Exploiting our Archives, Paternity Leave Edition: Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #2—3000 Miles to Graceland
Welcome to the second installment in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0—Payola With Honor, the column where I give the super-kind-hearted souls who make a one hundred dollar pledge to this website an opportunity to choose a film I must see, then write about.
I got lucky with the first selection, Miami Connection, which was an absolute blast and fun to write about. I similarly lucked out on selection number two, 2001’s 3000 Miles to Graceland, which was chosen by Patreon donor and Society for the Toleration of Nathan Rabin member in long and good standing Taylor Shann.
The movie is not good. Oh sweet blessed Lord is it ever egregiously not good. It’s closer to the opposite of good. But it’s bad in a way that hit me in the nostalgia sweet spot. It’s my kind of bad, a return to a sad little sub-genre I have enormous affection towards despite nearly all the films in it being terrible: the post-Tarantino wave of cartoonishly macho, self-regarding crime movies.
It’s a sub-genre near and dear to my heart because I was fortuitous enough to discover Quentin Tarantino as a movie-mad 16 year old boy and his work and aesthetic predictably made my brain explode with joy and irrevocably helped shape how I saw movies. I did an apprenticeship in a video store, just like my hero, and when I started reviewing movies professionally in 1997, in the long afterglow of Tarantino’s Oscar-winning 1994 triumph Pulp Fiction, a lot of the movies I initially reviewed for The A.V Club's video section were shameless Tarantino knockoffs.
3000 Miles from Graceland is an example of this ignoble breed with some key distinctions. For starters, it came to the game late. By 2001, it had been a long seven years since Pulp Fiction came out, and, among other sins, helped catapult a gross human being named Harvey Weinstein to awful new heights of power and visibility. Tarantino himself had moved on with 1997’s Jackie Brown, which had a lot of the same virtues as Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs but was blessed with a new depth, substance and maturity.
But while Uncle Quentin was growing up, movies like 3000 Miles To Graceland were still splashing around noisily in the kiddie pool even after the market for Tarantino wannabes turned ice-cold once the industry realized that these movies were pretty much all terrible flops that were quickly forgotten, and subsequently probably something they should stop making.
The other thing that separates 3000 Miles to Graceland from the rest of the pack is its size. Tarantino knockoffs almost always had crazy, crazily colorful casts. I generally wouldn't watch or write about them if they didn’t. Those casts full of scruffy tough guy character actors, pretty boys and TV stars doing the scruffy independent movie thang and random celebrities were the bait that attracted me to torturously plotted, punishingly over-written exercises in tough-guy posturing like 3000 Miles to Graceland.
What these low-budget, straight-to-video Tarantino wannabes did not have, however, was stars of the magnitude of Kevin Costner and, to a lesser extent, Kurt Russell, who I would argue is easily the greater actor and icon but who never experienced a period of incredible fame, power and acclaim the way Costner did in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he was one of the biggest movie stars in the world and an Oscar-winning auteur to boot.
Costner was still a big deal when he made 3000 Miles to Graceland, if nowhere near as big a deal as he was when he made Dances With Wolves. Costner’s performance here helped change that. With 3000 Miles to Graceland, one of American film’s preeminent milk-drinking, flag-waving, America-loving good guys decided to play not just a bad guy but pretty much the worst guy.
In 3000 Miles to Graceland, Costner plays career criminal Thomas J. Murphy, a dude who kills people with bow and arrow and machine guns and everything in between and drinks hard liquor straight from the bottle while driving stolen cars and probably doesn’t even call his mother on her birthday.
He’s a bad, bad man we are repeatedly informed, a casual mass murderer and machine gun enthusiast with a body count worthy of many mid-sized wars. Oh, and also he might be Elvis’ illegitimate son (seriously). On paper, it’s easy to see why the role of the movie’s sneering bad guy might appeal to an actor who, despite occasionally playing the heavy in his career, was still very much typecast as a good guy. If 3000 Miles from Graceland hadn’t failed in every conceivable way a movie can fail, it might have shaken up his image, surprised audiences and led to more juicy villain roles down the road.
Who knows, maybe Costner could even be nominated for Best Villain at the MTV Movie Awards. That sure would look nice next to his Academy Awards for Dancing With Wolves. It was not to be, however, possibly due to Costner’s performance being fucking terrible. Just the goddamn worst
Watching 3000 Miles to Graceland, I was distracted throughout by how much Costner looks like comedian Andrew “Dice” Clay. And I’m not talking about the young, theoretically kind-of-attractive Andrew “Dice” Clay. No, I’m talking the puffy, bloated, sad decline, fingerless-workout-gloves-going-unused, letting-himself-go Andrew “Dice” Clay of the oughts and today.
Everything about Costner’s ostensibly dangerous, charismatic killer screams “Fat Dice Man”: the weird lack of a chin. The giant old Jewish man glasses. The unflattering sideburns. The aggressively receding hairline. The rockabilly Elvis vibe. It’s all very late period Andrew “Dice” Clay and it’s all very Thomas J. Murphy here.
The crazy thing is that Costner doesn’t even look like Clay did at the time. No, it was as if he was some weird, possibly supernatural future phantom version of Andrew “Dice” Clay, with a good amount of future phantom Nicolas Cage and Tony Clifton and beat-up leather recliner thrown in for good measure.
But it doesn’t seem fair to lay the blame for 3000 Miles for Graceland solely at Costner’s feet when literally every other element of it is terrible as well. This extends to the script, which follows the criminal machinations of a group of criminals who decide to rob a casino during an Elvis convention while dressed as the King.
