Outlaw Force

Director:David Heavener                            
David Heavener, Paul Smith, Frank Stallone

Outlaw Force is one of the biggest vanity projects I've ever seen. Not only does David Heavener (star of Loner and The Border of Tong according to the back of the box - though I can't find any references that suggests these movies actually exist) star in Outlaw Force, but the opening credits reveal that he also wrote, produced, and directed it. And the end credits reveal that of the eleven songs on the soundtrack, Heavener wrote and sang seven, and wrote two more. The only other vanity project I can think of that has one man surpassing all of this work is Student Confidential, with Richard Horian directing, screenwriting, producing, acting, writing/performing the songs on the soundtrack, as well as editing! Though while Student Confidential had a number of unintended laughs to make it entertaining enough to watch, Outlaw Force is pretty much a big bore.

Heavener plays country singer Billy Ray Dalton (what's with all these "Billy _____" names that people in the south name their children, anyway?), which gives him the excuse several times  in the beginning of the movie to burst into song, including one ditty called "This Honky's Gonna Honkytonk Tonight". Heavener's singing actually isn't that bad, though the songs are dubbed in so ineptly, the effect becomes comical. When Billy isn't singing, we see the "tender" side of his character, seeing him as the loving husband and father of his wife and young daughter. Billy may be loving, but he hasn't raised his daughter to talk well, because every time she speaks, it sounds like she has a mouthful of oatmeal, making it difficult to make out what she's saying. And when we do understand her, we quickly wish she'd shut up; she leads a prayer at the dinner table that's so nauseatingly sweet and precious, I almost blew chunks right there and then.

That night, while Billy is at the bar belting out his songs, a group of drooling scum (that Billy humiliated earlier when they were tormenting a gas station owner) break into his house, raping and killing his wife, and kidnapping his daughter, taking her back with them to L.A. Shortly afterwards, the police tell Billy that building a case would be impossible "without witnesses". What the hell?!? The four are seen leaving a bunch of physical evidence behind during their vandalizing of the house and the torturing of Billy's wife! With this and other police stupidity around this part of the movie, it's no wonder that Billy  grows a beard in three days, straps on his six-shooters, dons his coat and cowboy hat, and drives to L.A. to teach those punks some good ol' wild west justice.

A vanity project is usually asking for trouble, and this movie is no exception. Heavener looks good dressed in his cowboy duds, and does show a little acting talent - not a great deal, but certainly enough to pass for a B-movie. Still, he made the right decision to have his character stay quiet a lot, in an attempt to make a kind of silent hero a la Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson, but he goes a little too far by actually speaking less than those two actors usually do in a movie. The character's personality, however, is the key to why Heavener isn't successful here. I don't know about you, but the idea of a hero drinking bottles of cola with shelled peanuts mixed in doesn't exactly appeal to me. And I was wondering how the hero, wearing that getup, was able to outrun a police car...why the length of his beard kept shrinking and regrowing throughout the he was able to fully recover from a bullet wound in less than 24 hours...and why he seemed to have a fetish for crotches, kicking two in the movie, and putting a bullet in a third. He makes a feeble attempt at some detective work in his first few hours in L.A., but he seems to gain psychic powers later in the movie, for that seems to be the only explanation as to how he subsequently figures things out.

The gang members are hateful enough I guess, with their drooling and brutality towards innocents, though I really couldn't tell one gang member from the other. They also seem to have psychic powers at one point, somehow finding the one fast food restaurant in L.A. the hero is eating in at that moment. Paul Smith ("Bluto" in Popeye) shows up near the middle of the movie as a police inspector. Now, I could put aside the fact that cops aren't allowed (I think) to grow beards, and that Smith was way too fat to be a cop. But his character is a waste - he is labeled as some kind of Dirty Harry type by his captain, but spends most of his screen time behind his desk or a wheel of a car. His connection with Heavener's character is so weak, and pretty much inconsequential, that he could have easily been written out of the movie. Smith doesn't even get to punch out the whiny liberal partner he's saddled with.

