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by Jack Sommersby

"Imperfect but Colorful Crime Tale"
4 stars

Released on only 62 screens, its box-office take was a measly $154,469. Obviously, the studio had absolutely no faith in it, which is a shame because it, despite some missteps, it delivers the goods.

The crime picture Slayground isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with either originality or ratiocination, but it’s been executed with such aplomb by the debuting director Terry Bedford and winningly acted by the always-welcome Peter Coyote that it warrants a recommendation all the same. The initial setting is quite the unusual one for filmdom -- that of East Lansing, Michigan, whose dark-cloud-enshrouded, industrial-polluting atmosphere makes Pittsburgh look like sunny Palm Springs by comparison. It’s here where three comrades in crime, led by their taciturn leader, Stone (played by Coyote), are meeting up to rob an armored car that same day only for an unforeseen setback to occur in their getaway driver having had the bad luck to pick up a foxy hitchhiker along the way, who proceeds to draw a gun on him and rob him before literally blowing him out of his shoes, and in a follow-up shot that slyly punctuates the proceedings, we can see that a couple of hundred-dollar bills hidden away in one of the shoes have gone unseen by the hitchhiker and proceed to blow away in the wind. A calm and collective professional like Stone wants to call off the robbery, but he’s convinced by his partner to enlist another man to drive, who turns out to be a young, machismo-fueled mechanic who can certainly drive but hasn’t the slightest iota of temperament. Naturally, the caper goes awry. An explosive charge set in the armored car’s path does manage to go off, and Stone and the other man do successfully make their way down the embankment the vehicle has fallen down and snag several sacks of loot out from under the injured guards, but when speeding away from the site the driver panics, becomes exceedingly reckless, and crashes into a limousine which just happens to be carrying the mother and pre-teen daughter of the local wealthy bigwig. They’re both instantly killed in the collision, and in turn the bigwig engages the services of a reputed hit man who calls himself "the Shadow Man,” who’s dispatched to carry out a serious dish of revenge. And this is where the reasonably-plausible script starts showing its logic loopholes. It’s never made clear how the identities and whereabouts of Stone and his cohorts could be found out since there were no witnesses to their crime, and the hit man’s decision to take out Stone’s partners close-up yet Stone from a distance on two separate occasions is egregiously employed just so the hero can survive for the second-half’s goings-on. Stone does in fact make it out alive after both grenade and machine-gun assaults, but he’s caught shrapnel in his back as a result, which puts him in a hospital, where he develops a gradual addiction to morphine; rather than staying long enough for himself to completely heal, he has a friend sneak him out from under the nose of the policeman stationed outside his room. What to do now? He sends his estranged wife off to Mexico so can’t be found, and shortly thereafter he’s on a plane to London where he hopes to meet up with a former partner-in-crime whose life he once saved and who is supposed to be monetarily loaded. Unfortunately, the man is pretty much tapped out and has been reduced to fixing up a dilapidated seaside amusement park, so Stone tries convincing him to participate in one last heist because Stone needs the money for an expensive medical procedure to repair his spine, otherwise he’ll be in a wheelchair in a year. And, of course, the hit man has again found out Stone’s whereabouts and means to finish the job at hand.

The screenplay has been adapted from a novel that was penned by the legendary Donald E. Westlake (who also wrote, among other things, the marvelous Martin Scorsese-produced The Grifters), and the crunchy tough-guy dialogue is always a pleasure to take in even when it occasionally veers into the overexplicit. Westlake knows more than a thing or two about gritty realism, and while the story is strictly bare-bones he manages to impart it with a colorfulness that prevents it from veering into the run-of-the-mill -- you can sense a genuine effort to keep everything as vivid and charged-up as possible. Still, the story structure is mediocre at best, and we’re left wondering how Stone could be hard-pressed for money when we’ve been shown the armored-car heist yielded plenty of dough. (Was there something essential left out in the editing room?) Of course, some can argue that an enjoyable movie is less what it’s about than how it’s about, and on that note Slayground succeeds as quite the efficient entertainment. Bedford is the new boy on the scene, all right, and while no one could accuse him of having directorial brilliance he displays a visual distinctiveness that never fails at sustaining our attention. A director attempting to fluidly segue through scene after scene in a problematic script without a definitive through-line can be difficult, yet Bedford manages to keep Slayground well-paced throughout its appropriate eighty-nine-minute running time without any superfluous downtime, with a born instinct for how to shape a scene and carry it forth to its maximum payoff -- you never get the sense that the director is looking to shortchange you. The movie has a look and feel all its own, which is enough to get it past its sloppy plotting and episodic structure: you eagerly respond to it the way you do an entertainer even if he or she isn’t exactly hitting their mark because you’re still enthralled by the sheerness of their joie de vivre. And Bedford should be commended for resisting the urge to be exploitative: we don’t see the killings of Stone’s crew, only the before and after; and for all the ensuing gunshots and explosions, there’s very little in the way of blood. And sealing the deal is the remarkable performance by Coyote, who’s one of our most invaluable naturalistic actors. He was superb in supporting roles in cinematic fare as diverse as E.T. the Extraterrestrial and Endangered Species and Jagged Edge, but he also proved himself a vital leading man in Heartbreakers and The Basket; handsome but not conventionally so, with a lithe physique and commanding screen presence, Coyote should be headlining two to three movies a year as far as I’m concerned. Granted, Stone is far from a complex role (Slayground being an unapologetic B-movie, its characters are no more than two-dimensional), but Coyote infuses him with as much dramatic truth and verity as it can hold, with is no small feat given the material’s limited dramatic parameters. It takes either natural ability or years of experience to acquire the solidity that Coyote carries off here with ease, and whether it’s Stone’s remorse over the death of the bigwig’s child or his worriment over being rendered paralyzed for life, Coyote has the good sense enough never to go maudlin on us. He’s that rare actor who can immensely help out a movie merely by showing up.

The good folks at Anchor Bay Entertainment have given it a handsome 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, though the only special feature is a theatrical trailer.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22713&reviewer=327
originally posted: 08/24/16 08:49:46
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User Comments

9/02/13 mr.mike Coyote better than expected in fair crime stew. 3 stars
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  27-Jan-1984 (R)



Directed by
  Terry Bedford

Written by
  Trevor Preston

  Peter Coyote
  Mel Smith
  Billie Whitelaw
  David Hayward
  Clarence Felder

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