Sunday, August 10, 2014

Band of the Hand (1986)

Young offenders Carlos (Danny Quinn), Ruben (Michael Carmine), J.L. (John Cameron Mitchell), Moss (Leon), and Dorcey (Al Shannon) are pressed into one of those survivalist betterment programs for young criminals movies are so very fond of, the sort of thing that’d be liable to end up with somebody dead in the real world. They’re learning the art of survival with former marine Joe (Stephen Lang), conquering race and class barriers and winning self esteem by barely not dying in the Everglades.

Unlike many other films of this ilk, Band of the Hand is very interested in what happens next, so Joe takes his boys back to Miami to live in a dilapidated house in the worst part of town; things could go well, if not for the fact that their new home belongs to the territory of mid-level drug operator Cream (Laurence Fishburne when they still called him Larry), and Cream doesn’t look fondly on people who throw junkies out of a house in his territory. In a turn of dramatic irony, Cream’s boss just happens to be a certain creep named Nestor (James Remar), also the former boss of Carlos, who has taken (and the emphasis really is on taken here) Carlos’s girlfriend Nikki (Lauren Holly) as what amounts to his sex slave.

Things turn violent when Joe decides to make a stand, and his boys decide to make that stand with him.

It’s difficult not to look at Paul Michael Glaser’s Band of the Hand as a Michael Mann film, even though Mann only (or “only”, who really knows) executive produced, for the film has Mann’s handprints all over it, from the production design to the music to the overall weirdness by way of an 80s concept of stylishness (which Mann at least in part created with Miami Vice) to the problematic character arc of its sole female character – it’s all very Mann and to me seems to have very little to do with the actor turned director whose next film was Running Man.

That’s not a bad thing at all, mind you, for who else but Mann would start a movie as a psychologically crude and weirdly moralizing survivalist adventure, have it turn into some sort of glossy (and still weird) social drama only to have it end up an improbable vigilante movie? And who else would manage to let this tonal change feel like an actual organic (or whatever more appropriate word there is replacing “organic” in Mann’s and Glaser’s highly artificial cinematic language) part of the film, thematically fitting if ethically and psychologically dubious? That dubiousness even seems to be something the film is conscious of, as it seems to have an inkling of how problematic its own treatment of female belonging as some subset of ownership issue between men is. The former knowledge lends the film’s violent end a degree of ambiguity, while the latter doesn’t really amount to much. At least, though, the film is clearly trying; if only up to a point.

Aesthetically, Band of the Hand does that curious thing Mann and Mann-inspired US 80s films loved to do where they talk about urban squalor but just can’t help themselves to stylize and aestheticize the hell out of this squalor, turning “the Ghetto” itself into as much of a part of the glossy, slick 80s as the shoulder pads, the hairspray, and the frightening, cold interior architecture. Here, this very unreal idea of the real world stands in wonderful contrast to the film’s Everglades based scenes that may still look slick but just can’t look artificial, the weird city standing against the authenticity of nature. Yet because this is a film made by city boys, it also knows that the weird city is exactly the place where people must live in the end lest they turn into hermits, and avoids the whole hippie nature as purity business. The weirdness and the hateful sides of (modern) life are unavoidable, and the film stays ambiguous about wanting it this way or not; it’s not as if its characters have as much of a choice as the script’s more survivalist moments pretend they have anyhow.

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