“Oh, The Deal’s Going Down…But It’s Going Down Twisted!”: Albert Pyun’s Underrated, Wicked Comic Noir DOWN TWISTED

By James Kenney

In his entertaining and essential book on filmmaker Albert Pyun’s career, Radioactive Dreams: The Cinema of Albert Pyun, Justin Decloux sums up what makes the Hawaiian-born low-budget auteur Pyun such an inexplicable, attractive figure for some of us while a subject of bewilderment to so many others.  He lists his “Pyun Essentials” and, man, it looks nothing like my list of Pyun Essentials. The one thing for sure is if you like Pyun, you like Pyun, feeling protective while too many dismiss his filmography with brusque broadsides. But how you react to each of Pyun’s idiosyncratic, nonconformist cinematic creations is a private response not inevitably shared by anyone else in the room. DeCloux has little use for Down Twisted, which for me is Pyun’s magnum opus, bar none. 

While I agree that Nemesis and Mean Guns, on his list, merit respect, I think Pyun’s back-up best film is his crazy valentine to Streets of Fire, Crazy Six, which DeCloux can’t abide, and which I’ll get to in an additional article in a minute or three. Meanwhile, back to the debate on Twisted, well, as Decloux puts it: “…you could assume Down Twisted is a pulpy Romancing the Stone-style pastiche. It isn’t. Maybe a heist film? Nope. How about a straight-ahead globe-trotting action adventure? Still no...So what is it, exactly?

DeCloux ultimately determines it’s a riff on Michael Mann’s Thief, of all things: “The colours. The scope. The focus on professional criminals.”

And then decides that Pyun didn’t pull this Thief homage off.

Which is fine, that’s okay, but I think in this case way off-base.  Twisted is an ensemble “gang” comedy, the characters and plot developments amusing by design, which immediately separates it from Mann’s brilliant but humorless study focused on a single protagonist, James Caan’s thief. As Cannon described Pyun’s film in its 1987 press materials, Down Twisted, a Los-Angeles-to-the-Tropics treasure hunt, is a “madcap adventure full of red herrings, loaded pistols and gorgeous femme fatales [filled with] frolicky action [that] will keep audiences guessing down to the last minute,” so no one there thought to reference Thief, though to be fair to Decloux, their synopsis is not really all that on-point either.

What Down Twisted is is John Huston’s Beat the Devil meets Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire for the MTV generation; Huston and Truman Capote’s 1954 Devil is infamous for being absurd, made up as they went along, the cast, including Humphrey Bogart, Robert Morley and Jennifer Jones not having a clue what the filmmakers were up to, which was a straight-faced parody of the international thriller; some of them seemed more amused by the ordeal than others (Bogart, in particular, was not amused).

The cast is in on the gag in Twisted, a kind of humpback garage-synth-rock mashup done up in neon colors that does not take itself too seriously. Imagine a Hollywood machine that didn’t give a damn about the conventions of making a film for the widest consumption possible, but instead concentrated its energies on producing absurdly sublime cotton-candy made by Third World Cinematic Assassins armed with cameras and gumption, and you’d get Down Twisted. As Pyun’s longtime producing partner Cynthia Curnan told me in a 2013 interview, “Albert must do something he hasn’t done before. Film is always experimental for him. Albert dares himself to do something he’s not sure can be done, every time out.”

Twisted details good-looking people having larcenous fun in grubby, preposterous situations, getting caught up in the seductiveness of gold, as represented by a priceless, jewel-encrusted native ornament, the Crucible of San Lucas, that they are all trying to steal, or sell, or sell than steal, or whatever

The film’s loping pace and loose narrative “plot,” such as it is, is really a shaggy dog joke that engineers the swirling vortex that inevitably swallows most of its greedy characters, save Maxine, played by Carey Lowell, an innocent Los Angeles waitress/student who ends up in South America being endangered, lied to and cajoled by a motley gang of deceitful scallywags who think she’s involved in their machinations. She proves the only innocent in this nest of sweaty vipers, somehow coming out on top because of luck and Pyun’s unusually optimistic one-shot worldview where the good (represented by Maxine) and the well-intentioned scoundrel (represented by Charles Rocket playing Reno, aka Charlie, the ostensible leader of the pack) stand a chance, while those too fixated on the big score are doomed.

