'STRAIGHT TO HELL' BYPASSES SUBSTANCE
''Straight to Hell,'' the new Alex Cox movie, is no ''Repo Man.'' It's not much of anything, actually. Mostly, it's a cast and a crew waiting around in Spain for a movie to happen around them. It began when Cox had eight months to kill before shooting began on his new movie, ''Walker.'' He and a bunch of mostly musician friends went to Spain and made what they hoped would be a punk spaghetti Western, on Sergio Leone's favorite set. But nothing in the film is as much fun as what one imagines its late-night beer-driven planning sessions must have been like. Although ''Straight to Hell'' takes its title from a song by The Clash, it suggests ''A Fistful of Nothingness'' or ''The Good, the Bad and the Empty.''
Part of Cox's problem here is that punk -- with whose anarchistic politics his sympathies and sensibilities lie -- has been dead for some time, deader even than Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, the subjects of his last punkerdammerung, ''Sid and Nancy.'' Try as he will, Cox just can't revive punk's defiant whoop here. One wonders if it would have been possible even if ''Straight to Hell'' had a script, which it doesn't. Mostly, it's Cox's friends hanging out, looking forlorn, as if they wished someone would tell them what to do. They includes Joe Strummer, of the defunct Clash, Dick Rude, who wrote the script, and Sy Richardson, who projects a nice quality of centered watchfulness, even though he has nothing to attach it to on this occasion.
These three bumbling desperados bungle a contract hit, rob a bank, then head into the desert, where their Honda breaks down. In no time, they're striding down the dusty main street of Sergio Leone land -- a parched theme park of the would-be mythic. Their moll (she's pregnant with the Richardson character's child) is pouty Courtney Love, who suggests a cross between Nancy Spungen and the Divine character in ''Lust in the Dust.'' Cox avoided the tedious process of casting the members of the rival gang singly by simply casting the entire London-based Irish band known as The Pogues as the McMahon clan. ''Are you McMahon or McMice? Get the long coats,'' their patriarch bellows. For the McMahons, La Vida, various painted signs keep reminding us, is worth Nada.
The Pogues are endearingly good-natured, and more than willing in a landscape where the big drink is coffee and everyone is strung out on it. The butler who keeps pouring it from a silver service is Elvis Costello. Another genre reversal joke is that ''heck'' and ''darn'' are as strong as the language gets. One of the sight gags is Grace Jones's hair -- a long, curly wig -- in a bimbo role. In the film, she's an accessory to arms dealer Dennis Hopper, whose name is the same as the German industrial giant, I.G. Farben. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch appears in yet another hip celebrity cameo, as the irate Mr. Big. But, like everything else in the film, these cameos don't count for much, unless you count the likelihood that their marquee value helped raise the money to produce it in the first place. ''Straight to Hell'' looks like yet another amateurish home movie where the real fun, you suspect, was to be found off camera.
Copyright 1987, The Boston Globe
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