The Lawless Land (1988) – Post apocalypse road trip

Who doesn’t love a good, post apocalyptic road movie? This one might not be good by any stretch, but it is relatively entertaining, and features some pretty sweet locations. Shot in Chile, there’s a lot of dry and dusty desert to go along with this rather barren tale of forbidden love. Fortunately, though, the actors go pretty hard trying to inject some emotion and a little intensity, which keeps things mildly interesting. You’ve got all the trappings of typical dystopian future here, a shady government, curfews, and checkpoints – making a very obvious nod to the Iron Curtain. This dystopian situation really gets forgotten about half way through as our star crossed lovers hit the road hard in their quest to be together. Made under the tight belt of producer Roger Corman, you can bet the project ran to its meagre budget, yet it looks pretty decent under that nostalgic VHS blur. The Lawless Land might be far from a masterpiece, yet it’s well clear of a disaster, which is impressive considering the writers and director were all making their big screen debuts. Don’t worry, it still packs in enough outrageous and stupid moments – like nipple shocking, weird stripteases, and bad keyboard playing – to make it worth a watch.

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The rather basic and vaguely Shakespearean narrative serves its purpose without ever getting particularly interesting or exciting. This is perhaps unsurprising when you learn it was written by a duo, Tony Cinciripini and Larry Leahy, whose only previous credits were one episode of The Transformers cartoon. They’re both credited as producers too, clearly having the necessary talent and experience. Honestly though, as far as the typical trashy fare of low budget, post apocalypse movies go, this story is more than competent. The scene is set Flashdance style, in a factory where young Falco works hard for the money. He tells us in unnecessary voiceover that it’s “the Southern Continent after the collapse.” We follow his routine as he gets off work and gets spruced up to meet his girl, Diana. Turns out she’s the daughter of one of the men controlling Union City, probably standing in for East Berlin, or any 80s, South American dictatorship you please. These honchos conveniently hold a meeting filled with exposition, where Diana awkwardly commits a crime against music on the Casio. As you may have guessed, Diana and Falco can’t be together under this regime, so their only choice is to run, but not before they have a big, emotional, and delightfully overacted argument about it.

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The pair begin their elopement, getting married in a cool little church that looks like something out of a Madonna film clip. Bizarrely, the lovers are caught by Daddy’s butler, out for a morning drive or something, and that’s where the dystopian stuff starts to fade, and the South American road movie begins. As our characters’ journey cracks on, through an abundance of desert, we meet some strange characters – including the foster dad from Terminator 2 as a drunk, seedy arms dealer, and the lead actress’ sister as a sexy mute. The big Chairman sends some bounty hunters dressed as an 80s synthpop duo to retrieve his previous Diana, and this injects some much needed silliness and excitement. Thankfully director Jon Hess decides to treat us to a little vehicular action, though definitely not enough to satisfy. Instead, most of the action happens once the rabble stops at a shanty town, dimly lit by neon and occupied by all manner of vagrants, quirky bar staff, and exotic dancers. There’s the whole prison incident with the nipple shocking too, and more than one accidental death faking by Falco. Occasionally all of this weirdness does come together to be exciting and intriguing, though it’s never enough to get properly caught up in odd world of The Lawless Land, at least unless you’ve had a few.

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The actors – perhaps to their credit, perhaps not – do try quite hard to make things intense and emotionally engaging. Jsu Garcia, aka Nick Corri from A Nightmare on Elm Street and Predator 2, plays Falco, looking vaguely like Nick Cave. He seems at home cruising on a bike through the Chilean desert, weirdly foreshadowing his involvement with several Che Guevara film projects in the future. He’s clearly not as competent at making painful noises, as his groans and moans come across very comical. The late Amanda Peterson is fair maiden Diana, the girl who steamed it up beside Patrick Dempsey a year earlier in Can’t Buy Me Love. I can only assume she got her sister a job, albeit as the mute girl whose role seems to be purely eye candy.

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Xander Berkeley, that’s Todd from Terminator 2, is probably the best part of the movie. He plays EZ Andy, nailing the dodgy guy with a heart of gold character, and providing a little necessary comic relief. When Falco refuses a beer he responds “well that’s a little weird, what do you drink, mineral water?” Classic. Almost matching him is the cool bounty hunter, so creatively called Roadkill, played by the singularly named Leon, who’ll you’ll probably recognise as the guy from Cool Runnings. He and his sidekick, Alejandro Heinrich’s Billy Boy, look so deliciously, 80s apocalypse cool. In any case, overreaching or not, these guys all do a pretty bang up job and definitely add to the quality, distracting from some of the movie’s duller plot points. The overdubbing is pretty horrendous though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the smaller parts were replaced by different actors as necessary.

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I’m not sure how much it’s worth talking about the stylistic aspects of this very middle of the road road movie. I do want to mention that Hess continued on strong after this debut, not with a prolific output, but with such crackers as Alligator 2: The Mutation and Excessive Force. He was also apparently a producer on American History X. To be fair, he seems to handle a production of this level quite capably, which is something you can’t always say about low budget filmmakers. Considering the genre of movie, though, it would have been nice to have more of the breathtaking scenery on show. I’m not sure who dropped the ball there, but there are two cinematographers and three editors on the project. I don’t think the typical excuse of budget constraints cuts it either – wide shots of wilderness don’t cost much. Perhaps it has something to do with the split focus on dystopian sci-fi and road movie. I can’t forget to mention the soundtrack though, by Lucia Hwong, which is actually quite good and vaguely industrial, featuring plenty of drum machine.

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The Lawless Land is not good by any stretch, but it’s also not a total trash heap. Make of that what you will. It pulls off some of the things it sets out to do, and at times it even gets a little interesting, yet it’s always shrouded by a light fog of tackiness. Perhaps the biggest issue is that it fails to nail a particular style, coming across pretty scattered as a result. The writers and directors probably deserve equal blame for that, although who really knows? The upside is that the whole experience is a little more wacky than it should be, and the occasionally bizarre, stylistic or narrative elements are all the more enjoyable. Seriously, the nipple torture is something to behold, especially when coupled with the statement “he’s been like that for three days.” Ouch? Moments like that make for a pretty fun time, and coupled with the general competence shown by the cast and crew you could do a lot worse than this movie. Just don’t expect another Mad Max wannabe, which is actually kind of refreshing.

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