The essential muddle of the critical position on this film is unique for admitting no crevice of light. Otherwise, this is just another great and original film run over by the critics in their haste to do something else, and good riddance.
The film wholly depends on a perfectly rounded view of satire as encompassing all persons (this was Renoir’s view). There is a hero (the judge at the end, played by Gerald S. O’Loughlin), there is a villain (the little rat weasel who steals a car and provokes a police chase setting the film in motion), but even they are seen to be represented with a wry eye or with an eye constantly moving, so that the judge settles matters at the hearing with unequivocal evidence for acquittal, a two-sided admonishment against “media hysteria” and the defendant who provoked it, and a perfunctory lockup on a technicality, while the weasel is seen both as humorously irresponsible and a menace to society at the same time, without underlining either fact. You can see the entire disposition of the film in its relation to the “Three Strikes” law, which from the first not only has a deterrent effect but drives the film along in the protagonist’s desire to avoid inculpation, yet at the same time is seen as interfering with the pursuit of justice. Everything in 3 Strikes is seen from every point of view, and cinematically this realizes a continuous comedy as it were on ball bearings, with each scene having a punchline which sets up the next scene, from start to finish.
On the lam and innocent, this time, Robert Douglas (Brian Hooks) takes his girl to the Marina Marriott, and the next morning she rifles his pockets for the new-found wealth that brought them there, but also finds a girl’s name and number, so there is another scene between the pair, though the mystery girl only has evidence to exonerate Rob, and he only got her number from his mother. The point of the joke is that, after the night before, it’s funny that Rob’s girl picks his pocket (punchline), and then the scene pivots on the discovery into new material, which in turn sets up Rob’s meeting with the girl, whose name is Dahlia. Her younger brother plays obnoxious video games and she upbraids him (he says, “you trippin’!”, she replies, “no, you trippin’!”, etc.), and on his way out he spots Rob, who’s wanted by the police, and this sets up another contretemps, etc.
This is an important discovery in terms of composition, and it’s entirely founded on the central premise of a satirical point of view that takes all the world as its stage, yet knows that fools are mortal. On the day of his release, Rob is to be picked up at County Jail by his fat bald friend, who spies a hooker in hot pants on the street and puts his minivan in reverse to keep pace with her and chat. She just lost her job, she says, dancing at the Chick ‘N Strip, he thinks he knows “the Negro who runs that place,” her smile comically reveals her face under all that makeup, he can drive her home “but you can’t stay,” she says. In the next shot, he coughs nonplussed as she lap-dances before him, and he calls the rat weasel on his cellphone to pick up Rob. This is great comedy (he looks like an African potentate being regaled), sets up the traffic stop that puts Rob on the run, is thoroughly considered and perfectly realized, and like everything else is worthy of the M-G-M imprimatur. Everyone in this film is transparent, and that’s funny all around.
3 Strikes was filmed for the respectably small sum of $6,000,000, and filmed better than some costing ten times as much. It has no trouble accomplishing a full-bore police chase (with a helicopter appearing suddenly over a rise), it takes all things in its stride quite skillfully.
Which is more than the critics could do. Observe the desk clerk at the Marina Marriott, who smilingly withstands a tirade from Rob’s girl, until the misunderstanding is clarified, the couple are checked in and in the same tone bidden to “have a nice day.” Rob mocks the clerk superbly, and the camera stays on them as they walk away, but everyone has been seen in it as they are: the desk clerk officious and artificial, but treating everyone with a kind of smile, Rob’s girl unaccustomed to certain ways of the world and with a bad temper, Rob sensible and droll and a bit of a rotter, in no particular order. He crudely rebuffs the parking valet waiting for a tip, and the police detectives who shortly arrive also avoid paying, the fellow is obtrusive, they all have different reasons for stiffing him, and he’s left bemoaning a day of reduced income.
Rob’s parole officer (Vincent Schiavelli) has a waiting room full of losers, the police van is late, he’s cynical and overpressed, perfectly understandable, as likeable and loathsome as everybody else. The view is never settled on this or that aspect, but takes them all into account with a smile at the spectacular perspicacity of its method, for all it’s worth. The jokes range from the simplest of gags to speechlessness over some surd, pure laughter.
The critics saw a different film than the one on television, their bluenosed disapprobation knew no bounds. It seems very clear, nevertheless, that they have badly miscalculated the satire as narrow and yet unfocused at the same time, and withal under the influence of malign or adverse forces. Nothing can be further from the truth, and there is a jocular look at the press as well (contrasted with the sturdy professionalism of Jerry Dunphy as himself) to account for it.
The California Highway Patrolman who stops Rob and the rat, gun drawn, screams hysterically at them from behind the door of his car, and that’s funny, but the rat pulls a pistol and starts firing. Rob can’t believe it, the stolen car is shot full of holes, Rob lights out, the rat takes a round in the can, the manhunt is on, it gets funnier and funnier by never missing a trick.
This way of looking at things may have confused the critics, but the actors have a great time with it, working hard (as the outtakes show) but giving an impression of lifelike ease by dint of the approach to the material that governs the whole film.
Then there is the role of flatulent Uncle Jim, which comes by way of Blazing Saddles from a Richard Pryor routine, perhaps, and was not assigned to Antonio Fargas by mistake. You need a little vulgarity, as Shaw said, to be a Universal Man. Mo’Nique reveals abilities not to be suspected in her frenetically dull television work, that being the current style of the medium. Many critics have espoused the impossible view that this is a Hip-Hop or Gangsta film, but the performances as much as anything else reject such a standpoint as a risible imposture at best (like most everything else).
The last joke is an end title over Rob back in jail pursued by two drug-dealing felons, with the happy thought that he “was released early” from this thirty-day sentence for failing to meet with his parole officer (which the judge determines does not count as a “third strike”), “because of prison overcrowding.” A subtle, wry joke, but not too much of either, even for a critic.
It might be that the critical fraternity simply could not bring itself to write seriously about a great film by a man who goes by the stage name of D.J. Pooh (né Mark Jordan), and yet they have written in the loftiest professional terms about films that aren’t worth a tinker’s curse but have a respectable-sounding name attached to them, and so added snobbism to incompetence, as well as unnecessarily burdening the writer with a refutation of their unsupported assertions.
How much better to marvel at Rob’s father (George Wallace) gleefully watching a tape replay of his son running from the police, recalling his days as a track & field man, and in the same breath describing the boy in three words, “his sorry ass.”