Pyun, in his later film work, typically has a dark take on man and his need to destroy himself and those around him (more than one of his films fixates on cyborgs running around causing mayhem after humans have all but obliterated themselves), but here, spirited, with the future ahead and an attractive cast surrounding him, a fledgling Pyun seems happy to roll fate’s dice and let the good live to see another day. 

Down Twisted, most of all, is a fun movie.

As Pyun himself stated upon release, “I was going for a darkly comedic tone, not so much a film with ‘laughs’ as one in which the whole thing – the plot, the characters – reverberates as a kind of mood-humor piece.”  In a curious revelation,it turns out Pyun’s core inspiration was Robert Altman’s rather dark The Long Goodbye, with its assemblage of characters characterized by their personality quirks. Twisted‘s highly stylized mood nevertheless is uniquely its own, with its anxious heroine set up against cool, dry characters who seem to rather enjoy outwitting and double-dealing each other, always ready to reassemble for one more scheme if it seems fleetingly advantageous.  They all carry guns, they all are willing to pull them, but they prefer to sneer and calibrate a new subterfuge or temporary alliance rather than kill anyone, save Thom Matthews’ Damalas, with peroxided hair and irate, cold eyes, who is willing to shoot and garrote everyone, or throw them out of a window in a pinch.

Twisted, written by Gene O’Neill and Noreen Tobin, based on a story by Pyun, is definitely unconventional and impish, following the patterns of the “damsel in distress” adventure while not really too concerned about hitting all the archetypal bullet points, but without the nihilism of Pyun’s professed inspiration, Goodbye; Twisted plays as if Pyun (who told me in a 2013 interview regarding his feature-length fan-fic sequel to Streets of Fire, Road to Hell, that Fire is his favorite film, alongside Johnny Guitar), is riffing on Walter Hill’s colorful action pastiche Streets of Fire, but here Tom Cody (represented by Reno/Charlie) is rewarded for his loyalty to The Girl by The Girl remaining loyal to him, unlike in Fire.

There is a ripe, sensuous, comic-book erotic quality to all of it, with Pyun’s admiration for “gorgeous femme fatales” evident from frame one, when the talented and game Australian Linda Kerridge (best known for her lead role in Dennis Christopher’s Fade to Black) appears mirrored in Rocket’s sunglasses.  Even the waitresses in Down Twisted are stunning (including a young Courtney Cox), and Trudi Dochtermann as Michelle, Maxine’s petulant and difficult roommate, is not only striking-looking, but proficient at wicked sneers – she continually gives off a vibe of being put-upon by all she encounters – whatever happened to this gorgeous and capable actress? She has fallen off the face of the earth. 

Down Twisted provides Bond girl and future Law & Order star Lowell with her best-ever lead role as Maxine, the bewildered protagonist, a fresh-blossomed beauty who gives off a kind of unfussy elegance among all the sweaty jungles and bars. Its her story of adventure and discovery, and while for 90% of it she’s behind the cue ball, she does have an epiphany at the end that perhaps this adventure is her grand opening to the larger world beyond the library—she is transformed, no longer the beautiful angst-ridden intellectual brick of the first ten minutes, but ready for the next wave of adventure, only now she’s leading the way, with Rocket happily following.

