Fighting Mad

Director: Jonathan Demme 
Peter Fonda, Gino Franco, Harry Northup

I don't just watch stuff to review on this web site - I also watch a lot of movies and television shows on my own time. And with all the stuff I've watched, there have inevitably been some basic stories I've seen more than once, enough to make me really tired of the prospect of seeing them again. Let me tell you of the first time I felt that a certain kind of plot was being done to death. It was way back when I was a teenager and a voracious television show viewer. I saw the following plot done on several sitcoms, a plot that I labelled A Gun In The House. It always started off with the main characters of the sitcom coming home, and discovering that their home had been burglarized. The next few minutes consist of the main characters "hilariously" panicking, feeling the burglar might still be in the home, and preparing to defend themselves by brandishing tennis racquets and other odd instruments. After they report the burglary to the police (who of course prove to be useless), one of the main characters brings up the idea of them getting a gun. Of course, at least one other of the main characters objects, but in the end they decide to buy a gun. This leads to a "hilarious" scene when these liberal-minded main characters go to a gun store and are cowed by conservative gun store owners. Anyway, the main characters get a gun. Not long afterwards, night falls, and the main characters hear thuds and bumps coming from the darkness downstairs. They grab the gun and nervously go downstairs to confront the intruder. But who should the intruder turn out to be but one of the other main characters of the sitcom! (Though why this individual was creeping around in the dark instead of turning on a light is never answered.) The main characters are creeped out that they almost shot an innocent person, and they resolve to take back that darn gun to the gun store in the morning!

Actually, maybe I am being a little hard on Hollywood, as well as film industries located elsewhere around the world. If you look at all of my movie reviews on this web site, you will see that I have looked at a number of movies that have basic plots that have been done to death before, but all the same I enjoyed the movies. I enjoyed these movies because despite the predictable plots, the movies were done either with a dose of freshness or energy - sometimes both. So what I think I should say is that I am tired of seeing familiar stories done badly. There is one particular familiar story that I would like to talk about that's been done to death in both films and television shows, and more often than not I find has been made in an annoying way, and that is the old, "Evil corporation attempting to drive off multiple innocent people off of their land." I can tolerate it under certain conditions, like if the story is set before the twentieth century, or if the story is set in modern times but in a poor and corrupt part of the world. But if it's taking place in modern times and on the North America continent, I often have a hard time buying it. That's because the heroic characters tend to be very stupid, not doing anything logical that could stop the problem very quickly. If the main protagonist's numerous neighbors are being hurt or killed off by the evil corporation, it seems that reporting all of these multiple mishaps to the press would soon have them be widely reported. Maybe it wouldn't be proof enough to get the police to arrest the evil executives, but the executives would stop their misdeeds because they would now be under a cloud of suspicion and know that the authorities are now watching them.

I am so tired of seeing this story done so badly, treating the audience like it is a bunch of idiots. In fact, it takes a lot for me to be convinced to give this story another try. But recently I Fighting Madcame across a retelling of this familiar story that intrigued me enough to give it a whirl in my DVD player, and that was with the movie Fighting Mad. There were three things about it that made it look interesting to me. The first was that Peter Fonda was the star, who made the movie during a time when he was one of the kings of the drive-in. The second thing was that the movie was not only directed by future acclaimed Oscar winner Jonathan Demme, but he also wrote the screenplay. The third item of interest was that Roger Corman was the producer, though with this particular movie he was working for a major Hollywood studio - I was interested to see what Corman could do with the money and resources of a major studio. Here is the plot for the movie, though I'm wondering if my telling of it to you will be of use, since more likely than not you'll find it very familiar. The central character of Fighting Mad is one Tom Hunter (Fonda, Race With The Devil), a divorced father to a young boy named Dylan (Franco). At the beginning of the movie, father and son return to the small Arkansas town Tom grew up in and reunite with Tom's father Jeff (John Doucette, Patton), as well as with Tom's brother Charlie (Scott Glenn, Night Of The Running Man) and Tom's wife Carolee (Kathleen Miller, Coming Home). After reuniting with his family, Tom soon reconnects with former love interest Lorene (Lynn Lowery, Cat People), but at the same time discovers there have been a lot of changes since he was last in town. A local bigwig by the name of Pierce Crabtree (Philip Carey, Laredo) has been buying up land from various landowners in the area and strip-mining them. It doesn't take long for Tom to find out that Crabtree and his men have been using dirty schemes to get a hold of property from various landowners who are reluctant to sell, not just limited to threats and harassment.

