Action Jackson

There is a shot midway, because the director wants to move from downtown Detroit to the industrial part, of the sunlit river with backlit violet clouds of steam over it, a shot which only lasts a few seconds. This is so much like Vuillard the spectator pauses for a minute to admire it and reflect that Detroit is a beautiful city and founded by the French. That is a lot for a shot to carry, and especially one that lasts a few seconds.

The director of course is the stunt coordinator and sometime director of The A-Team, and he is a connoisseur of the art, paying homage to Dirty Harry and Cittą Violenta and Evel Knievel with a flawless style that admits masterpieces.


I Come in Peace

From a certain standpoint, Brian G. Hutton’s The First Deadly Sin announced the Eighties, and this film brought them to a conclusion in a directorial stance between Clint Eastwood and Stan Lee.

In vain you will look among leading films of the period for anything approaching its technical competence and inspiration, above all in its filming of action. Baxley is the action director par excellence. This is characterized by his sang-froid in peculiarly hairy and expensive gags, usually involving flaming clouds of gasoline billowing behind stunt men on springboards—Baxley finds a better cinematic solution by having his actors run in slow motion toward the camera, precisely giving them weight and comic grace, instead of pitching them as tummelers pure and simple.

Another branch of tedium extends to the POV from a moving projectile (arrow, bullet, etc.), which marked so many of these films with servile inanity. Baxley does it correctly, short and sweet and so mysterious it’s not bad cinema, it’s good gagwork.

Even more than Action Jackson, I Come in Peace reveals the frightful compression of TV work left behind for spacious compositions that breathe (compare Dirk Benedict’s superb work in Hal Needham’s Body Slam to his daily grind on The A-Team for a similar surprise).

The comic speed is the touchstone of the film. The bad alien samples a female garage mechanic (seen parading in overalls with a very heavy metal tune on her radio) by knocking her flat, revealing her bra, inserting a probe into her bosom and then another into her brain, lickety-split, concluding with his supercilious grin.

Now that the military-industrial-entertainment complex is resigned to digitalizing itself into oblivion, you can remark here and there “the road not taken.” For example, in an age of synthetic whippersnappers and faux symphonies, the music here is fairly musical. And when the complex is resolved, amid the cans of exposed film stock you will find I Come in Peace as natural as a winning pass in Vegas, as refined as it gets in Hollywood, that slum now getting a cursory makeover thanks to a cartel in need of photo ops.

A genuine director’s work sorts out all the elements of a film into their respective weights, relative to each other and the film as a whole. The great backdrop of this fantastic alien police drama is the great city of Houston, represented as itself in a preponderating manner rarely if ever seen.

Baxley has a main scene downtown amid skyscrapers in the background at night, similar to the fountain confrontation in Marathon Man. The interplay of light, colors, reflections and camera angles is what cinema is all about, from a certain standpoint.


Stone Cold

The Washington Post’s reviewer, probably rotated from the Foreign Desk, was able to observe correctly that Stone Cold is a biker movie, and also that Lance Henriksen is terrific as the gangleader, Chains. He overbade, however, in balancing his review by supposing that William Forsythe as Ice overacted, and for the rest, spent himself on abusing Brian Bosworth’s movie debut, with an endnote razzing Craig R. Baxley. This is what comes of that fine old newspaper tradition Ebert speaks of where the sportswriter gets to be the drama critic and cover Capitol Hill by turns. Shaw took apart the myth of versatility in the repertory player of his day (“I knew that he was the least versatile of beings”), but really it’s no worse than the regularly ensconced professionals do, and he might even be one, The Washington Post’s reviewer, himself.

The very heavy-duty biker gang presented here as The Brotherhood don’t waste any time on appeals, they blow up any judge who gives them hard time. Hard-pressed by a law-and-order candidate for governor, they plot an invasion of the capitol building (all this happens in Mississippi).

The FBI sends in Bosworth, and this is how he starts his day, putting candy bars, raw eggs and bananas in a blender with a splash of Tabasco sauce, liquefying the mess and pouring it into a flat bowl for his giant lizard, a house pet.

Baxley’s opening is a psycho supermarket robbery quelled with ease before the credits, which roll over footage of Ice and Chains shooting full cans of beer off each other’s shoulders at twenty or thirty paces. It’s a typically rapacious motorcycle gang that have swollen into a fortified dealership in drugs, prostitution and murder, but as instantaneously deadly as they come.

Baxley’s technique rises to the occasion lustrously, not glossing over anything but doing it up properly in superb cinematography and gags that are almost too readily deployed and filmed with the greatest of ease.

A biker picture writ large, because The Brotherhood (who cement a deal with a shiny new black motorcycle helmet containing the head of an enemy) have large plans. The sort of gang they are is suggested by a Nazi flag covering their ceiling in one shot.

There’s an interesting use of focus-pulling instead of camera movement here and there, with a key example showing blurry lights reflected in a biker’s sunglasses, focused into a semi truck heading toward him on the highway.



Baxley’s great direction, pace a shaky close-up camera, has an ample debt to pay inscribed Eastwood, Fuller, Huston, Leone, Mann, Rydell, Hill and Peckinpah, consciously. He pays it in full for us all, with a winning hand.