his stereotype by headlining the successful TV show The Dead Zone in recent years. But The Killing Grounds came in the years between his John Hughes collaborations and The Dead Zone - how did he fare then in breaking free of the geek we all know and love?

The verdict is - pretty well. It helps that in The Killing Grounds he plays a bad guy. I've got to admit that surprised me. When I read the synopsis on the back of the VHS I was expecting AMH to be one of the hikers caught up in the situation, so to see him appear as a unscrupulous hitman was a pleasant surprise indeed.

Now, I should mention that there aren't actually any "good guys" in The Killing Grounds. Everyone is flawed in some way or another, making it hard to find a protagonist to latch onto.

The plot surrounds a swag of stolen gold which is being flown across the border into Mexico, but the plane crashes in mountains in the Southwest enroute. The gold is discovered by a group of hikers (Priscilla Barnes from DEVIL'S REJECTS, Charles Rocket and Rodney A Grant, both from DANCES WITH WOLVES and Cynthia Geary from NORTHERN EXPOSURE). They decide to split the loot, but are soon fighting it out with two baddies who come searching for it - played by Anthony Michael Hall and Courtney Gains (who played evil whippet Malachai in CHILDREN OF THE CORN), the latter rocking a sweet ginger mullet.

Whereas the hitmen are meant to be bad guys, the hikers aren't very sympathetic, thanks mainly to their petty squabbling and greedy backstabbing. Geary's character, an undercover cop, is the most likeable, but even she turns out to be a doublecrosser.

Likeability aside, each of the actors does a good job (Gains is both hammy and entertaining at the same time; Hall is more subdued; Rocket is sleazy as the womaniser) and director Kurt Anderson keeps the action moving at a fair clip. He also manages to mix in subtle humour and there's a nice ironic ending. This was his last directing gig though, so maybe his efforts weren't to somebody's liking.

At the end of the day this is a low-budget straight-to-video effort, and at times it plays out a bit like a TV movie, but it's worth seeing just to witness the 1980s' top geek playing a hitman.

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