A dramatic journey through the dreck we all know and love
By Zak Attack
Why Did I Watch This?
This movie comes highly recommended as an extra cheesy, fish-out-of-water revenge tale. On paper it sounds like a more action-packed, American South version of Crocodile Dundee. The trailer definitely plays up some of the garish and unique elements of the overall concept
A major draw for Next of Kin is that in addition to Patrick Swayze and Liam Neeson (NEESON SEASON!!), is a fantastic cast of actors who hadn’t quite become household names yet. We’ve got Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Adam Baldwin, Ben Stiller, Ted Levine, and Babylon 5 star Andreas Katsulas– as well as veteran character actor Michael J. Pollard and long-form improvisation innovator Del Close.
Even though it’s still technically Neeson Season, I would have watched this on my own regardless of Action A Go Go. Yes, this DVD was actually #1 in my Netflix Queue of its own accord and shipped to me the “old-fashioned” way. The Netflix estimate for my taste profile was a whopping 2.9 stars.
How Did I Watch It?
Wish I could say I watched this with some ol’ Kentucky moonshine, but I didn’t have any on hand. So instead I matched my libations with the group I identified with more readily: the Mafioso villains. I was drinking a pretty great 2005 Nobile di Montepulciano from Contucci vineyard in Italy. It had some great blueberry notes on the finish and a wonderfully tannen-heavy, earthy snap overall. It was so light on flavor at first that it almost tasted watered down, but once I paired it with some food (beef and mushroom risotto) the flavor really blossomed.
What Did I Watch?
Next of Kin makes a surprisingly adult move in starting the movie right in the middle of the tortured relationship of the Gates brothers: Truman (Patrick Swayze), Briar (Liam Neeson), and Gerald (Bill Paxton). Truman is a no nonsense police officer who specializes in talking down crazed yokels because apparently that is a huge problem in downtown Chicago. He also watches over his younger brother Gerald who recently moved to the big city and is working as a truck driver. His other brother Briar, on the other hand, has no patience for them no good city ways and is counseling Gerald to return to their Kentucky home.
Briar is proven right when a vicious mob family (cousins Joey Isabella and Lawrence Isabella played by Adam Baldwin and Ben Stiller, respectively) kill Gerald in a robbery attempt. At the funeral, the gauntlet is laid down. Briar wants an old-fashioned blood feud with the Isabella family. Truman wants to follow the rule of law. It’s a race between the good ol’ boy attempting to track down and kill his brother’s murderer and the city slicker who lost his way and is trying to gather evidence to make an arrest.
I wish I could say things really heat up once Liam Neeson starts to use his “special set of skills” to dispense some backwoods justice on the mafia, but he doesn’t even get with the killing right away as he needs to find the identity of the killer first. Joey Isabella may be the only “guilty” party in pulling the trigger, but it clearly would have been more compelling to let Neeson go nuts on the whole crime family (Lawrence’s father and Joey’s uncle is the don after all). What kind of blood feud is meticulous and discerning? Just kill some mofos already! All he does is shoot up a warehouse and then get chased by the Mafia. The only real plus side is that as he’s getting away we get to see Neeson ride the Chicago’s El Train while riding on top of it like a boss.
After a knockdown, drag-out bar fight with each other, the two surviving Gates brothers team-up. In exchange for Briar’s cooperation, Truman promises not to arrest him for causing all the havoc he’s guilty of. Somehow they get the confirmation they need that Joey and Lawrence (WHOA!) were the killers by having the other driver who escaped make a positive ID. However, the brothers still have their own objectives, so when Briar goes rogue and Lawrence ends up dead things really come to a head.
Eventually all the hick relatives get involved in a silly climax set in a cemetery. It’s a showdown between white trash and Cosa Nostra in the long-awaited mash-up of cultures. Apparently the audience is supposed to sympathize with all the hayseed weirdos, despite the fact that they’re insanely vengeful. Nearly none of them have any lines of dialogue leading up to this… it’s just a given that they are the good guys since Joey Isabella is a total psycho. The rest of the Italians aren’t even especially villainous. They are non-entities.
