No budget, no problem. The seams show often in “Dust Up,” an unapologetically silly action comedy that feels as if it was produced entirely from the loose change found on all of Brooklyn’s collective bar tops. Complimenting the jaunty original score and songs from Spindrift and Gram Rabbit are stock soundtrack cues like a soaring eagle, crashing glass, and what sounds like the loudest punches ever recorded for a film, even when delivered by hundred-pound weaklings.
Eternally lost in the desert is ex-vet Jack (Aaron Gaffey), who survived war trauma to become a “high desert handyman” with a granite pokerface and an eyepatch that others can’t help but acknowledge is “badass.” A phone call takes him to the doorstep of Ellen (a frankly adorable Amber Benson), who he hopes to assist with her plumbing issues, but also maybe a bit more? The point is moot as Jack soon encounters her husband, the drugged-out moron Herman (Travis Betz). And it’s Jack’s chivalry that’s going to get him wrapped up in Herman’s trouble, which involve a massive debt to a local kingpin that threatens the couple and their infant child. Jack stoically looks into the distance as he growls, “People killing people is everybody’s problem… including mine,” and at once he punctures the film’s flippant sarcasm with evidence of a genuine moral compass, which surprisingly contrasts strongly to his military flashbacks.
Waltzing into the movie like a tornado is Buzz (Jeremiah Birkitt), the local crime boss and grandstanding emcee of what looks like a lifelong party. Buzz is also a former soldier, though he became too debauched and too politicized to wear the stripes. A 9/11 truther who bemoans the capitalist corruption of Washington, Buzz is also a coke-snorting, bisexual deviant who freely rapes and murders when he’s not drunkenly hosting raves at a meth lab.
It’s Buzz’s doom-saying that suggests “Dust Up” occurs in a future that’s both near and perilously close to the apocalypse. Buzz seems like a diseased jarhead gone far off the reservation, but he’s smart enough to know that, by the time he’s serving the cooked corpse of a police officer as dinner, he’s also making a political point. Birkitt, to his credit, threatens frequently to run away with the film, giving a performance that’s both seductively likable and sickeningly upsetting. It’s easy to draw the line that starts with him and ends with Lord Humongous of “Mad Max.”
The first half hour of “Dust Up” is faintly ridiculous and filled with forced-perspective shots begging for a laugh, as if there was a need to establish that the film is a comedy up front. But once it settles into its story beats, Buzz becomes a catalyst that introduces fairly basic dramatic stakes, allowing the laughs to emerge organically from a life-or-death situation. Undoubtedly, Buzz has an army, which poses its own threat. However, this army features a brute named Mr. Lizard, a bald-headed wild man with a reptilian mouthpiece courtesy of the local Halloween store, and Keith, a lumpy mustached pigeon in a banana-yellow polo shirt. Jack, meanwhile, has backup from Mo, a close friend who happens to be a deeply-spiritual Native American, despite being played by the flippant, very Caucasian Devin Barry. Barry’s casual line readings feel like a commentary on the manner in which foreign cultures are co-opted by whites, such as the crack about off-the-reservation Mo being sick of living off “casino profits.”
“Dust Up” has its lowbrow affectations (a quarter of a fight scene is spent on the geyser of blood shooting from a man’s genitals), but it’s most definitely a relevant representation of what’s left of the post-millennial counterculture. The picture of which “Dust Up” most clearly reminds is Alex Cox’s wayward “Straight To Hell.” That picture sees its revolutionaries (and counter-revolutionaries) responding to an era’s formal excess with attempts to tear it down. In response, the “rebels” of “Dust Up” are attempting to re-establish seemingly outdated ways of life, if not for appreciation of roots than as a search for structure in a disassociate world, from Jack’s undying need to preserve Ellen’s family to the pre-battle Native American ritual before the gang heads into battle. Like Cox’s work, “Dust Up” has a jangly punk rock spirit, one that doesn’t at any point feel like a pose, even given the film’s formal shortcomings (overlit, iffy shot composition, etc.). Though it’s amazing what one bloody tomahawk attack can do for a shaky-cam action sequence. [B+]