Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 31 December 2011
Source IVE VHS
Penelope Spheeris’ little-seen 1987 feature Dudes is something of a bridge between the cult, punk films that started her career and the slick Hollywood comedies that the director is perhaps more widely associated with. And while it’s true that melding the spiky strangeness of Suburbia with the agreeable silliness of Wayne’s World makes for an uneven viewing experience, Dudes is also a fun watch.
It begins in New York, where three punks: Grant, Biscuit, and Milo, are growing sick of their directionless lives. “I’m so sick of doing this,” Milo says, “I’m sick of waiting for the world to end.” It’s naïve Milo (played by Suburbia veteran and erstwhile Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea) who comes up with the trio’s new direction: a move to Los Angeles. Of course, Milo’s conviction that L.A. will be a paradise is likely to give fans of Spheeris’ previous work a pang—I was instantly reminded of club owner Brendan Mullen’s assessment of the city in The Decline of Western Civilization: “The air in utopia is poisoned.” But the illusory nature of Milo’s promised land ends up a muted irony in Dudes, because – if you’ll excuse the minor spoiler – Milo is robbed and murdered by a racist, gun-toting gang in the desert, and Grant and Biscuit spend the rest of the film seeking their revenge.
The gang’s ringleader Missoula is played by Lee Ving from the punk band Fear, and he doesn’t have to stray too far from his onstage persona to excel as the irredeemable, mustache-twirling villain of the piece. Milo, on the other hand, is played by a just-barely-post-Duckie Jon Cryer. He never quite convinces as a hardened outlaw, which is rather sweet and probably kind of the point. One of the most surreal elements in a film that has many is the fact that Milo and Biscuit scarcely question the decision to hunt down and kill Missoula once the police have ignored his crime. Indeed, the gravity of film’s events jar with its frequently light tone: it’s not quite cartoony, but it is at all times “only a movie,” and a goofy and freewheeling one at that.
Indeed, Dudes is most memorable for its loopy flourishes, stuff like Elvis impersonator Pete Willcox as “Daredelvis” a rodeo clown/jack-of-all-trades who succeeds in distracting a bull by breaking into a rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes,” or an old prisoner who starts singing Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” for no real reason. There’s also a clever movie theater shootout in which the sound of real guns are all-but-drowned out by the soundtrack from the Tyrone Power western Jesse James—easily Spheeris’ biggest wink to the intrinsic only-a-movieness of this whole saga.
For some reason 1987 seems to have been the year of the punk western: Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell is an unhinged reimagining of the spaghetti western, and the imagery in the lovely Border Radio also takes cues from the western tradition. Dudes can be slotted into this slim subgenre as well, and the film is at its most self-conscious when it comes to its co-option of western tropes. In addition to the bit in the movie theater, Grant persistently has visions of a cowboy on horseback, and Biscuit has hallucinatory dreams of himself as a Native American. (The fact that screenwriter Randall Jahnson would later have a hand in the script for Oliver Stone’s trippy rock biopic The Doors is not a complete shock.) Yet while Dudes takes pains to reclaim the western for its spiky-haired leads, therefore placing it in conversation with past westerns and with other countercultural films (aside from previous punk movies, Easy Rider is an obvious touchstone), I’m not sure that it adds that much to the discussion, or even that it means to. But its utter weirdness is a virtue, and there’s a playfulness here that charms. Though perhaps not a stone-cold classic, it is certainly an embraceable oddity.