Sunday, 15 January 2012

Raising Arizona (1987)

Dir. Joel Cohen
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, Trey Wilson, John Goodman

There once was an actor called Nicolas Cage. He played larger-than-life antiheroes in indie films such as Wild at Heart, Red Rock West and Honeymoon in Vegas. He was very good. He graduated to blockbusters, turning in pretty decent performances in The Rock and Face/Off. But then he won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1996 for Leaving Las Vegas. And since then he has been turning out some awful films. I admit, I’ve not seen guff such as The Family Man, Ghost Rider, Next, Bangkok Dangerous, Season of the Witch or – worst of all – an ill-advised version of The Wicker Man set in Canada. However I have had the misfortune to see him in Con Air, Gone in 60 Seconds and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. And that would be that. Except that he was great in 2010’s Kick Ass and got really good write-ups in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

Raising Arizona relies heavily on the viewer finding Nicolas Cage’s character H.I. “Hi” McDunnough sympathetic, amusing and charismatic. Thankfully the film dates from 1987, right in Cage’s purple patch. He turns in a great performance – goofy, physical, charming. I was certainly rooting for him.

The plot of Raising Arizona is pretty basic: Person A has a Macguffin, Persons B, C, D & E want the Macguffin. What gives the film heart, though, is the nature of the Macguffin. In this case it is a baby. Serial convenience-store stick-up merchant Hi goes straight after leaving prison for the umpteenth time, having fallen in love with the police officer who always takes his mugshots. This police officer is Ed, played by Holly Hunter. They marry, settle down into their desert trailer home and are happy. But there is one thing missing – a baby. Ed finds out that she is infertile, and Hi’s criminal past precludes them from adoption. It looks like theirs will be a childless marriage. Until, that is, they hear the news about the ‘Arizona Quints’ – the five babies of local furniture mogul Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson). Figuring that they would be doing him and his wife a favour, they kidnap one of the babies (“probably” Nathan Jr.). After that the police and the FBI are the least of their worries.

Hi there Hi! Nic Cage on a good day

All the characters are drawn larger than life, from Hi and Ed right down to the one-scene wonder FBI agents. Bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb) is a burly ogre of a man with a surprisingly soft voice, the ‘Lone Biker of the Apocalypse’. Hi’s escaped prison buddies are played with panache by a wonderful John Goodman as Gale and William Forsythe as his dumb-as-a-plank brother Evelle. Hi’s boss and his wife (Sam McMurray and Frances McDormand) are just ghastly. Really, genuinely, terrible, terrible people. I feel ill just thinking about their hobby. And where I expected Nathan Arizona to be a clichéd local big-man and an undeserving father I was completely wrong-footed – he loves his children and his wife, and he is the source of good advice. This all comes complete with an Arizona sunset backdrop, a soundtrack that swerves from old time banjos and yodels to Vangelis-alike synths to Beethoven’s 9th, and enough broad slapstick to keep a 10-year-old interested.

What have I learnt about Arizona?
The police are very trigger-happy… and seem to have unlimited ammunition. In fact it seems to be no problem getting hold of guns, whether you are a just-escaped convict or a convenience store clerk. Also, it rains more than I would have suspected in the ‘Valley of the Sun’.

Can we go there?
Yes you can. The film was shot entirely on location in the ‘Valley of the Sun’ (the Phoenix, Arizona wider metropolitan area). It is specifically set in Tempe, Arizona, just south-east across the Salt River from Phoenix. The McDunnough’s home was actually filmed slightly further north in Scottsdale however, as Camelback Mountain can be seen in the background. If you go up there pop by Cavalliere's Reata Pass western bar and restaurant - it doubled as the hayseed bank in La Grange that Gale and Evelle hold up. Hi and Ed’s  meal with Glen and Dot took place further away though - east of Tempe out in the Sonoran Desert near Apache Junction, in the rather wonderfully-named Lost Dutchman State Park, at the foot of the (also rather wonderfully-named) Superstition Mountains.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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