What is a hangfire?
For those of you skilled in bar trivia, it’s also a deep cut from the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You. It can also refer to Hangfire, the incompetent Z-grade action movie that this pretentious and on-the-nose definition precedes the opening titles of.
Music that sounds like it was swept from the music department at Konami kicks in as an all-recognizable cast of actors comes together for the explosive event of your boring Friday night. Boiling over with bottomless plot holes, phoned-in performances and action sequences that look like they were conducted on G.I. Joe playsets, Hangfire is not a film that must be merely seen to be believed. It must be explained, dissected, its existence justified to mankind as the video store dies out and the memories only live on via firsthand accounts and streaming websites, which is where I found Hangfire. Amazon Prime is streaming it in non-anamorphic widescreen, so do yourself a favor and pull this thing up because is it a doozy.
See, a child-murdering brute named Kuttner (Lee de Broux, who you may recognize as the wine-drinking coke czar Clarence Boddicker brokers with in RoboCop) orchestrates a big jailbreak in anticipation of his parole hearing—a plot point pulled off better later in ’91 by John Lithgow’s terrorizing baddie in Ricochet.
He’s joined in cahoots by his accomplice/lover, played by James Tolkan. Tolkan—a dignified character actor who had memorable roles in Back to the Future, Top Gun and a slew of other films—is reduced to playing a character named “Patch,” because, well, he has an eyepatch. You put an eyepatch on James Tolkan and he looks like fucking Sagat from Street Fighter.
Meanwhile, in a remote New Mexico town whose police artillery hasn’t been updated since before World War II, the town sheriff, Ike Slayton (Brad Davis) marries his virgin bride (Kim Delaney as an in-name-only Latina), the prison psychologist. Speaking of things that haven’t been in vogue since the Greatest Generation, people named Ike.
Davis had a promising, Oscar-nominated kickstart to his career in Midnight Express 13 years earlier, but heavy drug use lead to a demotion to TV work and the legendary cop thriller Cold Steel in the late 80’s. He died of AIDS the same year this was released. He’s on autopilot here as Ike, whose choice in religious Latin women means that he has a suspiciously cheery ebony-and-ivory relationship with his buddy Billy (Ken Foree).
While curing Billy of his tequila hangover (it involves an omelette and coffee—don’t get funny here), Kuttner and Sagat/Principal Strickland/Patch bust out of jail as a cloud of toxic chemicals as bad as Chernobyl erupts from an accident. Because half of the screenplay probably got lost, the waste is never heard from again—the violent criminals riding around in the Electric Mayhem Prison Bus takes full prescience. All in the while, Ike’s wife is kidnapped and George Kennedy shows up for approximately 48 seconds as the prison warden, only to be run off the same road Toonces the Driving Cat always ended up driving off of.
The prisoners take over Ike’s town, a Wild West tourist attraction that mysteriously became a real city. Why people live here is a mystery—the place looks barely inhabitable due to the architectural boredom and deserted geography. Alas, Hangfire enters its second act as Die Hard in No Más, N.M.
Initially, Slayton and Billy do a good job fighting back—especially against Lou Ferrigno and Lyle Alzado as Smitty and Albert, a pair of bumbling jailbirds who end up frequently humiliated like Bulk and Skull from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Alzado has a mullet so fucking enormous in this movie that it probably got steroids in its follicles, while I’m not sure why Ferrigno has such a thankless role here and he knows it too.
Our heroes’ advantage is thwarted by Jan-Michael Vincent, predictably drunken and surly as the pipe-smoking, Dwayne T. Robinson-like Guardsman called in to take out the menace. Immediately, JMV shames police lieutenant Yaphet Kotto (whose force had earlier let some poor young sap die and fucked off as a result) and berates Slayton and Billy into retreat. A standoff commences.
An inmate high on hallucinogens proclaims, “IT’S THE INVASION! SOLDIERS ARE COMING! THOUSANDS OF ‘EM!” Calm down, dude—there are like 20 guys on your side and the same amount of Army men. It’s an even fucking fight, jackass—and the bad guys win because the M16’s that the Guard brought don’t even fire ammunition, but the shooting star transitions from SuperFriends. What was going to happen there? Ted Knight’s voice would blow them up? Firebomb by recycled animation?
So now Slayton’s pissed, which allows for more wonderful dialogue like this in a pissing contest with JMV:
Brilliant plan, Colonel! Slaughter your own men! Hand over more weapons to the convicts, maybe kill a few hostages along the way. What’s your NEXT master plan, NUKE THE TOWN?
Reconvening with his lover, Foree offers some sage advice that clues us in on the most obvious 80’s action hero character development of all time:
- “Assholes don’t have ears!”
- “25 years later, the clowns are still running the circus!”
Goddammit, the dialogue in this movie is something—inconsistent too. There’s nary a bad one-liner before the action sets in, and once it does, we get some great gems like those above and these Shakespearean samples, like this threat Davis delivers towards Ferrigno:
You see, Smitty, when my fingers come together, you’re gonna have a problem. Medical science calls it a crushed larynx.
…or these assaults from the villain towards Kim Delaney’s damsel in distress:
- “I was lookin’ at this picture, I came to the conclusion—you’re one beautiful bitch.”
- “There’s just something about dark-haired bitches…you know, I musta done 30, 40 like ya… hell, I done 6 in one day.”
…and this insane exchange from the Ambiguously Gay Duo after Slayton obtains a crossbow for the final battle:
Billy: You know how to use one of those things?
Slayton: My mother was full-blooded Cherokee. It’s in the genes.
Jesus Christ! He’s a half-breed all of a sudden! Now, Hangfire has entered the business of just making shit up as it goes along. He’s a ‘Nam vet. He’s got Native American heritage. He has a crossbow. Wait a second—that’s not creativity! That’s…
Hangfire is not the most entertaining terrible action movie out there, but what it happens to be is one of the most gloriously incoherent, Pig Latin-fluent pieces of Dadaism in the genre. Davis and JMV have another standoff later on where both look like they just topped off a fifth of 100-proof Jack Daniel’s each, struggling to say dialogue or fall over. Scene probably took a Kubrickian amount of takes. At another point, that crazy prisoner I mentioned earlier is in the background of a scene where Kuttner and Patch are antagonizing JMV over the radio, hands full of Army supplies as if Mel Brooks jumped in to direct the scene. Characters disappear and reappear without warning.
All of this leads to a climax where people die in slow motion by moving slowly without post-production assistance. Peter Maris, the director, previously turned out Ministry of Vengeance (also starring Kennedy, Tolkan and Kotto), a dreadfully horrendous and equally cheap revenge thriller where John Schneider plays a minister who heads to Lebanon to annihilate the terrorists who killed his family in an airport attack. While Hangfire is still terrible, at least the damage is worthy of some beers, pizza and a nice round of MST3King the final product.
Stream it—you’ll thank me later.