Jonathan Demme’s “Fighting Mad” (1976)

“Fighting Mad” (1976), the third film directed by Jonathan Demme (“Silence of the Lambs,” “Rachel Getting Married”), and the only one of his films not listed on Netflix, has little of the quirky, whimsical touches that Demme suffused later efforts with. He would prove to be more at home with the small-time eccentrics that populated off-beat comedies such as “Citizens Band” (about CB radio enthusiasts) and “Melvin and Howard” (about the real-life hapless dreamer Melvin Dummar, who claimed he picked up Howard Hughes one night and wound up in his will). [Both starred Paul Le Mat, whom I interviewed earlier on this blog.] Though these films were not financial successes, by the 1980s his gently satiric, kook-celebrating persona had charmed mainstream audiences. “Something Wild” (1986) and “Married to the Mob” (1988) were both hits, and furthermore they allowed glamorous Hollywood actresses like Melanie Griffith and Michele Pfeiffer to reveal wild, unfettered, unpredictable sides of themselves.

It’s likely that “Fighting Mad” feels so impersonal because, as with Demme’s first two films, “Caged Heat” (1974) and “Crazy Mama” (1975), it was assigned and produced by exploitation cinema mastermind Roger Corman, who helped Demme get his start. “Caged Heat” was a trashy women’s prison outing, and “Crazy Mama” followed the adventures of three 1950s women on a crime spree, but “Fighting Mad” doesn’t even have kitschy female empowerment appeal;  the female characters in this simple revenge story are either killed, frightfully warning their men or otherwise relegated to damsel-in-distress mode.

Demme is given screenwriting credit, but according to the film’s DVD commentary track, it was Corman who came up with the story idea. After noticing the success of redneck revenge films such as “Walking Tall” and “Billy Jack,” Corman wanted to create his own but add the slight twist of the villains being strip miners. And that, indeed, is the movie’s only twist, and not one that makes it any more realistic or compelling. “It isn’t life. And, heaven knows, it isn’t art,” ran the New York Times review.

Strong-silent type Peter Fonda plays a strong-silent type who returns to his small farm hometown with little boy in tow. He’s horrified to learn that a group of greedy developers, called Crabtree, are threatening to tear down his home and put up commercial property. Crabtree isn’t your standard heartless corporation, though. These guys make Tishman Speyer look like the pinkest Commies around. When the farm folk won’t get off their land, Crabtree hires goons to remove them, and not kindly. Fonda’s barely been back a full day before his brother and sister-in-law are assaulted in their home, knocked cold, force-fed alcohol and driven off a cliff to their burning death.

Crabtree dismisses the “accident” as a result of drunk driving. So does the weak-willed sheriff and the weaker-willed judge (is there any other kind of authority figure in a movie like this?) Fonda’s weak father and weak girlfriend try to calm his wrath, but Fonda, alternately simmering, brooding and scowling, won’t back down. When the developers get to his father’s farm with paperwork and architectural model in hand, Fonda smashes the model and slugs the realtors in the face. After he’s beaten badly by their goons, he blows up one of Crabtree’s tractors, which lands him in jail.  A barn gets burnt and the old man kicks the bucket. Whenever bad things happen, a plaintive honky-tonk harmonica tells us to feel bad.

The climax involves Fonda trekking out to the developers’ mansion in the woods, armed with a bow and arrow. [I didn’t know real estate developers live in the same house.] The only funny bit of dialogue, unintentional or otherwise, in the entire film, occurs during this showdown. “We should call the law,” says one developer. “The law?” another developer responds incredulously. “Hell, where are those goons?”

Given how putrid and misogynistic and jingoistic most “one man against the system” outings are, “Fighting Mad” is relatively harmless. It certainly manipulates the audience into wanting to see the developers/murderers killed off, and the bow and arrow/primitive vs. modern motif is a bit preposterous. And Fonda is a bit too laconic to hold one’s interest during a story this slight. But though “Fighting Mad” isn’t memorable,  it’s certainly not awful, and I wonder why it is the sole Demme film excluded from Netflix (although a few are only designated as “Saved” and won’t be available for an indefinite time).

The DVD package of “Fighting Mad” which I purchased includes a second feature (also tagged with the “Saved” status on Netflix) called “Moving Violation” (1976), a far dopier, even simpler Roger Corman-backed action romp. Peter Weller-lookalike Stephen McHattie (who played Steve Buscemi’s partner-in-crime in the overlooked 1988 trash classic, “Call Me”) plays a guitar-slinging hippie from Detroit who drifts into a hateful redneck town. Immediately an irate cop (Lonny Chapman, who looks like Charles Bronson) and his noodle-headed sidekick (who’s named Bubba, of course) harass McHattie, who remains unflappable. “Do you play that thing?” they ask; he replies, “No, I carry my dope in it,” and with that they smash his guitar, knock him out with a baton and leave him “outside the city limits.”

Undeterred, he comes to, stumbles upon an ice cream shop, and immediately charms the gorgeous cashier (Kay Lenz) with his slick patter (Example: “My hands have been known to do some stylish and intricate things.” “To what?” “Cars and guitars.”) That’s enough to persuade her to quit her job, upon which the two go joyriding, break into a mansion and swim–half-naked–in the pool. By ridiculous coincidence, the crooked cop and rookie are simultaneously wheeling and dealing with the mansion’s owner, a crooked oil man; when the rookie winds up overhearing some damning information, the older cop shoots him dead, and McHattie and Lenz get framed for the murder, as an ominous koto plucks away on the soundtrack.

The rest of the film is a standard chase extravaganza, with all the trimmings: cars, motorbikes, power boats, flipping in the air and exploding; cars knocking over fruits and vegetables; people firing guns while driving; getaway banjo music; random car-jackings; mack trucks lopping off the tops of convertibles; no one believing the heroes are innocent except a lone eccentric, who of course gets killed. It’s one of those movies where no one driving their car hits the brakes, where every object is there to be driven through; when the noise stops, it’s usually for a flashback sequence or a chaste sex scene with saxophone score included. The ending–which Paul Le Mat told me disgusted him when he was offered McHattie’s part–involves McHattie breaking into an armory and stealing every automatic and semi-automatic weapon imaginable to blow up his enemies.

I would say that “Moving Violation” is the funnier of the two films on the DVD, but it’s so stupid, and so eager to be stupid, that I didn’t really get much joy out of it.

2 thoughts on “Jonathan Demme’s “Fighting Mad” (1976)

  1. Donna Taylor

    Fighting Mad was not supposed to be funny. Did you watch it? I am glad I did not read your review before I watched a really good movie!

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