Remembering the Christopher Lambert/Mario Van Peebles buddy comedy Gunmen on Its 25th Anniversary
In this, the second historic Year of Flops, I have been focussing on that column as well as Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 and for the past few weeks or so I have been ferocious and relentless about finishing the tricky beast that is the Weird Accordion to Al book. Goodness, but that is a Herculean undertaking I’m happy and excited to share with the world in the not too distant future. I also find myself writing about a lot of new movies for Scalding Hot Takes and my podcast.
All of these things are positive developments. Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 pumps much needed income into the site’s Patreon account, gives me an even stronger, more direct connection to readers and has empowered me to write about all manner of fascinating and obscure films I might never have even encountered otherwise, let alone written about.
The second My Year of Flops has been a solid success creatively and commercially and reminded me just how much I love the column twelve years on and Scalding Hot Takes and the podcast force me to interact with other human beings and keep on top of new movies, which I can only imagine is healthy both in terms of my career and mental health.
But something important, even essential has been lost in this pragmatic focus on My World of Flops, Scalding Hot Takes, Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 and finishing the Weird Accordion to Al book. I fear that my fierce commitment to covering random-ass shit that seemingly no one else even knows about, let alone cares about, has wavered a little as of late.
It’s very important for the grand gestalt of Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place that I write extensively about things that are fundamentally unimportant, that don’t matter, that come and go with no one even noticing. I’m talking about movies like the 1994 Christopher Lambert/Mario Van Peebles buddy action-comedy Gunmen.
I was reminded of this movie’s existence when genre film expert/enthusiast Outlaw Vern mentioned it on Facebook. I’d never been remotely curious about Gunmen before, perhaps because of its staggeringly unimaginative, generic title but Vern’s description of it made it seem weirdly irresistible, at least for moviegoers for whom “junky” has a positive connotation as much as a negative one.
Sure enough, Gunmen is ingratiatingly, endearingly junky, an old-fashioned riff on The Defiant Ones featuring a script from a young Stephen Sommers and the most 1994 cast imaginable, including Christopher Lambert, Mario Van Peebles, Kadeem Hardison, Sally Kirkland, Denis Leary, Patrick Stewart in a wheelchair with a John Waters child molester mustache and, perhaps most excitingly for me, cheap nostalgia-wise, nonsensical but awesome cameos from a smattering of top Hip Hop talent from the late 1980s, including such legendary lyricists as Big Daddy Kane and Rakim as well as MTV clowns and Who’s The Man stars Dr. Dre and Ed Lover, playing themselves.
Gunmen’s flimsy pretense for Rakim and Big Daddy Kane’s live performances and comic relief cameos from Dr. Dre and Ed Lover is that all of these American Hip Hop luminaries are just hanging out and/or performing at a scuzzy bar south of the border where a colorful pilot played by Kadeem Hardison hangs out. These cameos don’t really make any sense but they help make a movie with the most generic title imaginable surprisingly distinctive and sometimes bonkers.
Christopher Lambert channels Klaus Kinski at his wild-eyed best as Dani Servigo, a con artist introduced eating a bug while rotting away in a South American jail. Dani’s insect compulsion is no fluke: Dani is an illiterate, bug-eating motherfucker with an accent distractingly similar to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
Mario Van Peebles, who I once saw stride confidently around a Video Store Convention in Las Vegas in the late 1990s wearing leather pants, a vest with no shirt and a leather cowboy hat, a look you can only pull off if you’re a handsome movie star or about to start stripping, co-stars as Cole Parker, a bounty hunter with a ridiculously over-elaborate backstory.
Although he’s not currently a federal agent, he’s working with the DEA to bring down Peter Loomis (Patrick Stewart) a drug lord he holds responsible for flooding his neighborhood with drugs. Cole’s father was a good cop who was betrayed and killed, leading his son to be distrustful by nature. It feels as if Van Peebles insisted that his character have a code of ethics, and father issues, and a sense of morality that he’s willing to bend when circumstances call for it while Lambert was just happy to play an illiterate, prostitute-frequenting, jailbird, bug-eating freak whose only motivation is that he wants money.
Cole busts Dani out of prison so that he can lead him to a four hundred million dollar fortune Dani’s dead brother stole from Stewart’s ice-blooded drug kingpin. Stewart is half the reason I wanted to see Gunmen. He’s only in the movie for about five minutes but he makes every moment he’s onscreen count.
It helps that Loomis is introduced presiding coldly over the burial of a young women. Unfortunately for the woman, she’s not dead yet, and very unhappy about her predicament. THAT, friends, is how you introduce a bad guy in a modestly budgeted adventure comedy.
Later Loomis is hoisted on his own petard when he goes from burying other people alive as a rather extreme form of punishment to being buried alive himself by one of his own disloyal former henchmen when underling Armor O’Malley (Denis Leary) decides to make a power move and kill his boss so he has less competition for the fortune that serves as the film’s MacGuffin.
Now there are two kinds of people in this world. There are people who want to see an even hammier than usual Patrick Stewart get buried alive in a Christopher Lambert/Mario Van Peebles vehicle from the mid 1990s and people who don’t want to see an even hammier than usual Patrick Stewart get buried alive in a Christopher Lambert/Mario Van Peebles vehicle from the mid 1990s. The fact that you’re reading this article when you could be reading literally anything else on the internet suggests you’re in the “Want to see Patrick Stewart buried alive” camp. So am I.
Though Stewart devours scenery enjoyably as the main boss, the primary villain is played by Denis Leary. You can tell that studio executives in the 1990s were a bunch of soft, sweet, Happy Meal-ass suckers because their idea of a REALLY tough guy, a real badass, was Denis Leary. The aggressive smoking, the sarcasm, the shitty facial hair: in the Clinton Era that somehow combined to make Leary seem like the new Robert Mitchum in the minds of easily impressed casting directors.
In Gunmen, the stars have the kind of fraught, tense but ultimately symbiotic relationship where one party is almost always holding a gun on the other party. They’re the kind of mismatched yet strangely simpatico outsiders who might just become friends—if they don’t kill each other first!
Gunmen keeps the awesome surprises coming at a regular clip, like a neat, partially naked cameo from Sally Kirkland as a world-weary gun merchant who falls victim to what I imagine is a big occupational hazard for black market gun dealers: having potential clients point a gun at you and insist, “No hard feelings or anything, but we’re going to take the guns we want and the money in your safe as well.”
A movie that segues from a left-field, too-brief but awesome Sally Kirkland cameo to appearances from Big Daddy Kane and the hosts of Yo! MTV Raps within the context of a loopy action comedy from the 1990s isn’t just speaking my language: it’s pandering to me and my sensibility.
A mad hunt for the cash follows that climaxes with a shootout in a Puerto Vallarta harbor between the squabbling heroes and the murderous, remorseless forces of Armor O’Malley.
If Gunmen were an action drama it would likely end with its protagonists betraying each other but this is a comedy so it ends with a big affirmation of the unlikely friendship at the film’s core.
Gunmen gave me exactly what I wanted from it. For 90 minutes I was able to turn my brain off and luxuriate in the tacky, superficial pleasures of a nifty little b-movie fully at peace with its own inveterate trashiness.
This silly little trifle served as a welcome reminder that while I love great movies I also enjoy movies like Gunmen that aren’t even particularly good but have elements, many rooted in nostalgia and my affection for 1994, the magical year I turned 18, that I absolutely adore. Nobody has to see Gunmen but it’s a pain-free and moderately enjoyable way to waste 90 minutes. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sometimes that’s not just what you want: it’s what you need.
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