“Pass the Ammo,” the 1988 comedy spoofing greedy televangelists, was certainly a victim of bad timing, on many counts. Shot in early 1987 in the overwhelmingly Christian community of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the film, directed by David Beaird, initially sparked the controversy Beaird was hoping for. According to Beaird’s account of the shoot in a July 1988 San Francisco Chronicle article, town members picketed, waving signs that said “Shave the Beaird.” Starring Tim Curry as a charismatic Southern preacher with a hit TV show; Annie Potts as his bubble-brained wife, a performer of pious yet risque musical numbers on the show; Bill Paxton (later of “Big Love”) and Linda Kozlowski (of “Crocodile Dundee”) as the young couple who claim Curry has stolen their money and wind up taking the show’s entire cast, crew and audience hostage; and Anthony Geary as a dope-smoking, irreverent production assistant, the loopy, freewheeling film certainly wasn’t a satire as barbed and angry as, say, “Network,” but was poised to be the first comic take on this particular medium.
Cut to two months later, just before shooting wrapped. The Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker scandal broke (in which PTL leader Bakker admitted to an affair with church secretary Jessica Hahn), and his weepy confessions eerily mirrored a similar scene in “Pass the Ammo.” Suddenly the idea wasn’t so fresh anymore; money-hungry televangelism seemed ridiculous in and of itself. To make matters worse, the film’s distributor, New Century Vista, went bankrupt in March 1988, the day the film was finally released to about 50 theaters. Positive reviews from The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, who called it “a piece of rollicky backwoods Americana, [with] a klunky freshness,” and Variety, who hailed it “the sleeper comedy of the year,” couldn’t save it from a very limited run.
Mercifully, the film was re-released in July 1988 when Scotti Bros bought the rights from Vista (Beaird’s substantially less ambitious comedy “It Takes Two,” about a betrothed young man with cold feet, was released the same week). Less mercifully, the reviews on the second go-round ranged from wan to scathing, as by this point almost a year and a half had passed since the Bakker scandal and a satire on the subject felt redundant.
That’s probably why “Pass the Ammo” fell by the wayside and is one of few Beaird films to not be on Netflix (he also directed the zany Deborah Foreman romp “My Chauffeur” and, most recently, the indie comedy “The Civilization of Maxwell Bright,” in which Patrick Warburton meets a mail-order bride). There are a few bootlegged DVD copies out there, but mostly the film has been relegated to VHS format.
As it stands today, “Pass the Ammo” is mild satire, fitfully amusing but generally a bit obvious and overdone. Curry and Potts ham it up as the preacher and wife; they’re a bit more down to earth and fun when they begin arguing, on-air, about their various strayings. Dennis Burkley (fat) and Glenn Withrow (thin) give energetic turns as Kozlowski’s dimwitted hick cousins, who assist with the robbery, but they’re carbon copies of the boisterous jailbreaking duo played by John Goodman and William Forsythe in “Raising Arizona.” (Similarly, Carter Burwell’s alternately puckish and wistful score is annoyingly similar to his work in that earlier film).
The film’s few impious moments are not piercing enough. In what could be a scandalous subplot, the cons eventually let everyone out of the church except for Curry, Potts and the female choir members, one of whom Withrow crushes on. You expect the choir girl to recognize the hypocrisy of Curry’s program and take up with this sweet-faced criminal, but that never happens; he merely gawks at her, then apologizes for gawking. The movie is less memorable for its wit than for its energy; any movie with Paxton in it is bound to have ambling, loosey-goosey charm, and its nice to see Kozlowski in a less uptight role than her reporter in “Dundee.”
But the humor is more broad than you might hope. There are two Burt Reynolds-lookalikes who sing terrible songs to plug the church’s fundraiser; their big comic payoff arrives when Burkley has them remove their suede boots, then blows those boots to bits with his rifle. And the film ends with shootouts, explosions, demolished buildings and–the most desperate of all climactic choices–a killing that turns out to be staged, thus yielding a happy ending.
Still, the actors are clearly having a blast. Said Curry, in a December 1987 San Francisco Chronicle article: ‘”I love playing unsympathetic characters. This man is a total shit. And I also wanted to play an American part, to widen the range of things I can do in films.”‘