Next of Kin plays out like a particularly heavy-handed race relations drama where both sides of the conflict happen to be white people who have no compunctions about killing. When Joey says nobody should be worrying about the single-minded Southern folks because all they do is “plow rocks for a living,” his mob boss uncle replies with, “That’s what they said about our people back in Sicily!” Is this a good thing? Should we be respecting, fearing, or rooting for the revenge-obsessed hillbillies of Kentucky? In fact, it plays like a strange alternate world of Chicago where nobody’s really that racist, but everyone really hates people from Kentucky. Although, the movie itself is a touch less progressive. At one point Truman tricks the mafia into taking an ill-advised trip to the projects where they are swindled by a 10 year-old and their car gets boosted. I guess it’s hard to really be afraid of a coordinated crime syndicate that becomes comically helpless once they accidentally drive into the “black section of town”. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out the embarrassing scene where Bill Paxton’s character and his African American co-worker argue about the merits of Country Music vs. “Rat Music” (as Paxton calls it). It unfortunately digresses into Paxton complaining that you can’t hum along… and then proceeding to attempt to hum a hip hop beat. Ugh.
Next of Kin is one of the few movies that truly utilizes Neeson as a hulking mass of a man. He does whatever he needs to accomplish his goals without so much as a pause or a thought and this is pronounced in the way he towers and glowers over all his victims (as well as Swayze). He may be an engine of retribution and righteous anger in Taken, but here the intimidating physicality of that engine is even more pronounced. The only issue with this characterization is that he’s not a very effective engine of retribution and righteous anger. I’ve already mentioned that he actually doesn’t get revenge with anyone since his strategy is to act threatening and do some half-assed detective work. He also gets all of his weapons stolen, gets arrested, and participates in multiple botched shoot-outs. All he is good at is showing up and being fairly annoying to a crime family. Regardless, it’s a pretty fun role for Neeson and highlights his physicality in ways that I haven’t seen in awhile.
The cause and effect relationship between different elements of the plot is sorely lacking. A good portion of the running time is spent having Briar and/or Truman try to figure out who killed Gerald. The audience already knows the culprit, so if the filmmakers are going to focus on their investigation, it’s important to make that journey interesting. However, we don’t actually see any of the main characters discover anything. There is no explanation as to why the mafia even attacked the truck in the first place. And even less information on why Gerald’s death resulted in the mafia taking over the trucking company the very next day. Part of the reason Truman asks Briar to team-up in the first place is he needs to find the bar where Gerald’s friend and co-worker hangs out, but there is no telling how Briar arrived at that information. It’s simply a waste of time to focus on a whodunnit with neither mystery nor intriguing logic.
Was It Worth Watching?
Next of Kin should have fleshed out the whole family blood feud aspect. “This is a movie about a group of rednecks fighting the mafia in the streets of Chicago.” I’m sold. When we finally get to the climax in the cemetery, the mafia is squaring off against a bunch of Deliverance rejects with crossbows, a snake-handler, and Road House-era Patrick Swayze. I assure you it isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds. Without seeing it, Next of Kin sounds like a totally rocking good time in the vein of The Punisher meets Southern Comfort. Instead, the result is an oddly somber and ineffectual experience that gives the culture clash, character relationship, action beats, and dramatic arcs all short shrift. And this is from the director of Schwarzenegger’s pretty solid Raw Deal.
That’s not to say I wanted a completely different movie. All the elements are obviously there, just perplexingly underplayed to the point of indifference. In the climax one guy gets a tomahawk to the chest while another is locked in a trailer with hundreds of poisonous snakes. Yet another guy gets his leg stuck in a bear trap and is attacked by hunting dogs. As over-the-top as all that sounds, the lighting in the cemetery scene is unconscionably dark and nothing is filmed in a way that even suggests the catharsis that this revenge fable is attempting. Even the bar fight between Truman and Briar (while handcuffed together no less) is filmed in alternating shots of too close and too far. Neither emotional vigor nor brutal choreography are present in what should be an intensely pitched scene of a complicated brotherly relationship.
It’s not a bad experience… just disappointing. And even if one is expecting something a bit more straightforward than the logline promises, I can’t imagine it being anything else than a fairly slight and forgettable watch. The only aspect of the movie really holding it together is the pretty good Country Rock soundtrack. We’ve got some Ricky Scaggs, Gregg Allman, and Charlie Daniels, among others that at least do some of the work in providing a much needed honky-tonk tone. Too bad the rest of the movie couldn’t follow suit.
Zak has been an avid movie fan since his mom made him cover his eyes before the “icicle stabbing” when they rented Die Hard 2 in 2nd grade. As a consolation, in 6th grade he got straight A’s so she gave him the entire Die Hard trilogy on VHS. The rest is history.
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All images courtesy of Lorimar Film Productions