“Little Dixie,” a down and dirty B-movie set in Republican Oklahoma and drug cartel Mexico, makes what I’d consider its first false move over 80 minutes in to its 105 minute running time.
That, as aficionados of B-movies know, ain’t bad.
The latest thriller from the Oklahoma filmmaker John Swab, who gave us the gritty “Ida Red,” is a tense and topical homage to Sam Peckinpah built around Swab’s preferred acting avatar, Frank Grillo. And if you’ve read any reviews on this site over the years, you know I’m all about Frank.
They’ve conjured up a formulaic tale with no heroes, with even the characters we might empathize with less than six degrees separated from bribes, drug smuggling and murders. Swab, who also had the brass to do a truck stop sex trade drama, “Candy Land,” takes formula tropes and wrings something darker if not entirely fresh out of genre. The result goes down like mid-grade whisky — a little rough, a tad predictable, but with a damned satisfying finish.
A conservative, “tough on crime” governor (Eric Dane) gained power thanks to his savvy campaign advisor (Annabeth Gish, bringing a nice intensity) and a strategy that won him not only the state’s deep red Southeast (Little Dixie, but not the “Little Dixie” of the title), but Hispanic voters.
He’s in hot water over “Keystone” pipeline bribes, so he personally shows up at the gruesome execution of a top underboss of the Prado family cartel. That’ll change the subject.
But “Doc,” a comrade from Governor Jeffs’ “special forces” days, is there, too. Doc (Grillo) is wired into all sorts of things. He’s an underground operator/fixer who arranged cash infusions into Jeffs’ campaign. And that cash, we quickly learn, came from that very same cartel.
And “they’re gonna respond.” A governor who figures he’s got a political issue that will get him to Washington and boasts “This is only the beginning,” has no clue, despite Doc’s blunt and bluff warnings.
The Prados send their scariest brother north to deliver their revenge. Raiding a drug lab won’t help. This guy, Cuco (Beau Knapp) wears his sunglasses indoors and his sunglasses at night. And we all know what that means.
Let the reprisals begin. Doc isn’t implicated, but if there’s a general “cleaning” going on, we can guess he’ll be caught up in it. And the fact that we meet Doc’s daughter (Sofia Bryant) gives us at least one person we can root for in all this.
Because everybody else is dirty, venal, and not shy about spilling blood. Doc, like Cuco, has to mow down a lot of cops to escape that police raid.
There are standard ingredients to thrillers like this that genre filmmakers should seriously consider retiring. The daughter as “hostage” thing has been beaten to death. Naked women making drugs has become the new “strip club” in underworld thrillers, a pointless titillation that has become a self-perpetuating movie myth.
And this must be the fiftieth movie I’ve seen in the past six months to have some dude with “special skills” because he’s “ex-special forces.” It’s a crutch. There isn’t even any novelty to making this character a bad “good” man. He’s a cop killer in bed with drug dealers. I bet even a few of the vets who tried to stage a coup one recent January 6 could claim they are “great dads.”
Enough with this crap. It’s worn out, it’s not exactly a “tribute” and movie heroes who aren’t trained killers but find themselves in over-their-heads and forced into violence are always more interesting characters.
That said, Grillo wears this role like the tailored suit jacket he keeps putting on and taking off. Doc doesn’t flip out when he’s forced into action. He knows what weapons and accessories he’s going to need. He acquires them and uses them without compunction.
“Little Dixie” doesn’t break any new ground. Its violence isn’t Sam Peckinpah fresh, partly because the action cinema’s ability to shock has faded due to numbing over-exposure. Several third act twists didn’t play for me, and I thought the finale tried something out that just didn’t work.
But it’s another solid, richly-textured outing by a filmmaker who covers familiar ground and keeps the Oklahoma in his stories and Frank Grillo center-screen when the chips are down.
Rating: R for strong violence and bloody images, pervasive language, some sexual content and brief nudity.
Cast: Frank Grillo, Annabeth Gish, Eric Dane, Sofia Bryant and Beau Knapp
Credits: Scripted and directed by John Swab. A Paramount release.
Running time: 1:45