These fun lovin’ criminals include Bokeem Woodbine as the black Elvis who gets killed first, Christian Slater as a Jack Nicholson wannabe Elvis who doesn’t make it to the halfway point, Kurt Russell as good Elvis Michael Zane, an ex-con who would rather not murder people if he does not have to, and David Arquette as annoying comic relief Elvis.
In a typical bit of banter, Woodbine’s character asks, “What’s the smartest thing to come out of a woman’s mouth?” and Arquette’s giggling jackass replies, “Einstein’s cock!” This gives a good illustration of the film’s view on women but it also suggests that the screenwriters labor under the delusion that Einstein was smart because he had a second brain inside of his penis. That, honestly, wouldn’t be crazier or stupider than anything else in the film.
Glib misogyny is a staple of these kinds of movies. It’s not much a stretch to argue that glib misogyny is the catalyst behind many of these movies but 3000 Miles to Graceland is a special case in that it inevitably introduces female characters with a tight close-up of their posterior to really let audiences know that it sees women exclusively as sex objects, pieces of meat to be ogled and compared, and not as human beings.
Oh sure, what passes for the motion picture’s female lead, Cybil Waingrow (Courtney Cox) might be a mother and a sharp-witted grifter with an eardrum-abusing fake-sounding Southern accent but the filmmakers nevertheless never miss an opportunity to let us know that she's also got a sweet, sweet behind and impressive chest we’re invited to ogle every moment she’s onscreen and compare to the similarly sweet behinds and impressive busts of the two or three other female characters in the movie.
Heck, even Cybil’s ne’er do well son Jesse Waingrow (David Kaye) invites Russell’s Michael Zane—who’s not just an Elvis, but an Elvis that fucks—to compare his mother’s breasts to those of a sexy waitress we’re similarly invited to ogle.
When the casino heist turns into a bloodbath due to Murphy’s unfortunate predilection for murdering everyone with a machine gun, what’s left of the gang splits up and Russell’s Michael Zane ends up partnering with his temporary lover’s pint-sized son, who seemingly was roped into the action to capitalize on the success of J. Evan Bonifant’s performance as Buster Blues in Blues Brothers 2000.
The makers of Graceland clearly saw how audiences preferred Bonifant to the late John Belushi, since he didn’t use drugs and subsequently wouldn’t break their hearts by dying young. They were hoping that magic would repeat itself here, but it did not. It just added one more unnecessary character in a ridiculously overstuffed extravaganza that somehow crams in Paul Anka, a cowboy-hat-wearing Thomas Haden Church and Kevin Pollak as the law enforcement duo on the Elvises’ trail, NFL superstar Howie Long, Jon Lovitz as a sleazy money launderer with a super-sexy secretary, and, for about three minutes, Ice-T.
Why would Ice-T take what’s essentially a bit part? Well, his character is described as being so badass and dangerous that he’s essentially “a bunch of guys” in one singularly deadly badass and he spends his entire time onscreen killing people. Besides, I can vouch that Ice-T said yes to opening for Insane Clown Posse in a strip mall in Canada for Juggalo Weekend, so he’s probably going to say yes to being a theatrically released Kevin Costner/Kurt Russell movie as well.
3000 Miles to Graceland really milks the novelty of Costner playing a blood-crazed sociopath but the reversal would mean more if he weren’t playing such a ridiculous cartoon character, Fat Dice Man-as-Tony Montana-as-Elvis.
When Costner and Russell share a scene together in a jail, for example, we’re supposed to be reminded of De Niro and Pacino in Heat: two acting icons onscreen together for the first time in a thespian death match for the ages. Instead, it feels like De Niro and Pacino in Righteous Kill: two past their prime heavyweights wasting their increasingly non-valuable time with a project somebody in their camp should have vetoed long before it came to either actor.
3000 Miles to Graceland’s most memorable line is also its most screamingly idiotic, and speaks to its bizarrely 10-year-old conception of sex and female biology. It occurs earlyish in the film when the movie’s other black guy tells law enforcement that Murphy is “the kind to stick a live snake up a woman’s coochie or something.”
Costner had one job in 3000 Miles to Graceland: to play a guy so sick and twisted that it’s easy to imagine him sticking a live snake up a woman’s coochie. In this he failed, dear reader. If anything, he seems like the kind of guy who would turn a bright, deep, embarrassed shade of red even watching a video of a live snake being shoved up a woman's coochie.
When faced with a choice between a Scarface ending where a larger-than-life bad guy stares down his bloody destiny in a hail of gunfire, bullets, and death, and a fun lip-sync dance party ending where the cast clowns around, Elvis-style while Kurt Russell channels the King, the makers of 3000 Miles to Graceland inexplicably reasoned, “Why not do both!?!”
So 3000 Miles to Graceland ends with Murphy killing a whole bunch of people and being killed himself in return and then a goofy, silly lip-syncing dance party featuring actors we’ve recently seen get brutally murdered really let loose with the crazy dance moves and the goofy facial expressions.
3000 Miles to Graceland is a tacky mess. From an opening credit sequence of metallic scorpions battling (it’s a metaphor, bro!) onward, it feels like it was willed into existence by the Beavises and Buttheads of the world. It’s a movie you would expect someone to airbrush onto a van. It’s that tacky.
3000 Miles to Graceland is a black velvet Elvis painting of a movie that is delusional enough to imagine it represents a milestone in the Cinema of Cool—Crash Davis versus Snake Plissken in the land of Elvis on acid—but really it’s just another gaudy nadir in the sprawling, underwhelming Cinema of Wannabe Cool.
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