The men, led by Rocket, are no less attractive; Rocket, who sadly took his own life in the early 2000s, delivers effectively as the anti-hero, tall, lanky and able to flip off insouciantly sarcastic line-readings while, more than most of his Saturday Night Live brethren, having the standard good looks of a leading man– the square jaw, the blue eyes. Some viewers may respond to the old-school chasteness of the film, out of step with its 80s brethren; Rocket and Lowell manage to not only not sleep with each other, but not even kiss for the duration of the movie, although things are looking good for the near-future.  Mathews, well-known to genre fans for his gigs in Return of the Living Dead and Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives! gives the sociopathic Damalas an impressively sadistic, Richard Widmark-meets Miami Vice quality; he has a sense of humor about his homicidal tendencies.

One reason Decloux’s Michael Mann reference resonates is the rich electronica score by Berlin Game (Eric Allaman & Reinhard Scheuregger), which surprisingly is currently available on CD. Evocative of the Tangerine Dream scores favored by Mann in the early 80s, (Allaman and Scheuregger actually worked on Dream’s Legend score for Ridley Scott) Down Twisted’s most memorable use of scoring, however, is in Oingo Boingo’s “Nothing Lasts Forever” over the opening credits and Pyun’s extraordinary use of Fine Young Cannibals’ electronic Elvis Presley cover “Suspicious Minds” throughout the extensive end sequence and end credits of the film, where the hard-working, then-unknown actors are given a curtain call.

Down Twisted’s quickness and cheapness elevate it; knowing it was made for Cannon films, which would basically shave off a week’s shooting schedule at a moment’s notice, adds to the sense of adventure that Pyun and his band of swarthy (and in the case of the women, gorgeous) pirates were pulling something off while never quite knowing if the lights would be turned off the next day.  They shot in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and trouble was caused when several buildings in the city’s historical district were painted bright colors for the “carnival” sequence, only to have the owners fined by the local officials for “painting without a permit.” At another point in filming, the local militia confiscated the production’s firearms because of security concerns over the World Cup Soccer finals being staged in the city.  The prop people apparently didn’t tell the production crew (!) and only when a pistol was needed at 3:00 AM for a scene did they realize the situation.  All this nonsense only adds to the mystique of this little oddball caper flick made without stars by a company not known for rewarding quirky new-wave energy, as Cannon’s biggest successes were violent action retreads starring an aging Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris.

As for the set, the cast and crew apparently made pets of some of the local fauna, according to Pyun, including native parrots and iguanas. Rocket, upon release, shared his concerns about the local catering truck, saying “I wasn’t always sure what the meat was, to look at it. I’d ask what it was and they’d answer and I wouldn’t understand them, and I’d just nod. It was probably better not to know.” 

But they were all young, making a movie, who cares! As Lowell put it in a recent interview for the Down Twisted soundtrack release, “I was really happy there, and it was a fun shoot. Albert was like a skater kid in a funny way who really loved making movies, even though he had limited resources…I like [Down Twisted] better [than Licence to Kill] in a way. It just has more of a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor to it because of Albert’s sensibility…” 

The handsome, color-rich 2:35-1 images are shot by Walt Lloyd, who soon after this filmed Sex, Lies, and Videotape for Steven Soderbergh.  Locations that Lloyd gives the appropriately steamy-sweaty-Streets of Fire neon look included Punta Minta, an arid area where the chain-gang sequence that ends the film was shot; Petogue Beach, where the jungle scenes between Rocket and Lowell were lensed; and Puerto Vallarta’s airport terminal, the site of the climax where all the major characters come together and fates are decided. Don’t ask why, when a cab is needed towards the end of the film, a mint-condition, cherry red 1948 Chrysler taxicab arrives — production designer Chester Kaczinski rented it from a local owner who claimed that Elvis Presley drove the car to Puerto Vallarta in the late 60s, ran out of gas and left it there. This glorious oddball detail best represents Down Twisted itself; best not to think too much about this tall-tale, filled with excitement, exoticism, mystery, narrow escapes, and unlikely coincidences, that belongs in one of those pulp adventure magazines filled with the most daring, dangerous, and death-defying tales. Just enjoy the ride.

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