The legendary (in my house!) star of STREETS OF FIRE trades in his motorcycle for a horse in TRADED.
TRADED is an occasionally brutal revenge story taking place in the old West not of the Spaghetti Western, as the DVD box promisingly and misleadingly suggests, but the old West of 1930s John Wayne quickies done for Republic. Pretty Brittany Elizabeth Williams is rescued by her father, played by the great Michael Pare (more on him later!), from a life of prostitution. The budget isn’t sufficient for the film’s ambitions, as the city of Dodge appears to be little more than one street where people keep squirreling Williams away in different buildings while Pare gets beaten by and beats on half the town, who apparently really want to make his daughter a whore.
Every woman in this film is or has been a prostitute; his daughter, his wife, his former flame. It is not so tough to keep a film watchable when a man does all he can to save a helpless woman from a life of degradation. TRADED trades in fairly primitive story points and stirs up all its energy from archetypes. The acting drifts from capable in the bigger parts (Tom Sizemore and Martin Kove show up as bad guys) to iffy in the bit parts, the pacing is bumpy, and the film is clearly affected by its limited budget (a key moment appears to be missing from the film – and, sure enough, it is there on the DVD in a deleted scene. Clearly director Timothy Woodward Jr., who does a competent overall job, had no money to reshoot what really is the emotional climax of the film). Kris Kristofferson shows up for a couple of scenes as a fairly illogical character, and clearly reads most of his lines off of cue cards, yet gives the most authoritative performance of the film, next to Pare’s. Kristofferson carries his history, and we want to watch him.
A Weird, Memorable Sequence
There is one commendably weird, kinky sequence where Pare wakes up after a beating to find himself chained to the floor and under the watch of a venereal-disease-ridden lass named “Girl,” who is sexually abused by her stepfather. It is the one scene where I didn’t feel confident I knew what was going on, and both Marie Oldenbourg as “Girl” and Pare are good, although her character is unacceptably tossed away plot-wise when her interaction with Pare is the strongest drama in the film. More of this and less of the timeworn menagerie of prostitutes and beatings would have been most welcome. Nevertheless, TRADED does remain watchable, if never going beyond cliché to anything really evocative.
Michael Pare: An Action Hero for the rest of us.
What keeps TRADED compelling is Pare. His is a masculine-sensitive posture, with melancholic guarded eyes that create empathy for his sometimes pushy, manly characters. From his attention-getting early 1980s James-Dean-in-training-wheels performance as Tony, one of William Katt’s unruly students in Stephen J. Cannell’s THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, to his leads in cult films THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT and EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS, the tacit hurt in his eyes has always been as important as his ability to fire a gun and throw a punch. It was used to its best effect in Walter Hill’s redoubtable crazed action-musical classic STREETS OF FIRE, the definitive cult film. Despite flopping miserably upon release, FIRE has continued to captivate audiences in its strangeness and vitality (the film sometimes feels like an in-joke that only Walter Hill and his fans get).
In a truly bold and telling move, Albert Pyun, a credentialed, working filmmaker, made what must be the first feature-length fan-fiction featuring the star of the original. ROAD TO HELL is a de facto “sequel” to STREETS OF FIRE where he imagines its protagonist, Tom Cody (played by Pare), still preoccupied by memories of his misguided past, having become a serial killer (!). In due course Cody is redeemed by the love of the daughter he didn’t know he had with FIRE’S Ellen Aim. This crazy humpback of a movie, equally inspired and outrageous, is a love letter to FIRE, sure, (Pyun’s insane CRAZY SIX, starring Rob Lowe and Burt Reynolds, clearly was a homage as well) but also a love letter to Pare, playing a character so gnarled and weathered after thirty years that when he cracks his knuckles, thunder crashes. Pare’s recent works have actually traded upon his unfulfilled early promise as a potential action hero. All of Pare’s best films became hits after the fact.
TRADED also centers on Pare, playing the matured, repentant, dangerous warrior dragged out of retirement one last time to rescue his daughter. It has none of the gargantuan scale of the Spaghetti Westerns or their moral uncertainty. It really does play like a 1930s Wayne oater, and I say that affectionately. The editing is a little slack, some sequences are flat, but overall it works well enough as a pulp exercise, and as a venue for Pare fans (a loyal crew, we are) to saddle up one more time with him as a lead (he’s been working constantly as a character actor through the years, most notably in John Carpenter’s VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED and THE LINCOLN LAWYER, but some of us remember the future he was supposed to have with FIRE). Pare’s suffering eyes and increased gravitas as an actor holds the whole wonky thing together. His face’s sinews may be a simple act of nature, but they bequeath on his characters instant history, and those eyes have always alluded to something bottled up in him. His controlled sorrow was used to good effect in Eric Red’s 1996’s BAD MOON, a passed over werewolf film that rides almost entirely on his shoulders, now out in a handsome release from SCREAM! FACTORY, indicating yet another Pare film may find its audience long after initial release. ROAD TO HELL was screened at some festivals and was available at times for private viewing on YouTube; I’m not sure of its current status.
As for TRADED, it doesn’t offer complex relationships or surprising plot turns; but the film doesn’t feel self-pleased either, a plus. It’s trying to tell a tale, best that it can, and while the West it presents isn’t particularly legendary or mythic, Pare himself, to STREETS OF FIRE fans, surely is. It’s reassuring to know Tom Cody has survived, a bit weather-worn, but still able to saddle up and save his woman. He may never have Ellen Aim, but he still has his steadfast fans; TRADED’s material is pretty meh, but it draws upon our protective feelings for Pare. Even now, Pare doesn’t quite get his due; the posters for TRADED feature Trace Adkins, a country singer who has a minor villainous part, and Kristofferson — Pare is strangely nowhere to be seen. But Pare is the whole show, and he’s why the whole show holds together.
TRADED is available on Blu-Ray and DVD and on-demand.