Directed by Craig Moss
Written by Craig Moss and Elliot Tishman
What makes a movie pulpy often, especially these days, has little to do with the intent the filmmakers have to make a certain kind of movie. Once one sees that Pulp is more style than medium now, aspects of that style will pop up in other venues over and over. Sometimes there’s enough in a film to make it pulpy, sometimes it just has things about it that ARE pulp like, and many times, there isn’t an ounce of pulp in a movie. BAD ASS falls well somewhere between points one and two.
Frank Vega (Danny Trejo) is a Vietnam veteran in his senior years who has lived a hard life. Relationships coming and going, jobs never appearing, and even when he does find his own way as a hot dog vendor, that even gets taken away by a newer, better seller of dogs. Basically when the movie opens, Franks is presented as an anachronism that simply just wont’ let go.
Then, one day on the bus, two thugs start causing trouble with other passengers and turn their attention to Frank. This turns out to be a mistake and the turning point in Vega’s life as he, finally having all he can handle, not only stands up to the goons, but beats the holy YouKnowWho out of them both. All of this is, of course in today’s modern phone age, caught on camera and the video goes viral. Overnight Frank Vega becomes ‘Bad Ass.’
This new notoriety brings Frank some good fortune, lots of attention, some talk show appearances, and even alliances with the police department. But real life intervenes again and Frank’s mother passes away, leaving him her house and her dog, Baxter. Frank moves in and allows a fellow veteran and his best friend, Klondike, to move in as well. Life settles into normalcy, except that Klondike has a USB drive that he insists Frank put in his mother’s safe.
Oh, yeah…and then Klondike is brutally murdered.
Thanks in large part to his fifteen minutes of fame, Frank gets access to the murder case enough to be able to follow what the police are doing. He is regularly assured the police are doing all they can, but stops believing this when he finds out one murder is solved while he is waiting for the police to solve Klondike’s. So, Vega does what any good vigilante does…and decides to take the law into his own hands.
This is the point, probably about fifteen minutes in where BAD ASS has a major tonal shift. What starts out possibly as a modern day parable about technology and humanity or even just a feel good story about an old guy who just can’t take it anymore takes a hard right turn into crime fighting Pulp land. Vega begins working the murder case on his own, while also protecting his neighbor and her son from an abusive husband and father. And everywhere Vega goes, he leaves a trail of blood and bodies. And I do mean everywhere. Every time Frank is on the screen after he decides to be a crimebuster, someone is hurt, from being just beaten a bit to hands shoved in garbage disposals and more. And, at least for the purposes of this film, Vega’s tactics work, as he uncovers a plot that involves a psychotic drug dealer (Charles S. Dutton) and the city’s corrupt Mayor (Ron Perlman).
BAD ASS is an interesting film. When it opens, if you haven’t already read a synopsis for it, it seems like it’s going to be a movie about an older person finding himself for the first time in a long life. And, to be truthful, that IS the kind of movie it is. Trejo convincingly plays a man who is struggling not to be bitter about the cards he’s been dealt, but obviously in need of something to change for him. It just so happens that change involves beating people up for a good cause. But it’s not even then that the movie goes down the Pulpy path. That comes a few scenes later with the murder of Klondike. At that point, Frank Vega transforms into a sort of uniformed (he has a costume of sorts) vigilante that echoes classic Pulp characters of that type, at least in purpose and intent.
Danny Trejo, in my opinion, is an actor that brings something special to any role he’s in. He is rough around the edges, a product of his own hard life, and even when he’s not playing roles that reflect that (which isn’t often), that adds a certain amount of reality to what he does. Frank Vega has lived a hard life, similar in many ways likely to Trejo’s, and when Frank feels sadness, despair, and especially the need for vengeance, Trejo communicates that as well as any formally trained thespian could. Is he playing himself? Sure, to a degree, but he plays Vega in a way that made me actually cheer out loud when he delivered some of his ass kicking.
Charles S. Dutton was an inspired choice for the role of the drug dealer in this. Although Dutton tends to have a sort of soft sophistication about him in most roles, that plays as a strength in this one as he unfurls into straight up mad killer from that sort of usual relaxed place he plays in. Perlman was rather wasted in this, only in that he appears just a few minutes to say he was in the movie and doesn’t really get to stretch his bad guy legs at all. Still, the scenes he has sparkle with that almost sadistic Perlman charm.
BAD ASS is mostly a Pulp Film, although some would say it borders on noir. It echoes of the Death Wish type vigilante films of the 1980s, but never forgets that its leading man is a senior citizen who can essentially take on anybody. There isn’t a lot of social commentary in this one beyond the first fifteen minutes. It pretty much is a tale of unbridled vengeance and as such requires a suspension of disbelief, which is okay with me, as one aspect of a Pulp movie is often that; in order for the characters to be larger than life, they have to be allowed to be such.
Conflict necessary for pulp movies is definitely present in BAD ASS, from the moment Frank stands up and fights on the bus. That is leveled up even more as Frank investigates the murder because it takes him all across the city and into situations that are literally kill or be killed.
Is BAD ASS going to be a movie that is quoted or lauded for years to come? No. But it is a good vengeance laden good guy kicks butt and stands up for what’s right flick led by a guy who everyone believes, just looking at him, has lived a life that would make him tough enough to take on a corrupt city and drug dealers in his golden years.