All hail VOD, the format giving new life to disreputable exploitation films. It was problematic to stock them on DVD shelves next to the likes of “Kangaroo Jack” and “The Chronicles of Riddick.” Now, the cheapest, tackiest, most base thrills are only a click away, allowing an opportunistic indie like “Bad Ass” its moment to shine, giving the perfect level of exposure to this grungy shlockfest with a built-in limited shelf life.
“Bad Ass,” a title that tries and fails to say it all, focuses on the exploits of Frank Vega, a quiet old man settling in Los Angeles and coping with his days winding down. A Vietnam vet who, at this point, has lost everything, he lives in the house vacated by his late mother with an old war buddy named Klondike, both just thankful they still have two legs to stand on. What makes Vega something of a local legend is a recent altercation on a commuter bus where he was attacked by a couple of skinheads whom he quickly dismantled and disabled with little fuss, earning the nickname in the title.
“Bad Ass” takes its inspiration from a real-life viral video about an old man dubbed “Epic Beard Man” who similarly took down a man reportedly interfering with his commute. That’s where the similarities end — “Epic Beard Man,” aka Thomas Brusco, was celebrated for his prior accomplishments, many of which were revealed to be untrue. There was also the distinctly problematic fact that once Brusco opened his mouth, it was revealed he was a white separatist with severe mental issues, with some evidence suggesting he instigated the infamous bus throwdown.
What’s interesting about “Bad Ass” on a surface level is that the film strips away this baggage and lionizes the man in the viral video alone as Urban Legend. More specifically, writer/director Craig Moss re-imagines him as a quiet Hispanic loner, a pillar of the community, one who would be aware of his own ubiquity had he any understanding or appreciation of computers. A “viral video” means nothing to this man, who is looking down at his own mortality, particularly in the wake of a shooting that leaves Klondike dead.
“Bad Ass” becomes clumsy when it tries to “legitimize” this genuinely good man with a gift for pummeling. Vega grows frustrated with the police effort to find Klondike’s killer — in one scene, he pointedly criticizes an Indian cop for being part of a racist system, given that they had just promptly found the murderer of a local rich white twentysomething. Unfortunately there’s less of this and more of Bad Ass shaking down perps with a bit of Old Testament violence. Vega’s arsenal at first consists of movie-friendly fistfights and beatings, but it takes on a much more upsetting tone as he shoves one criminal’s hand into a trash compactor. “Thanks for giving me a hand,” he coldly tosses off.
It’s not enough that he has to seek his version of justice for what happened to his friend. It turns out, Vega is also, unwillingly, on the trail of one of those movie-friendly “vast criminal conspiracies” involving a zip drive that connects the mayor (Ron Perlman, in likely a day’s work) to organized crime. Director Moss makes this crucial misstep of confusing modern mythology with tacky contemporary action cinema cynicism. It’s not enough to attack the system and go your own way — the system needs to be not only very obviously corrupt, but also clearly out to get you. By giving Bad Ass an unstoppable boogeyman to fight, he’s essentially weakening whatever relevant reality this character can occupy. Which is also a disservice to Danny Trejo, who’s quite good, and fairly tragic as Vega. His weathered face and sad eyes gives Bad Ass a backlog of strife to reveal with just one look.
“Bad Ass” ends up being most interesting for what’s not on the page. A final showdown pits Bad Ass against the mayor’s top criminal associate played by Charles S. Dutton. Dutton, who was once imprisoned in jail on manslaughter charges, has had a full career as a character actor, but has grown notably crustier in recent years, making him the ideal opponent for a mythical tough guy like fellow ex-con Trejo. To see these two distinctly aged performers with significant rap sheets as the stars of a film with roughly the same distribution methods of pornography has a transgressive thrill, but Moss wastes this cachet with an unnecessary budget-busting greyhound bus chase.
Moss fills the margins of “Bad Ass” with generic clichés, showing he’s a fan of exploitation movies, but not what exploitation means. One of these well-worn tropes is to have Bad Ass become the protector to the pretty abused wife living next door, and mentor to her wisecracking son. When romance blooms, the wife becomes a prop to give Bad Ass the impetus to stop the bad guys, who now threaten his inner circle. And all this around the zip drive MacGuffin, when Bad Ass not only has no idea how to use a zip drive nor does he ever mention the mayor or his administration. Protip: when you need to wait until the final reel to give your protagonist any motivation to care about the MacGuffin, maybe you need a new MacGuffin. Or a new lead character. [C-]