Jailbreakers (1994)

You know Frank Miller, right? The comic book guy. No, you’re thinking of Alan Moore. Yeah, that’s right, the 300 guy. He’s done other stuff, though, far better stuff, like Sin City and Ronin and a fantastic run on Daredevil. He did the Daredevil book Born Again and the Batman books The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, all of which might legally be deemed works of genius. For a while he was one of the masters. Then, as so often happens with young artists who garner those labels — “genius” and “master” — Miller produced a string of decidedly less-than-masterful works that included the lukewarm Returns sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Again and another Batman book called All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder; the latter is largely derided for the portrayal of Batman as a psychotic child-abuser, which is a new one. There are a few more stinkers, but they all get the pass in comparison to Miller’s latest book (ahem, “book”): Holy Terror. This is a story (ahem, “story”) so undercooked that it makes one wonder if Miller forgot to turn the oven on altogether. It’s somehow impossibly offensive and impossibly dull at the same time. Holy Terror is without a doubt Frank Miller’s most abominable creation, and unfortunately that’s saying something.

William Friedkin isn’t exactly the Frank Miller of film, but if he was, Jailbreakers would be his Holy Terror. The fact is that the Frank Miller of film is Frank Miller himself, who helmed his Sin City in 2005 and followed it with the increasingly awful The Spirit and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. But Friedkin, for a time, had a career in cinema that seemed to be following the hugely disappointing formula that Miller’s laid in comics. For an exhaustive breakdown of the early struggle, the well-earned rise, the questionable fall, the lull, and the eventual redemption of the director known as William Friedkin, I highly recommend this piece by Dissolve‘s Noel Murray. In fact, Dissolve‘s entire Career View column is highly recommended. In fact, Dissolve‘s entire catalog is highly recommended.

The same cannot be said of the catalog of Friedkin, though simple quips like that belie how truly masterful some of his films really are. The French Connection shot him to fame and The Exorcist solidified it only a few years later, making the ’70s a heck of a time for a nontraditionalist like Friedkin to be in Hollywood. His next film didn’t do nearly as well, but some (myself very much included) consider it his finest: Sorcerer, the harrowing half-fantasy of gritty men having their grit tested by fate. Those three films are all about gritty men, and though they’re all very different in plot and tone and even execution they all had that certain something that made them immediate, made them truly gripping, made them undoubtedly works by William Friedkin.

A quick fast-forward to Jailbreakers and you’d be hard pressed to blindly accept this story of greasers and cheerleaders as a movie by the same man. The unsentimental worldview has evaporated. Gone are the big-name actors. Most notably absent is the sense of an ancient theme playing out in the present day, which Excorcist and Sorcerer certainly had; I’d argue that Connection witnessed that on a more subtle level, too, some kind of sneaking suspicion that Popeye’s hunt for Charnier has been ongoing since the dawn of time. In Jailbreakers there’s certainly a classic, familiar tale being told, but this time around it’s heavily classic, heavily familiar. Jailbreakers is a lightweight flick that still manages to be really damn heavy while you’re slogging through it.

Part of that can be chalked up to Showtime’s Rebel Highway series and the preconceived categorization of Jailbreakers. Lou Arkoff, son of B-movie legend Samuel Z. Arkoff, conceived of a series of modern twists on ’50s-era drive-in romps and hired a slew of “famous” directors to head each movie-length episode of the series. Cool idea, right? Sigh. Maybe we again think of Frank Miller, who definitely has cool ideas but tends to blow it once in a while on the execution. Here’s Arkoff’s actual description of the conception of Rebel Highway:

“[The impetus for the series was] what it would be like if you made Rebel Without a Cause today. It would be more lurid, sexier, and much more dangerous, and you definitely would have had Natalie Wood’s top off.”

Sigh. Calm down, Lou. So already we’re not exactly aligned with the mature sensibilities of young Mr. Friedkin. Allegedly the highly sophisticated Arkoff had to be convinced to rename the series Rebel Highway, preferring instead his own title Raging Hormones. Anyway, all of this meant that while Rebel Highway was ostensibly attractive to this gang of directors — which included John Milius, Ralph Bakshi, Joe Dante, Robert Rodriguez and more — because of the freedom it would allow them in not being “hampered by big studios”, the constraints of the series are very obvious in the final result. The small budget and the no-name actors are one thing, but the time constraints are probably the real deciding factor. I can’t speak for the rest of the films in the series (yet), but Friedkin’s Jailbreakers definitely lacks a tight script and tight direction.

The plot concerns Shannen Doherty’s Angel, an innocent young cheerleader who meets the studly chopper-riding jacket-wearing Tony and becomes enraptured with the forbidden side of society. They rob diners and jewelry stores, they beat people up, and they — gasp! — get sexy with one another. It all happens extremely fast, the movie opening on the first meeting between the pair as their respective posses, the Montagues and the Capulets, roll their eyes in the background. By the six-minute mark Tony is groping Angel and five minutes later they’re exchanging I love yous. The first half of the film is basically a lot of that, everything punctuated by scenes of intimacy that no doubt pleased good ol’ Lou Arkoff (screaming at the screen “take her top off, Tony!”) and probably failed to satisfy Friedkin. How could it? There’s no time to wonder if something will happen the way we think it’s going to happen. The first half of the film plays like a PG-13 version of a Huey Lewis music video except without any awesome music.

Friedkin’s made other stinkers, but Jailbreakers is interesting because it seems to lack any vestige of his signature style at all. Theatrical releases like Rampage and Jade are probably worse films than Jailbreakers, because even if the pacing of the Rebel Highway installment is all over the place at least it’s fast. On a certain level that can provide entertainment. Rampage and Jade are dull as all hell for the most part, although they do contain sequences and quick shots that make you think of French Connection or Exorcist or Sorcerer. Jailbreakers is the one that you could screen without the opening credits and have absolutely no clue who directed it. You’d certainly be disappointed to discover that it was Friedkin. So therein lies the mental thread connecting Frank Miller’s Holy Terror to William Friedkin’s Jailbreakers, extending out to a variety of similarly-misguided pieces by artists we once considered infallible — it’s not simply that these works are bad. The real letdown is that they could have been made by anyone.

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