Just Look Away

Posted on March 18, 2011


Marshal Law

This 1996 “thriller” (I threw up in my mouth a little after typing that, even with quotes around it) has no rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where 0% report liking it. That’s right! A new low!

Why Bother?

In 1996, Jimmy Smits was trying to build a post LA Law career. He had charisma, star power, and professionalism. Sadly, this was no Running Scared.

So if you’re not interested in psychos, home invasions, earthquakes, Christmas, gated communities, or Los Angeles, then you’re watching for Jimmy Smits. It also stars James LeGros and Kristy Swanson (rocking a pixie cut), but it’s not their fault either.

I watched it

Jimmy Smits plays Jack Coleman, a former US Marshal turned housing site manager. An earthquake frees ten psychos from a prison transport. Eventually (seriously – it takes a long time during which the movie establishes nothing except that earthquakes happen in southern California), one of the psychos stumbles into Jack Coleman’s backyard with a hooker. Coleman struggles with the psycho, and the psycho’s gun goes off, killing him. The crazy people have some kind of bond that they developed in prison, so they decide to get revenge on Coleman and the housing community. He has to defend the place with the help of a pizza delivery guy and his friend’s wife. Coleman declares…wait for it…martial law. See what they did there? Martial/marshal?

The Verdict

This movie makes almost every mistake in the book. I’ll just highlight a few.

First, there’s the setting. Even in 1996, 10% of the population controlled 90% of the wealth. So setting the story in a community full of upper income people automatically alienates 90% of your viewing audience. If only the household staff were at risk, forced to take care of the houses with their owners on holiday vacations then that might have plucked a few heartstrings.

Second, there’s the cheap pandering. Putting a pretty girl in the path of psychos and risking children is just cheap pandering, and pandering is a sign of contempt for your audience. We know that we’re being pandered to, and we resent it.

For that matter, even in 1996, psychos were over. If you look back over 1996 movie releases, you can see that high-stakes, cops vs. criminals, thrillers had lost their way. Remember Bulletproof with Daman Wayans and Adam Sandler? How about The Glimmer Man* with Steven Seagal and Keenan Ivory Wayans (not to pick on The Wayans Brothers)? It’s clear in watching this that the writers were using all-purpose, generic, crazy criminals, with no true insight into their mental or emotional conditions. There’s nothing interesting or original going on here.

Next, there’s the filming technique. There are multiple instances of MTV-style jump cuts, and weird color “enhancement” – super saturating, or de-saturating, color in a scene. At first, it seems like it was supposed to give us the “psycho POV,” or to clarify the deranged mental state of the escaped convicts. Then they start doing it with “home movie” footage shot during the holiday opening of home sales in the community. It’s just distracting, and confusing.

Finally, there’s the tone, or rather the tones. This movie is all over the place. Earthquakes are scary, except when they’re not. Raping women is no big deal. Threatening kids is just part of the fun. We’re worried about losing everything if we can’t sell these houses. No, wait, we don’t care about these uber-rich people, we care about the danger posed by the crazies. It’s more all over the place than Smits’ Texas accent.

You want to watch a better action movie from 1996? Try John Carpenter’s Escape from LA. Trust me. I have a blog.

*For the record, what kills The Glimmer Man is the editing. I once left it on while I was working at my computer, and it sounded terrific. It’s only when you watch that you realize the editors didn’t know how to cut together comedy and action.

Cowboy Up

Well, partner, if you’ve got a comment, then quit burning daylight and make it. Somehow I don’t think anyone is going to defend Marshal Law as a good movie, but maybe you’d like to recommend another 1996 movie that’s better.

Posted in: Movies