What was that again? Certainly I can’t be serious, right? Yes, without any hint of irony I feel confident in expressing a strong admiration for the Craig R. Baxley’s Brian Bosworth-action-vehicle Stone Cold (1991). Sure, its not by conventional terms a ‘great’ film, but neither are many of the most entertaining and well crafted late 80s/early 90s action films. Just because they don’t fit neatly into a (subjective) category that doesn’t make it an inferior product. Rather, they should be judged upon a rubric in which is fitting for their intentions…and the only intention that Stone Cold has is to make an action-packed, one-liner laden ‘rebel with a badge’ film. For that, I think it’s a raging success.
Following his bad boy days in College football and a brief stint playing for the Seattle Seahawks, an injured and out-of-work Bosworth (or the Boz as he liked to call himself) was looking for the next step for his career. Football had made him a star, and he is quite possibly one of the first players to really know how to brand himself beyond the confines of football itself. He treated the NFL like professional wrestling, always quick to remove the helmet that covered his signature multi-colored mullet for the camera. He used the interview time to ‘cut promos’ that would make even Dusty Rhodes jealous. The Boz was egotistical and hotheaded but America loved him (or loved to hate him). Since his career in football was predicated not only on talent but also on image, the move to acting seems logical — and it’s a move that many have made. Unfortunately for the Boz, his first (and best) Stone Cold did not perform favorably with critics or audiences.Produced for the modest budget of 25 million, the film was an utter box-office failure with its 2 million dollar first weekend gross (although it eventually reached 9 million overall). Critically, the film fared even worse, receiving mostly negative scores and garnering a Razzie nod for the old Boz (frankly an unjust nomination). By the film’s release in 1991, the action cycle in mainstream films was well underway and in addition to big budget spectacles like Die Hard 2 (1990), the booming VHS industry saw the release of countless straight-to-video titles, with companies like PM Entertainment Group leading the way. Stone Cold kind of exists in a weird middle ground between these poles; it doesn’t have the budget to really compete with where industry was headed with films like Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) or Die Hard 2 (1990), but it’s a bit flashier and more ambitious than many of the straight-to-video offerings. Perhaps with this in mind, the overall failure can be attributed to a sense of growing fatigue. At the time of the film’s release there were already three Rambo films along with two Die Hard, Robocop, Predator, and Lethal Weapon films, action films had taken America by storm but was it was reaching critical mass? After 1991, films like Stone Cold were, more and more, being relegated to video and maybe the lack of real star power made it feel like a meandering dud. With Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Gibson, and Van Damme, maybe America wasn’t ready for the Boz. The sign of a good film is often a good open, and Stone Cold does not let down. The film opens inside a supermarket at start of an attempted robbery. Unfortunately for the thieves, they chose the wrong store because amidst the mostly empty aisles is a leather overcoat clad suspended police officer named Joe Huff (Brian Bosworth). The open helps to set the pace for the film, as Huff individually takes out the robbers in a humorous fashion before mouthing off to the late-arriving police officers he’s left to clean up the mess. It’s the typical try-hard, macho scene but for some inexplicable reason it works. But its not all posturing and laughs, the bulk of the film is rather dark — even if it is at times undermined by some early 90s cheese. Because of his motorcycle experience, the FBI force Huff to accept an undercover gig infiltrating a violent biker gang called the Brotherhood (a sort of loose allusion to the Hell’s Angels). After their murder of a local priest and judge, Huff is given the task of bringing the gang down from the inside, but becoming a part of the Brotherhood isn’t as easy as it seems and Huff finds himself caught between a psychotic henchman, the ruthless but charismatic leader and his girlfriend. Time can be kind to films and I think that is the case for Stone Cold. Almost 25 years removed from the film’s theatrical release, we can look back with more than just nostalgia. Irony often plays an important role in these kinds of works and we are all guilty of this at some point in time. Quite frankly, the “so good its bad” attitude works but has become a bit irritating lately. Its getting to the point where you can’t even go to a rep theater to see an old genre film without a sea of 20-somethings laughing at every scene — even when you are seeing good films. While Stone Cold is guilty of a few unintentionally comical lines (and unfunny intentional comedic lines) — and I would never go as far as to claim that he is a fantastic actor — the Boz is surprisingly charismatic in the role. Keeping in mind some iconic action stars first or early on-screen roles — think JCVD in Cyborg or Arnold in Hercules in New York —, it is somewhat of a shame that the film wasn’t a bigger hit, because the Boz does exhibit a fairly comfortable on-screen persona. As far as physicality is concerned, the Boz is serviceable but the film is smart to highlight him doing what he does well (brawling), rather than try and shoehorn in stodgy martial arts. He looks good in the role too. I mean, yes his mullet is very much a product of the times but he has a demanding persona. With action the look goes a long way and the Boz undeniably has the “it” factor. Had he surfaced a decade or even five years sooner, he probably could have made for a great star in the Italian genre films, that is if his hubris allowed him to stoop to that level. Really, the stars of the show are veteran character actors William Forsythe and Lance Henriksen. Both actors are workhorses that committed to their roles. Even in his negative review, Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman noted this fact: “featured among the bikers are a couple of fine actors: Henriksen as the middle-aged, sinewy Chains, always cackling with ironic good cheer, and William Forsythe as his jittery right-hand man. When they’re on-screen, Stone Cold doesn’t feel quite as B-movie-ish.” Forsythe and Henriksen, respectively playing white power, satanic bikers Ice and Chains, are really better than they have any right being. They elevate the sometimes-subpar dialogue, penned by Walter Doniger (the last script from a writer mostly known for vanilla TV), making it not only believable but even impressive at times. While Foresyhte’s role is a bit flat (due to no fault of his own), Henriksen really gets to stretch his legs playing a ruthless murderer that can still manage to demand a significant amount of alignment from viewers. As mentioned, the script by Doniger is not really rock-solid but the premise is strong and there are more than a few memorable lines (“God forgives, the Brotherhood doesn’t” being the best), so what else can you ask for? Given Doniger’s record, it would surprise me if there weren’t someone doing punch ups on the script or ghostwriting. Stone Cold is far more aggressive and dark than anything that exists in his filmography. But, maybe Stone Cold was the kind of film he always wanted to make. If that is the case, I hope it was worth it because it would be the last film of his career — perhaps no one would hire him after the failure? Really, the film benefits from Craig R. Baxley’s direction. While you can’t say that Baxley is a stylist, his direction is taut. A former stunt man, Baxley seems highly skilled in capturing action, making the most of his 25 million dollar budget. Stone Cold, like with Doniger, wasn’t kind to Baxley’s career and it took him 6 years before he would make another theatrical film and his work has remained largely in TV since.
Olive Films are all over the board when it comes to releases. So, while it may seem strange that they chose to release what has large been rejected as a best-forgotten piece of action history, it really makes a lot of sense that they would champion the film. The Blu-ray of Stone Cold does come bare bones (no features like many of their releases) but, in line with their reputation, the print on this disc is very well handled. So, while you sacrifice supplementary features you have the benefit of a solid visual/aural presentation. If you even somewhat like 80s/90s action cinema, Stone Cold should fall favorably on your radar. It’s not art but it doesn’t have to be.Stone Cold is available now on Blu-ray via Olive Films