James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.
James Clay// Film Critic
DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID
Now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber and major online retailers
DEAD MEN DONT WEAR PLAID is one of the more elaborate fan fiction exercises in Hollywood history. Steve Martin and director Carl Reiner (THE JERK) wanted to incorporate classic clips starring famous actors of yesteryear into a comedy that looks like a throwback but with a modern attitude. The results are pitch-perfect, but for a very particular audience.
At lunch, the idea came to Martin with Reiner and the film’s screenwriter George Gipe (GREMLINS film novelization), asking if it would be possible to splice in an old clip of a famous actor interacting with the star on-screen. That morsel of an idea was going to consist of over-the-shoulder shots only, but what Reiner and Martin accomplished was a task many creators wouldn’t dare touch. DEAD MENT DON’T WEAR PLAID exercises the absurd part of Martin’s funny bone that doesn’t exist today. Inside the scenes, Martin interacts with Alan Ladd, Ray Milland, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, and at least another dozen screen legends.
The film’s tone is played entirely straight, so cue into that deadpan wavelength, or it will be a very long hour and a half. However, Kino Lorber’s recent blu ray release, DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, is finally given proper historical context, complete with a requisite commentary explaining all the films and references within this project.
Martin plays Rigby Reardon, a “hard-nosed” private eye with a knack for getting distracted by women and supposed movie stars alike. Reardon is hired by Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward, who comedically spars with Martin relentlessly) to investigate the circumstances of her father’s death. The story spins into a silly story filled with secret societies, cover-ups, and other whacky plot details. The film’s narrative isn’t altogether successful, but the creativity baked inside the film is kind of incredible. Plus, Martin’s one-liners and comedic timing remain flawless.
BUY/RENT: DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID is a blind purchase for any fan of film history, comedy, or those who want to see Martin do something completely different. The disc comes with one of the best historical commentaries of the year by filmmaker Alan Arkush and historian Daniel Kremer. Arkush and Kremer have an inviting discourse about the film and Reiner’s filmmaking choices to have these classic clips integrate with his modern movie. This film is a miracle and is now available to enjoy at home in its proper form.
Back in the 1970s, a big burly man named Joe Don Baker was a movie star for everyday Americans. Baker’s tough-as-nails persona leads to a career of ass-kicking on screen, but in an instant, he would flex that doughy smile and turn on the charm. His big break was in ’73 with WALKING TALL, a micro-budget revenge picture that hit with middle American audiences. That film made an imprint on history, but Baker had several other films that only film freaks like Quentin Tarantino would watch.
GOLDEN NEEDLES is a perfect Tarantino-style matinee, a mix of Chinese mysticism that’s problematic these days, and Western Braun that’s also problematic. With Baker at the center of this project, he exudes an attitude that Kurt Russell seemingly borrowed in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Here, Baker plays Dan, an adventurer who’s sucked into the world surrounding the titular golden needles placed inside a crummy statue. Legend has it that if the needles are placed in the particular spots perfectly, that man will become a sexual superhero. If he messes it up, death becomes him.
Overall the film is pretty fun and bounces around as a schlocky chase film should. But, at the same time, director Robert Clouse (ENTER THE DRAGON) knew how to make a quickly moving film that would appeal to audiences worldwide.
The thing with GOLDEN NEEDLES is the film knows its identity well as a kinetic and inherently silly picture that mixes a cast of characters in precarious situations. The film’s climax is incredibly crazy and features a chase between Baker and an entire village. Also featured in the cast are Jim Kelly and Burgess Meredith, and Roy Chiao.
BUY/RENT: GOLDEN NEEDLES comes with a sharp slipcover and newly commissioned artwork for the film’s release. Clouse has a solid filmography that includes GAME OF DEATH and the weirdo 80s classic GYMKATA, but he will also be known for ENTER THE DRAGON. This year, Kino has been doing a great job by adding low-key titles from directors who never got their due. Releasing GOLDEN NEEDLES is the tip of the cap to an unconventional movie star and a legendary filmmaker.