Pure Race Review
"Y'know I'm riding through town and this black guy hits me...this big black jock! Y'know I'm lying on the ground and he's lucky I didn't get up and kick his big black butt!" If ever you were advised on what not to say when that same guy is, unknown to you, using your bathroom, that would probably rank highly. This outburst follows the first meeting between college kids Tony and Carl, with one arriving to car share with the other on the way back home for the holidays. Having come to something of an understanding, they forget about what was said earlier and begin to forge a friendship between them. In fact, it's not long before they're laughing together over lunch in a roadside diner.
"Where you going? Come back here nigger!" Before Carl and Tony can leave, this is shouted at him from across the car park. Carl punches the racist out but this is only a taste of what is to come. Leaving the interstate, they head down a dirt track thinking it a short cut but get nothing but a flat tyre for their troubles. Leaving the car, they arrive at a farmhouse in search of a jack but Carl is greeted with surprise by Kim (Katherine Willis), the young woman who answers the door. As she leaves to find what it is they've come for, the two of them do a little snooping. Only they end up wishing they hadn't. Opening the barn door, they peer in to see a crowd of white men saluting, "Seig Heil! Seig Heil!" Behind them is a man hanging from the rafters. As the faces of these men turn to face Tony and Carl, they realise that they've stumbled into a murder scene.
I would imagine that director Rocco DeVilliers was somewhat Lucas-like in the instructions that he gave his cast. "Like that...but more intense!" But, boy, do they ever deliver. I'm sure that I've stared less intensely at people whom I'm about to have sex with. Which is what I'm sure was going to happen when Tony and Carl literally crash into one another in New York, such is the look that passes between them, moreso when they reveal a shared passion for Star Trek. Coincidence? Maybe but Pure Race is built on such chance meetings, whether it's that first meeting or the black Carl and the Jewish Tony getting a flat tyre and stopping at a farm that just so happens to be hosting a meeting of the fanatical neo-Nazi Aryan Freedom Fighters. And there's a man hanging from the rafters, the victim of an old-style lynching.
In an ensemble piece, these coincidences wouldn't have been much of a problem but when we have no one but Tony and Carl, there's much less on which to hang the story and much less reason for Pure Race to be stretched out to almost two hours. Instead of characters, we have cliches. Whilst not asking for the Neo-Nazis to be treated sympathetically, they are, to a man, a bunch of snickering cowards who are actually stupid enough to fall for that old trick of, when the truck they're shooting at drives between them, continuing to (fatally) shoot in the direction of one another. There will be few tears passed at the death of two be-swastikad Nazis but they die an inglorious and frankly stupid death. Kim, the daughter of the leader of the militia is the one who is given the thankless task of having to say to her father of Carl, "He's just like me...he's just like you!" The saddest part of all is that neither Tony nor Carl are treated too well either. It's quite bad enough that they're subjected to beatings and tauntings by the neo-Nazis but while Tony is aided in an escape by one of the neo-Nazis and generally makes good with his story - he might lose his glasses but he gets the girl - Carl, who ought to be the subject of much of the film, sits in a cell doing nothing.
Captured early in the film and with the Aryan Freedom Fighters choosing, Bond-villain style, not to string them up immediately, Tony and Carl are eventually used as quarries in a hunt across the open Idaho countryside. It's supposed to be part of the Aryan Freedom Fighters training in tracking the enemies of the coming race war or some such but it adds nothing but minutes to the running time. It's all that they can do but take to their pogo sticks and space hoppers in pursuit of one another. To be fair, there is one good chase scene at the midway point in the film in which Tony is chased by a racist deputy, he in a police car and Tony on a stolen bicycle. Later, though, Tony and Carl are given a half-hour head start, after which they are chased on foot, in a pick-up and on horseback. This sees them turning on their attackers but the question that this film asks, as did Deliverance before it, is whether Tony and Carl are prepared to sacrifice their humanity for vengeance.
