Road to Hell, 2008.
Directed by Albert Pyun.
Starring Michael Michael Paré, Clare Kramer, Courtney Peldon, Roxy Gunn, Chris Reject, Ryan Hamman, Jon Mills and Paige Billiot.
Albert Pyun’s ode to Walter Hill’s Streets on Fire explores its hero’s dark journey through hell as he seeks the only thing that still matters to him: his only daughter.
Albert Pyun’s Road to Hell is the kind of demented film only a very specific audience will be able to appreciate. For anyone who is familiar with the filmography of Mr. Pyun, a wide array of feelings and emotions will ensue and come to a boil when his films The Sword and the Sorcerer, Radioactive Dreams, Cyborg, or Captain America are brought up in conversation. Many people vehemently abhor his style of filmmaking, and others – like myself – consider him a true artist, despite that his canvas has gotten smaller and smaller and his brush has been missing more than a few bristles for quite a long time now. It’s easy to deride Pyun’s work for being “cheap,” “ugly,” or even “garbage” as I’ve heard his work called for years. But you know what? He makes movies that matter to him and to his fans, and even when he made Tales of an Ancient Empire, which was a long-belated sort-of follow-up to what many consider his best film, The Sword and the Sorcerer, I was still more than willing to forgive him for that messy misstep because he, like all of my favorite authors or favorite filmmakers, has made more work that I’ve enjoyed over the years than works I didn’t.
Tales of an Ancient Empire (which was written by his producer and partner, Cynthia Curnan) was not a good film for a lot of reasons, but he put his heart into it, and if the end result was a “travesty” or a “slight” to all the Sword and the Sorcerer fans out there, then I say “So what? Get over it.” I don’t hold it against him for returning to that fantasy world with his fluctuating style and sensibility. It took him years to finish it. But he DID finish it with the meager funds he had available, despite the fact that the end result felt rushed and incomplete.
And now there is Road to Hell. I call it demented because there’s really no other word for it. For those who know nothing about it, let me briefly explain what it’s about. If you’ve seen the 1984 film Streets of Fire, directed by Walter Hill, then you’re halfway there. Streets of Fire is a kind-of rock fable that takes place in a non-realistic fantasy world of neon lights and slicked streets where rockabilly gangs roam around looking for trouble, and where the film’s monotone hero, Cody (played by Michael Pare) finds a crossroads between true love and real bad business when his world collides with a rock star named Ellen Aim (Diane Lane). That film ends with Cody leaving his true love because he can’t imagine himself holding her guitar for her, so to speak, and he drives off into a neon-lit question mark of a future.
Albert Pyun loved Streets of Fire so much that he made Road to Hell, which is technically not a sanctioned sequel, but by every right and reality he and his writing and producing partner, Cynthia Curnan, wrote and created Road to Hell as a pseudo-homage / follow-up to Walter Hill’s film. Calling it a sequel isn’t fair, I suppose, but NOT calling it a sequel isn’t really fair either. Let’s call it a fevered dream or a crimson-tinged nightmare from the minds of both Pyun and Curnan, and within the dream/nightmare is the sequel for Streets of Fire as they imagined it would be. It stars Michael Pare in the same role of Cody, but even though he’s playing the same character and he’s the same actor from the first movie, it’s like he’s the homicidal, misogynist evil twin of Cody because the first half of the film has him playing a version of Cody that is actually very similar to the “Hitcher” character Rutger Hauer played in Eric Red’s film of the same name. Cody in Pyun’s film is a veteran of a foreign war, and now he’s more prone to whip out his Rambo blade to slash any potential threat than to crack wise or act tough. Cody is a psycho killer here, plain and simple.
The film is divided into two halves. The first half is the crazed, nightmarish portion that feels completely out of tune to what made Streets of Fire so interesting. It has Cody meeting two blonde female thrill killers on the shoulder of a stretch of desert in the middle of what might very well be hell itself. Cody exhibits some very out-of-character behavior such as punching women (repeatedly) in the face, tying them up, berating them and stripping them, and later resorts to startling and unexpected murder. If this is the same Cody from Streets of Fire, I’d like to see the flashbacks that made him this way. The scenes within this first portion of the film are haphazardly presented, but still strangely compelling in their hot and fevered manic depravity. This is the half that fans of Streets of Fire are going to hate. Luckily, I’m not a big fan of Streets of Fire so I was able to be objective and see the entire film as simply a movie of its own, but more importantly as an ALBERT PYUN film. I went with the strange flow, which led to the second half of the movie.
After the desert scenes, Cody goes to Las Vegas, where his estranged daughter, now a rock star like her mother, the late Ellen Aim, is putting on a concert. Cody meets her (rather easily and conveniently) backstage and they have a quick bit together where she both embraces him and repels him. Remember, story-wise he’d just stripped and murdered at least one other character a few hours previous, and now he’s at his daughter’s concert, getting teary-eyed as he watches and listens to her sing the best songs from Streets of Fire. So Cody makes an appearance in his long-lost daughter’s life, and the movie ends. This is the half that fans of Streets of Fire will understand and warm up to a little easier.
Road to Hell had four days of principle photography, and two extra days on the backend. Six days of filming and four years of post-production. I won’t even begin to describe what Pyun went through to see this movie through to the finish line. He is a filmmaker perpetually carrying his cross to his prolonged crucifixion. I believe in him, I do. I always want to see Pyun and filmmakers like him succeed. He is a man hell-bent on making his dreams a reality. Hollywood and its machine-like industry has no respect or patience for him. His movies don’t always live up to their potential, and he’s mocked all the way to the hill where he finally rests to be slain. Did I like Road to Hell? You know what? It doesn’t matter. It exists, and because it does and because Pyun made it, I’ll be the first one to buy the DVD when it is released (we’ll see how long THAT takes). Do I recommend Road to Hell? Let me be clear: Road to Hell is a movie for the curious. If you’re even the slightest bit curious about it, then I recommend you see it. If you have already made up your mind to hate it, then I guarantee you that you will hate it. Road to Hell leaves no room for margin. There is only forgiveness for this film if you have already decided to forgive it and to forgive Albert Pyun. Albert Pyun, I forgive you. Albert Pyun, I believe in you. Thank you for making Road to Hell. I’ll be there when you finish another one.
david j. moore is a contributing writer to Fangoria, FilmFax, Lunchmeat and VideoScope Magazines. His book WORLD GONE WILD: A SURVIVOR’S GUIDE TO POST-APOCALYPTIC MOVIES will be published in late 2013.