In The Overlook, A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.
The first shot of Reckless Kelly is a sight gag: a coral-filtered aerial establishing shot of sun-dappled waves and a ragged coastline, the kind found in so many Hollywood blockbusters of the early and mid-’90s, but flipped upside down. “Approaching the coast of Australia,” reads a flash of text. I’ll admit it that the first time I saw it, I let out a dumb laugh, though not as loud as the dumb laugh that came once the camera arrived at the main setting of the first part of the film: a combination hotel, bandit hideout, and video rental with a lobby full of sleeping kangaroos and wombats, where crumpled tallboy cans are raked away like fallen leaves every morning. So, a word of warning: I find this stupid stuff funny. I like Jerry Lewis, too.
There’s more than a whiff of Lewis to Reckless Kelly, and to all the fiction films (there are only three) made by its Australian director, co-writer, and star, Yahoo Serious. Like Lewis in his creative prime, Serious (his legal name) specialized in mischief-making overgrown preadolescents with big dreams. But he lacked Lewis’ dark side. His persona and humor were gentler. Only Mr. Accident—his final film, in which he manages to simultaneously flood his apartment and set it on fire during the opening credits—fully qualifies as slapstick. (It might be his most fully realized movie, but also the one I find the least funny.) His preferred form of physical gag involved props, costumes, and Rube Goldberg machines.
Serious’ films are bluntly conservationist and anti-corporate. He had been a documentary filmmaker before switching to comedy; his debut, all but impossible to see now, was a film about the effect of the coal industry on Australia’s Hunter Valley, co-directed with his future writing partner, David Roach. Nowadays, Serious is something of a media recluse, but for a time he was enough of a name to land on the cover of Time magazine despite never having much success in America. His first comedy, the very silly and surreal Young Einstein, was a huge hit at home, but did only modest business in the U.S. after a costly promotional campaign. That lack of crossover appeal with American viewers seems to have provided much of the inspiration for Reckless Kelly, his most burlesque movie.
It’s about an all-Australian naïf who leaves behind the Down Under for the US of A to star in a movie that’s meant to pander to the lowest common denominators of American taste: a lurid, gun-fetish action flick whose hero is a revival preacher, cowboy, biker, and Puritan colonist out to rid the Las Vegas streets of gangsters and gross ethnic stereotypes (i.e., kilt-wearing Scottish thugs). Warner Bros., which lost millions marketing Young Einstein, had hoped that Serious’ absurdist comedy would be the next “Crocodile” Dundee. So in Reckless Kelly, he sets out to out-exoticize the Paul Hogan hit, offering an Australia where you can’t open a door without hitting a kangaroo, and a trip into town involves riding your Mad Max-esque scrap-cycle down a stretch of isolated highway previously featured in The Road Warrior.
This is all a play on its creator’s Hollywood aspirations and the ambitions of the Australian industry. Serious’ Ned Kelly is a direct descendent of the namesake Australian outlaw and folk hero—a key figure of national identity, but also the subject of The Story Of The Kelly Gang, the 1906 Australian production often cited as the first feature film. In the tried-and-true tradition of the “save the community center!” slobs vs. snobs comedy, Reckless Kelly pits its Robin Hood bank robber protagonist—a respectable but dying profession in the movie’s version of Australia—against the knighted slimeball (Hugo Weaving) who wants to take his family’s land. Unable to simply steal the necessary million dollars because of his personal code, he does the next best thing by boarding a jet to Los Angeles to become a movie star.
Perhaps it says something about Serious’ cockeyed satirical sensibility that his character doesn’t end up in some kind of parody of soul-sucking Tinseltown glitz, but at a low-rent B-movie studio whose president, played by the late John Pinette, declares, “The quality of our movies is so high that they bypass the theaters completely and go straight to video!” (I swear that not a week goes by that I don’t think of this particular line.) His America is one sight gag after another, a mix of futurism and retro kitsch—the country as it might be imagined by someone who’s never been there, a place of rock ’n’ roll and high technology, where everything looks like a classic diner and video phones are common.
Bear with me here: Reckless Kelly’s mise-en-scène is sophisticated, with gags sometimes hidden just behind other gags. Interestingly, the different sections of the film rely on different types of visual humor; the American scenes stand out for their hyperstylized sets, with lighting that occasionally brings to mind Joel Schumacher’s Gotham, albeit in a good way. But as narrative, it’s crude—which is also sort of the joke. As a movie that’s playing with two cultures’ silliest and most exotic misconceptions about each other, it ends up creating an alternate reality of intentional stupidity, with Ned Kelly (who has a talking dog and is impervious to bullets, by the way) serving as both buffoon and straight man.
The bad guys are cardboard thin, the good guys are live-action cartoons, and the closest the film offers to a wink—at least in its re-cut version, which is the only one available today—is a discussion of the phallic symbolism of the handgun. Suffice it to say, it did even worse than Young Einstein.
Next guest: A Thief In The Night, the greatest shoestring-budgeted paranoid end times evangelical movie ever made.