The main reason why the movie sinks is due to the very poor direction by Heavener. To but it bluntly, the movie is very sloppily made - the picture quality always seems slightly out of focus, and the movie is so underlit, even some of the daytime sequences look like they were shot with a day-for-night lens on the camera. You can't always hear what a character says, due to the muddy sound, though nobody usually has anything to say that's either informative or interesting. Characters literally stand still, waiting for a fist to hit them on the face and knock them down. The idea of a big stunt is showing someone climbing up or down a building. Heavener, obviously working with very little money, uses other money-saving techniques that are absurd. One scene has him practicing shooting cans off a fence. He shows his hero shooting off the cans on the fence by taking a close-up shot of a can, stopping the camera, removing the can, turning the camera on again, and dubbing a ricochet sound on the soundtrack. And the climax (taking place in - what else? - an abandoned building) builds up no heat or suspense of any kind. In fact, the movie would have absolutely no atmosphere if it weren't for the fact that the idea of a grizzled cowboy stalking the streets of a modern city for revenge brings in some edge from the beginning.

While watching Outlaw Force, and trying to prevent my eyes from closing, it reminded me of another vanity project that I watched years ago, that actually had some similarities to this movie. That movie was called Cole Justice, with Carl Bartholomew starring and directing (and I think also writing.) The movie was a saga about a bearded college professor in his 50s who lectures on westerns in the day, and at night dresses in cowboy gear to become the vigilante killer dubbed "The Cowboy Killer" by the imaginative media. I remember this hard to find movie being inevitably silly, but filled with a passion for the genre, and to this day I still remember a great deal about this movie while I've forgotten much better movies. I can't remember if it was good enough to rent, but it was certainly a heck of a lot better than Outlaw Force.

UPDATE: Marvin Meyerhoffer sent along this trivia:

"Heavener brought a UMatic copy of Outlaw Force by my place for my opinions advice (I was working in local TV at the time... had featured him in a couple of music shows). I knew this was a B minus effort when I saw one gal drop her blouse to expose her rhyme or reason for this, and I pointed it out to DH. "Well, they're in love..." he said, "they're gonna make love." I replied, "The boob shot is just for the sex element," I said, "And she's as flat-chested as a refrigerator. Cut it." He didn't. The film premiered at Showcase Cinemas here in Louisville to a full room. I shouldn't have been there, and I damn sure shouldn't have invited one of my TV news reporter friends to cover the occasion...I realized this when he smiled at me, shook his head and left for the station ten minutes after the title hit the screen. Oh, I could write a book..."

UPDATE 2: Matt Thompson wrote in with this:

"I was reading your review of Outlaw Force and I noticed your confusion of the main character putting shelled peanuts in a soda. I think I read in another review that you're from the Great White North, or "Canada" as you like to call it, so you may not be familiar with this Southern practice. In the thirties and forties, when Coca-Cola was first mass produced to the New Dealed-up South, it was common practice to put peanuts in the bottles. The acid in the Coke reacted with the salt on the peanuts and the soda would fizz.

"It's not done so much today by the youngsters, of course - Southerners are quiet so easily pleased anymore, I suppose - though I catch my mother of 55 still doing it from time to time. Of course, if you are familiar with this, please disregard this email."

UPDATE 3: I got this e-mail from Michael Prymula:

"Hey, you were wondering about whether Border Of Tong or Loner existed? Well they both have entries in IMDB and they're found under the alternative titles of Massacre and Ragin Cajun respectively, and they both have DVD releases in the U.S. in case your wondering, oh and if you want to see a good David Heavener (yes, such a thing does actually exist!) then I would recommend checking out Fugitive X: Innocent Target, it's a pretty competent Most Dangerous Game rip-off, it's professionally made so well that it almost looks as good as a PM film (Ok maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's still looks way better then you'd expect a Heavener film to look) and Heavener also acts much better, that films available very cheap on Amazon."

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: The Stranger, The Last Marshal, Tougher Than Leather