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Uncle Sam
(1998)
 

Director: William Lustig               
Cast:
Robert Forster, Bo Hopkins, Tim Bottoms, Isaac Hayes


Director/screenwriter Larry Cohen has been criticized for creating great premises for his movies, but the finished product never living up to its potential. Though his screenplay for Uncle Sam isn't quite as guilty of this charge as some of his other movies (e.g. The Stuff, God Told Me To, and Wicked Stepmother), it suffers from not deciding what viewpoint it has on the subjects it deals with. The fact that director Lustig doesn't know what kind of tone to give this movie adds to the disjointedness of the production.

Uncle Sam isn't a bad movie by any means; it does deliver some of the goods that people are looking for. But it takes more than 1/3 of the movie before this stuff begins to happen, and then it's not always delivered with the energy and fun it needs. You would think a movie with well-known B-movie stars and about a walking corpse dressed in an Uncle Sam costume killing "unpatriotic" people would be filled with perverse, campy fun. Well, it's perverse, kinda campy...but lacks the kind of fun that comes from passion. In the 1960s, there were several "Tom and Jerry" cartoons made by a Czech animation crew after they had screened about three classic T&J cartoons - the results were disastrous. Though Uncle Sam isn't a disaster, it sure felt like it was a movie by people just introduced to horror and black comedy - as if they knew what to put in it, but not how to put it in.

At the beginning of the movie, an army patrol in Kuwait led by William Smith (who also reads a self-penned poem during the closing credits) find the wreckage of an American helicopter that was shot down by friendly fire. Among the victims in the wreckage is the burnt body of pilot Sam Harper. Somehow, he comes back to life, and kills Smith and the rest of the patrol.

We then move two weeks later to Twin Rivers USA, preparing for the July 4th celebration to be held in three days. We meet the protagonist, Joey, a small boy quietly mourning the passing of his much beloved uncle overseas (guess who?), while his mother and Sam's estranged wife (who has been having an affair with the town sheriff all this time) struggle with the issue of whether to tell Joey that his uncle was not a man to be admired, having tormented his sister and wife years before. Going to school (in July?), we are introduced to Joey's draft-dodging teacher. As well, we also meet mom's boyfriend (a tax-dodger), a corrupt senator who visits the town as part of a reelection campaign, a teenage punk who sings "The Star-Spangled Banner" a la Roseanne, and his friends vandalizing a graveyard and burning an American flag.

The embers of the burning flag fall into an open grave intended for Sam, whose body was flown home (the post-crash slaughter is never brought up) and is lying in a sealed coffin in Joey's living room. Somehow, the flag-burning brings Sam once again back from the dead, and he breaks out of his coffin. On the prowl in the neighborhood, he finds a peeping tom dressed like Uncle Sam (and on stilts), leading to an amusing sequence when the poor fellow tries to run away, but doesn't succeed.

Sam puts on the costume, and starts the following day wandering around the celebrating town and killing all the people he considers undesirable. I think you can guess what pretty much happens for much of what follows. If not, here's a sample; a student dressed like George Washington tells the draft-dodging teacher he's lost his hatchet. So the teacher runs back into the "empty" school to retrieve the hatchet.......

Sometimes such scenes work in the movie, but a lot of the time they come across as flat - not bad, but just flat. As I said before, the movie lacks the passion it really needs. It becomes really evident during the climatic sequence, which I won't reveal; under the right hands, the sequence has the material to be very exciting. So I was bewildered by Lustig's direction of the climax, and viewers will probably think, "I could have done that scene better." They'd probably be right.  Lustig hasn't exactly been putting out good movies in his career; I was starting to wish that Larry Cohen himself directed this. Though his films have problems, he would have at least beefed up the humor, action, and gore sequences.

Even if Cohen had directed his own script, the script would probably still suffer from a lack of one viewpoint. Occasionally a movie with more than one viewpoint will succeed (example: Dead Man Walking), but usually it will leave viewers confused. Uncle Sam doesn't know if it's anti-American/ anti-military, or a gleeful exercise in killing undesirables (read: those not fitting with the ideal American way). What are we supposed to think when it alternates between slaughtering of these "undesirables" and dialogue that has negative things to say about that "American way" and the U.S. military? In fairness, I should note that there are several well-written monologues (particularly Isaac Hayes'), and in general the dialogue is believable and appropriate for the characters.

(Note: if you watch the movie, stay with the closing credits to not only hear William Smith's poem, but to also afterwards see the shortest blooper reel in cinematic history.)

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See also: Blood Freak, Nail Gun Massacre, Invader

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