Is it necessary for me to go on with describing what happens next in Fighting Mad? Somehow I don't think I have to mention that Crabtree's pursuit of fresh property has him having his sights on the Hunter property, and that Tom's brother and father have refused to sell their property at any price. Nor do I have to mention that Crabtree and his goons eventually decide to play dirty, inflicting serious harm on Tom's brother, sister-in-law, and father. I think I also don't have to mention that the local sheriff (Northup, Over The Edge) proves ineffective when Tom goes to him, and that eventually Tom gets into the title state of mind and decides to enact some vengeance on Crabtree and his goons. As you can see, the basic plot of Fighting Mad will never win any awards for originality. But it is not just what does happen that's predictable, but also what does not happen. For example, do you think that the local news agencies get wind of all the terrible things that are happening to people with a Crabtree connection and report it? Or that the abused townspeople go to the press themselves to report what's happening? Of course not. In fairness, these harassed citizens aren't completely taking it lying down. We learn early on that they have launched a lawsuit in the court system against Crabtree for the damage he has been inflicting on their property. But I think it will come as no surprise that it is eventually ruled that Crabtree is not at fault. This is not only lame and predictable, the movie adds insult to injury by not explaining why the judge came to this decision.

Clearly, Fighting Mad suffers from having a screenplay with a painfully predictable plot that more often than not has characters acting in a manner that is very unrealistic. Despite this, I was still willing to give the movie a chance; the movie could still have generated a decent amount of entertainment in other areas. But in those other areas, the results are very mixed. Let me start off with a further examination of the characters. Peter Fonda's Tom character does come across as quite likable. He doesn't look like your typical action hero; his unmuscular build and sporting glasses make him look more like an everyman, which makes it easier for the viewer to relate to. Fonda puts a lot of spirit in his performance as well, thanks in part to a screenplay that makes this character determined and not one to take things lightly. Fonda makes an appealing hero. However, the other actors don't manage to come across nearly as well, though it's not the fault of their performances. The characters of Tom's brother and sister-in-law are barely introduced before they exit the movie. Tom's father Jeff doesn't get to say or do much of importance. Tom's love interest Lorene spends much of the movie off screen, and only seems to be in the movie to provide some nude scenes. But the biggest disappointment when it comes to the characters is the villain Pierce Crabtree. In the first half of the movie, he only has two appearances, both very brief. He eventually appears a few more times, but in all of his scenes he never becomes a character that we in the audience would love to hate. He is much too soft-spoken, and has all of his goons do his dirty work for him. The nastiest he gets is when he casually tells Jeff at one point, "This is a free country - everything's for sale." I'm not asking for a villain who would chew the scenery, but clearly more work should have been done in constructing this character so he would come across as a real threat even if he didn't have goons to do his work for him.

As you know, writer/director Jonathan Demme went on to bigger (and better) things years after Fighting Mad, which may be surprising considering the general quality of the movie. To be fair to Demme, he was obviously working with a budget that doesn't appear to have been that much higher than his movies at New World Pictures; apart from a few wrecked or blown up vehicles and dwellings, that's about it for production niceties. And under the circumstances, Demme was able to give the movie a gritty feeling, ranging from the feeling of the impoverished Arkansas countryside to action sequences that feel surprisingly raw and effective. But apart from a few touches like those, Demme's work on the movie is generally disappointing. The biggest problem is with the screenplay. The painfully predictable story is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that this telling feels way too long. It could have been told in half of the current running time. As a result, more likely than not you'll quickly get impatient for Fonda's character to start seriously fighting back. Eventually Fonda does just that, but I have to report that the revenge is not worth the wait. Believe it or not, Fonda's fighting mad rampage of vengeance lasts less than ten minutes. I'm sure that getting so little payoff after impatiently waiting for so long will infuriate many viewers. To make matters worse, the last shot of the movie doesn't make clear if what we are seeing is a flashback to happier times or what is happening after the vengeance. Not knowing for sure the fate of Fonda's character was the final straw for me. I strongly suspect producer Roger Corman convinced a major studio to back Fighting Mad because he sensed it would damage his reputation if he made it on his home turf - which is really saying something considering some of the movies Corman has produced in his career.

(Posted September 1, 2016)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: Breaking Point, Race With The Devil, A Small Town In Texas