The shame of this is that some of these things tarnish some very good ideas in the film. In a nice reveal of the corruption in the small town in which they find themselves, Tony finds a poster urging people to re-elect James Grey (Marvin Payne) as mayor, the leader of the militia. In a development that was surprising, Tony is even confronted over his own racism by Steve (Derek White), one of the neo-Nazis. Another film might have forgiven Tony's earlier outburst and moved on but not this one, reminding Tony that in spite of him now being the hero of the movie, he's not without flaws in his character. And, in the end, Carl and Tony do actually grow into their parts. On the other hand, it's not so very different from an episode of The A-Team, albeit without actually featuring four soldiers of fortune in a blacked-out GMC truck. In that, two men fitting Tony and Carl's descriptions would be threatened by a gang of racist thugs, perhaps played by Ed Lauter or John Quade before they would turn the tables on their captors with the assistance of Face, Mr T and the rest. In Pure Race, they have no one but each other but be it by good luck, sheer grit or their being forced to turn from unassuming college kids into killers, they turn in a reasonably exciting last half-hour, after which, when it all seems to be over for our heroes, they discover that they've done no more than stem the tide of racism a little, never to stop it completely.
This micro-budgeted film does a pretty good job of telling its story. DeVilliers only had a budget of $15,000 and, like Peter Jackson's Bad Taste, padded out his cast with his friends and filmed them over a period of a few years. His budget (and the time he took on the film) didn't even stretch to using digital video. Instead, Pure Race was shot on S-VHS and edited using two VCRs connected together. For the most part this shows but it's certainly possible to forgive DeVilliers much, albeit not so much that one can overlook the problems with his pacing, dialogue and surprising twists in his plotting.
As a student film made on what DeVilliers calls a format that can be plagued with problems, Pure Race looks fine. It won't compare to how it might have looked had it been shot on film or even on digital video but, frankly, it could also have been very much worse. It's best not to watch it on a larger television or projector, where the problems with S-VHS are all the move evident, but on a smaller screen, it's tolerable. The picture is as fuzzy as you might expect so it's pointless talking about a loss of resolution or a lack of clarity. They're part and parcel of the format. What's more of a problem is how the colour grading can change. Rather than this being an issue with the format alone, it may also have something to do with the four years that it took to shoot the film and how slight changes to the actors and changing seasons could have affected what we see on the screen.
The soundtrack is much the same. There's too little top end and too much bottom, sounding as though it's been passed across the playback/recording heads a few times too often, causing the audio to begin wearing off the tape. The dialogue isn't always perfectly clear but for the most part, particularly in the middle part of the film, it gets by. The action sounds pretty good, mind you, and when DeVilliers gets things just right, with the luck of a good sunset, a rousing score and a well-framed shot, Pure Race can be effective. Still, in remembering that DeVilliers did all this for $15,000, paying kids ten bucks here and there to help out on his film and repaying most people's good will by their getting a 'thank you' on the credits of his film, it's hard to complain too much about it. There are worse films that have been produced for a lot more money.
The main extra on this disc is a Commentary with Rocco DeVilliers and Greg Haynes, which is good-natured and occasionally funny. Most of what they talk about relates to the problems they had in making the film on such a small amount of money and over such a long period of time. At times, this is simply matching shots, locations and making use of the same vehicles when there is every chance the owner might have sold it in between the gaps in filming but, over four years, DeVilliers also talks about needing to keep the same clothes (and hairstyles) for Tony and Carl but also for Marvin Payne to keep his moustache the same length over four years. Racism is also mentioned but given that Pure Race generally makes what points DeVilliers has to make on the matter, the contributors to this commentary keeps themselves busy with matters relating to the production.
The disc also includes a set of Deleted Scenes (3m54s), only one of which is actually of any interest. One of these is simply further shots of Tony looking guilty at having bailed out on Carl but there is a scene that could have made it into the film in which James Grey welcomes a young boy to his farmhouse to shoot an M-16 while also letting the audience know that he is also welcoming him into his racist militia. Finally, there is a Trailer (2m25s).