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Sunday, March 20, 2011

GANG LAND -- DVD review by porfle

Based on actual events, Randolph Kret's GANG LAND, aka "Pariah" (1998), is powerful indy filmmaking whose reach just barely exceeds its grasp.

With rival white and black gangs in a constant race war in L.A., the interracial couple of Steve (Damon Jones) and Sam (Elexa Williams) suffer the wrath of both sides.  The final outrage comes when Sam is brutally gang-raped in a parking garage by David Lee (David Lee Wilson) and his skinhead cronies while Steve is beaten and forced to watch.  Sam commits suicide later that night, and the grief-stricken Steve swears revenge.

Writer-director Randolph Kret gives us an uncomfortably close look at the racist skinhead culture as we spend time hanging out with these dregs of society--slam-dancing, gang-banging, and generally being hostile toward the world and each other.  These lost souls have nothing better to do with their lives, so they convince themselves that their violent intolerance of blacks, gays, Jews, and other "different" people has some kind of meaning. 

Their leader, Crew (Dave Oren Ward) has a drug dealer for a dad and Adolph Hitler as a hero, quoting "Mein Kampf" as though it were the Bible.  The barely-human David Lee is such a sociopath that even the other skinheads can scarcely tolerate him, yet these wretched cretins band together because they don't belong anywhere else.

Into this volatile atmosphere comes the vengeful Steve, now transformed into a swastika-tattooed skinhead and putting on a tough-guy act in order to infiltrate the gang.  Damon Jones, who appeared in the Seinfeld episode entitled "The Maid", is believable as Steve's "Joe College" self but seems jarringly out of place as an enigmatic, spaghetti-western-type badass. 

This isn't entirely Jones' fault, since he was a last-minute replacement for the actor originally cast for the role and delivers a highly intense performance.  The growing empathy between him and Crew's girlfriend Sissy, along with a falling-out with his religious sister, are explored in some powerful scenes that are emotionally explosive.  Still, Jones' miscasting calls attention to itself throughout the film.

Even the less technically-skilled members of the cast play their roles with conviction.  Standouts include Ann Zupa as overweight misfit Babe, Brandon Slater as the mentally-challenged naif Doughboy, and Angela Jones, who was Esmerelda the cab driver in PULP FICTION, as a spaced-out heroin addict who perilously straddles the fence between the warring factions.  As Sissy, Aimee Chaffin's portrayal of a sexually-abused runaway with nowhere else to go is harrowing.

Jewish actor Dave Oren Ward invests the character of Crew with just enough intelligence and charisma to make him dangerous--at times he seems almost reasonable, especially in his philosophical debates with Steve, but then he does something vile to remind us that he's beyond hope.  (Sometime after filming, Ward was tragically murdered in a road rage incident.) 

Most of all, though, it's David Lee Wilson's portrayal of psychotic neanderthal David Lee that keeps the film humming like a high tension wire.  In his commentary, director Kret describes Wilson as "a cancer on the set of this film", yet their conflicts seem to have added rather than detracted to the character's effectiveness.

The skinheads live from one outbreak of senseless violence to the next, a cycle of attacks and retaliations more immediate and unsettling than the antics of Kubrick's "Droogies" in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.  Like the acting in this film, Randolph Kret's direction is unpolished but intense, and he realistically stages these episodes in messy, chaotic bursts that often come out of nowhere. 

Steve's initiation into the group results in the stabbing of a transvestite, blurring the line that separates him from the others and casting him into even deeper turmoil.  We're never really sure what he's eventually planning to do (if he indeed has a plan), or what shape he'll be in when the time comes.

The DVD from Indican Pictures is in anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 in English and 2.0 sound in English, Spanish, and French.  No subtitles.  Randolph Kret gives a frank account of the making of the film in his commentary, readily admitting to his various influences and describing the difficulties of working within a highly restricted budget and schedule.  The extras also include a trailer and TV spots, deleted scenes, actor audition tapes, a photo gallery, storyboards, and a detailed text history of the skinhead movement and its various factions. 

I didn't really like GANG LAND all that much the first time I watched it, but upon second viewing I began to better appreciate what Randolph Kret had accomplished with this sincere effort.  With more conviction and imagination than actual finesse, he's made a scary, unpredictable action flick with a message that resonates.

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