Quentin Tarantino killed the non-ironic action movie the way Nirvana killed hair metal. It probably needed to be done, but let's not pretend something of value wasn't lost.
Remember when cinematic violence could be menacing, gratuitous, and funny, but also earnestly delivered all at once? When a thriller could be grippingly serious but with character transformation rather than character depth, and themes rather than social commentary? When everything didn't have to be hyper-clever, it could just be nicely pulled off?
Cold in July remembers; it takes place in 1989 — not just as a setting but as a state of mind. It's the middle of the night, and the Dane family, husband Richard (Michael C. Hall, who doesn't get enough credit as a thoroughly outstanding actor), wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw), and their son, Jordan (Brogan Hall), are sound asleep. That is, until the parents hear an intruder in their home. Richard gets his pistol from a shoebox in his closet, loads it with shaky hands, and ventures down the hallway to confront the burglar. The confrontation goes south, and Richard shoots the unknown man dead.
The police, in the person of Detective Ray Price (Nick Damici) have no qualms about calling it self-defense. Price says the perp was Freddie Russell, a known criminal. Richard is nevertheless devastated; he's not a violent man. He wants to know if Freddie had any family. Just the one, he's told: a dad who just got out on parole from prison.
You see where this is going, right? Ben Russell (Sam Shepard) rolls into town, all scary and mysterious, and starts threatening the Dane family. He wants an eye for an eye, which means young Jordan is in danger since Richard killed the Russell scion. Ben is an almost supernatural force of evil: In his first appearance, he just shows up in the frame, looming over an unsuspecting Richard, and he manages to get past a squad of police to get to the Dane family. It's all very Cape Fear — though Cold in July's homage is to Scorsese's 1991 over-the-top remake rather than the hardboiled original.
But, Cold in July (based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale) is tricking you. I won't spoil the finer points of the narrative, but when you think you've got where it's going figured out, its plot takes left turns. The film's references go from period, '80s and '90s domestic horrors like Unlawful Entry, Pacific Heights, and Flesh and Bone to period action thrillers like Blind Fury, The Hitcher, The Osterman Weekend (I might have Rutger Hauer on the brain), Road House, the Dolph Lundgren version of The Punisher, Blood Simple played straight, or even a human-scale Commando.
All that, plus Hall sports a sweet 'stache and mullet, and Don Johnson shows up as a private detective named Jim Bob Luke, who wears loud country-and-western shirts and a cowboy hat and drives a red convertible with fuzzy dice and a hula girl on the dash. And it works!
The score, by Jeff Grace, is straight up synthesizers and rock guitars. The whole endeavor is appreciatively cheesy, including the direction from Jim Mickle — but there are no hints of mockery. It's a #throwbackthursday kind of film: outdated hair and fashions and concepts not better off forgotten.