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Raw Courage
(a.k.a. Courage)
(1984)
 

Director: Robert L. Rosen               
Cast:
Ronny Cox, Lois Chiles, Art Hindle


It's often said that it's not the subject matter of a movie that decides if it succeeds or not, but just how the subject matter of the movie is executed. Raw Courage is a good example of proof for that statement, that is, if you compare it to an earlier made movie, Survival Run. When I reviewed that movie, I mentioned how bad it was, since it contained idiotic characters Who wears short shorts? They wear short shorts! and a remarkable lack of any real action, among other things. I'm not saying that Raw Courage is free of problems; heaven knows, it does have some big annoyances in it. Yet I found the movie, problems and all, much more satisfying, enough that I can safely say that I enjoyed it. Even though some of the problems are major, I think I ended up liking this movie a heck of a lot more than Survival Run because it has a lot more respect for its audience. It may be annoying at times, but at least it isn't relentlessly stupid, and it's way more convincing in what it depicts.

Once again we're in the desert, and once again that reliable Richard Connell short story The Most Dangerous Game is resurrected. The movie starts off in the early hours of the day a nervous Pete (Cox) is preparing to set off on a great challenge - a 72 mile weekend jog through the New Mexico wilderness, accompanied by his buddies Roger (Hindle) and Craig (Tim Maier). Despite his worry, he and the others manage to start their expedition, and for about the first half of the journey, things go fine. Then suddenly out of nowhere (in a great sequence), the three of them are suddenly captured by the "Citizen's Brigade" - a private militia made out of ordinary citizens who are preparing for the "collapse", lead by a Colonel Crouse (M. Emmet Walsh.) After being told that their capture was a joke, the Colonel lets them go. But not long afterwards, unforeseen consequences of their meeting the militia soon result in the three men being pursued again by the militia. This time, the hunt isn't a joke, but it's now a case of run or be killed - and being stuck in the wilderness, the men can only rely on themselves.

Ronny Cox not only produced this action/adventure movie, but he also wrote it (along with his wife), and there are the definite signs of not just a first-time screenwriter here, but also the pitfalls that can happen when someone writes a screenplay that he's going to star in. First, a look at the former; we have a story that's not only not terribly original, but has no real surprises. Even though you can't guess the finer details, you always have a pretty good idea just what direction the movie is going towards at any moment. We not only know this formula well, but M. Emmet Walsh - the long lost twin brother of Ned Beatty? how it works. Another sign of a first-time screenplay here is when it comes to character development. The villains are grossly underwritten; Walsh's character not only doesn't have that much screen time, but the essence of his character all seems to depend on one long monologue shortly after he's introduced. A movie like this really needs enough evil presence, so the flight of the protagonists can not only seem more justified, but intense and desperate as well. Not only is there not enough evil coming from Walsh, but also from the other people in the brigade; they are all completely indistinguishable from each other, and their popping up every few minutes makes them come across like characters in a video game. Well, there is one female character in the militia who does realize that what her squad is doing is wrong, but her character doesn't alter the plot one bit. Maybe that's why the screenplay eventually writes her out - but why was she there in the first place?

Somewhat better written are the three protagonists. We get to learn a little about them, such as seeing their home lives just before they go off on their race, and we see them joking and talking to each other during the first leg of the run. They are constructed well enough so that viewers will find them a likable bunch of fellows, and we hope they'll be able to escape the terror they've found themselves in. Still, their construction is not without flaws. One attempt at fleshing out their character comes in the form of flashbacks, with the characters remembering happy times with their loved ones. It's "Rollerball" all over again - except it's taking place outdoors, without roller skates, and protective gear. And no ball These flashbacks largely occur during the second half of the movie, and they interrupt the flow of the movie when they happen, as well as the fact that these flashbacks don't really tell us anything new about the protagonists. The last problem I had with the characters comes with Cox's character. Now, I guess since he wrote and produced the movie, some slack can be cut for him when it comes to constructing his character. Still, I did find it a little annoying that it always seems that Cox's character has all the ideas, isn't the one that goes temporarily crazy, and has most of the dialogue. His character also talks to himself a lot, and what he has to say ("C'mon, Pete, hold on!", "I hate how I feel about myself!", etc.) frequently sounds unnatural and somewhat laughable. In fairness, not everything Cox writes for himself or the other characters rings false. There's occasionally a nice moment, such as when his character, several hours after the crisis began, suddenly realizes the full impact of the situation when he's finally able to rest and actually think it over.

Cox's character and the other two protagonists generally have a nice "everyman" feel to them, so that they come across like people we personally know. Little that they say is far away from what we or our friends would say under the circumstances. Also, it's what they do, as well as say, that also contributes to this feeling. The protagonists are forced to make a number of plans to evade and defend themselves from the militia. Some of these plans are clever, Men never change when they're older - it's just a bigger sandbox they fight in though they are never outlandish. You won't see the men making complex homemade traps a la MacGyver; instead, they are more prone to use immediately whatever they get in their hands, if they get so lucky. Mostly, they rely on quick thinking. Not only do all of their actions look believable, they become suspenseful as a result of it looking so convincing. Though the action sequences never get high tech and complicated, seeing these thirsty, exhausted, and scared men struggling against their pursuers sure makes for some tense sequences. (The climax, despite its predictability, is a real nail-biter.) Making characters that the audience will care about sure goes a long way in a low budget movie.

The direction of the movie is wisely focused at giving us an idea of what the protagonists are going through at any moment. At the beginning, we feel their care-free attitude, but by the end we are wincing as we see their battered bodies hobbling through the sands. The desert locations and some effective photography (including a couple of effective helicopter shots) really makes Stabbed through the heart, and they're to blameus feel their isolation and helplessness. The low budget doesn't make the direction come across as slick, but I think that's an asset; when a movie rolls around in the dirt, you expect a gritty feel to it. There is occasionally some oddness to the direction, such as a few point-of-view shots, as well as  a puzzling opening sequence that dreamily shows us things like a close-up of some toes being covered with Vaseline. But the biggest problem the movie has that threatens to destroy the mood doesn't come from the direction, but the musical score. The electronic Johnny Harris score is simply terrible; it sounds like it was composed on an electronic keyboard purchased at K-Mart. Not only does it make the ears bleed, but it destroys a lot of the movie's mood, and makes the production come across cheaper than it really is. See the movie by all means, but be sure to keep a pair of earplugs in arm's reach.

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Overkill, The Peace Killers, Survival Run

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