What a gloriously stupid movie. Angel Town, the 1990 ass-kicker from director Eric Karson, has an incredible start. The film opens with a montage of the bad guy, Angel (Tony Valentine), driving through East L.A. with the theme song, written and performed by a band headed by the director’s brother, playing on top of it. Then there’s a big gang fight that ends in a shooting. And THEN, the main character, Jacques (Olivier Gruner), has sex on top of his father’s grave. I shit you not, that is how this movie begins.
Olivier Gruner is an interesting dude. Born and raised in France, he joined the French Navy, became a member of their special forces unit, saw combat, and then left the military to pursue a career as a professional kickboxer. He won a French national championship, followed by a pair of world championships. Then he decided he wanted to be an action star. This kind of career trajectory is not unknown in Hollywood, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. He did three major things in his life that are all very hard to do. While he didn’t become a star in mainstream action flicks, he has been working steadily in b-movies, usually in multiple films per year, up to this day.
So, why didn’t he strike it big like Schwarzenegger or Seagall or Van Damme? One could point to his acting in this film. It stinks. But Arnold was so bad early in his career that directors made sure he didn’t have that many lines. Seagall has never had what one could call range, and Van Damme is not much better. Lack of acting chops is not a disqualification for action stardom. I think the problem was market saturation. There was only so much room at the top in the ’80s-style action genre. Not only was Gruner competing with those stars mentioned above, and others, but there was also heavy competition in b-movies against stars such as Michael Dudikoff, Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, Ted Prior, Dolph Lundgren, Jeff Speakman, Cynthia Rothrock, et al. Gruner was hunky, had a great body, and could legitimately kick ass. Everything else turned out to be a coin flip. But, the A-list’s loss is the shitty movie fan’s gain.
Angel Town follows Jacques as he comes to Los Angeles to go to grad school. His backstory is overcomplicated and irrelevant. When he finds that all student housing on or near campus has been filled, he takes a room in a rundown house in the barrio owned by widower Maria (Theresa Saldana). She lives in the house with her mother (Lupe Amador) and son, Martin (Francico Aragon). Maria’s husband was an anti-gang activist who was killed by Angel some years earlier. Now, Angel and his gang are making life a living hell for Maria and her family. Angel wants Martin to join the gang, and he will kill Martin and his entire family unless that happens. What luck for them, then, that an ass-kicker like Jacques swoops in to save the day.
Screenwriter S. N. Warren did a good job making the family’s plight seem hopeless. They are in an impossible position, with their house basically under siege by the gang every day. In fact, these characters have been written into something of a corner. Karson solves this by packing his film with a never-ending stream of fights. Jacques kicks ass on the street. He kicks ass in the yard. He kicks ass in the house. In one memorable scene, he kicks ass behind a bush, with the production crew shaking the branches. The choreography isn’t all that great, but Gruner lets loose with some wicked kicks to bad guys’ chests that had to hurt in real life. There was definitely potential for something greater.
And that’s how an aspiring action career should start — in a dog like this. We can’t have our action stars just come out of nowhere and have a worldwide blockbuster. Just like Gruner had to rise through the ranks of kickboxing before he got a belt, action stars should have to grind out some shitty action flicks before they get handed the keys to the kingdom. Alas, Gruner never did make it to the top, but this hilarious movie was the start of a long contribution to shitty film, and I congratulate him on it.
Despite the Gruner lovefest above, he really did stink, and so did the rest of this movie, hurting its watchability. Angel Town slots into the top half of the Watchability Index, displacing Raise the Titanic at #112. Fans of shitty action should get a kick out of this.