Born American/Bullies

February 17, 2011

The ads for Born American have played to the fear of terrorist kidnappings. “Their only crime,” growls the announcer, “was being born American!”

As it turns out, that wasn’t quite their only crime. Their actual crime was getting soused on brewskis near the Finnish-Soviet border and stupidly crossing over into the Evil Empire “just to take a look around.”

Over here, such behavior represents an average night out for a college kid. Over there, it’s a one-way ticket to a Midnight Express-franchised gulag, complete with rats, crude torture, and friendly cellmates.

This premise—that a trio of innocent Yanks might bumble their way into an international incident—might actually have been worked into a trashy, jingoistic, enjoyable little thriller. But Born American is ineptly done, even with its own dumb material, and doesn’t succeed as an exploitation movie.

It does provide a few interesting social observations: The Soviets favor greasy hair and a tubercular look, and they drink a lot of Pepsi. Too much Pepsi, in fact. Maybe that explains their jumpiness.

Mostly, director Renny Harlin is content to borrow plot twists from other movies, especially Midnight Express, Deliverance, and The Deer Hunter. And, of course, from the Rambo films and Chuck Norris flicks.

And Norris is present in a spiritual way, too, as his son Mike essays the leading role here. Mike makes a good case for paternity with his presence, with the occasional karate chop and a general impassivity; a chip off the old block, and quite a block in his own right.

Bullies wrings a few new drops of sweat out of the time-tested vengeance plot, and does it with a certain brutal efficiency. It’s about city folk moving to a small town, a town effectively controlled by the inbred cretins who have the most money there.

These creeps are familiar movie types who have spent too much time in the mountains alone. They make life miserable for the family—mom, son, and weak-willed stepdad—until, finally, someone must strike back.

Which someone does, with expected results. Bullies is a cross between Straw Dogs and Walking Tall, with hefty borrowings from both films. Oh, and a little Karate Kid thrown in, with the wise old Indian (Dehl Berti) showing the city boy (Jonathan Crombie, son of Canadian cabinet minister David Crombie) the “old ways.”

All it has is formula, but director Paul Lynch does drive the formula along with quite a bit of gusto. He also gets pretty pictures of the British Columbia locations, which figure prominently as backdrop, and of actress Olivia D’Abo, who pretends to enjoy swimming in her skivvies in what must have been a freezing Canadian river. Now that’s acting.

First published in the Herald, August 1986

You know, it has often been said that it sometimes takes a foreign artist to gaze upon the American soul and reveal to us something new about ourselves. That’s probably true, but in the case of Born American, Finland’s irrepressible Renny Harlin was probably just looking for a way to launch his Hollywood career. Which he did—four years later he was helming the first Die Hard sequel. This movie certainly caught the wave of nationalist bellicosity so popular at the time. As for Bullies, you could say of it that “their only crime…was being born Canadian!” This is a Canadian B-movie that does not linger strongly in the mind.


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