With its moralizing patina of corruptible rednecks and doe-eyed Vietnamese – both sides attempting to make their points stick and/or count in Amy Arlen’s screenplay (though never casting much of a judgment call one way or the other), Louis Malle’s Alamo Bay (1985) is a convoluted, infrequently disturbing, and, mostly lackluster melodrama inspired by real life events in Texas circa 1979-81. The movie is weighed down by its good ol’ boy crossed swords clichés. Malle stirs his gumbo of racial intolerance with a healthy helping of socio-political disillusionment. It’s a train wreck, chiefly because both sides have valid concerns fleshed out in self-destructive ways, neither able to articulate with any resonance without delving into ferocious fear-mongering. Worse, the axiom has metastasized to a tepid love match turned rancid. At times, Malle – born to affluence in France and far removed from his subject matter - seems much too engrossed in exposing these social prejudices, instead of aspiring to even the feeblest attempt at a more intimate portrait that would have arguably crystalized the movie’s superfluous ‘racism/sexism is bad’ faux incredulity.
To be sure the volatile situation occurring between Texas shrimp boat fishermen and the newly arrived Vietnamese – who merely seek better lives through competing interests – is one of America’s dirty little tragedies of inequity; the blood feud compounded by the misinformed who lump these émigrés in with the Viet Cong; the still gaping wounds and backlash of the war grotesquely manipulated by Ku Klux Klan mouthpiece, Mac (William Frankfather), who has the temerity to reference Martin Luther King as his template for ‘public relations’. With very few exceptions, the Texans are trounced upon as hot-headed, bumble-brained, backwoods know-nothings; their unofficial spokesman, Shang Pierce (Ed Harris) a failed shrimper in danger of losing his boat, the ‘American Dream Girl’ due primarily to over-fishing and the natural ebb and flow of the industry. But to accept the inevitable as nobody’s fault would be too easy. And so, the blame game begins.
Ed Harris and Amy Madigan – who met and married on the set of Places in the Heart (1984) - exhibit smoldering sensuality in Alamo Bay; the oddity being that ‘love’ is hardly the nub of their salacious affair. The sex is good – period. Madigan’s flat-chested Glory is inexplicably drawn to the rather scruffy and thoroughly scummy Shang ever since their high school days (Harris looking as though we would immensely benefit from being dipped in a vat of Varsol). Shang is saddle-bagged in a brittle marriage to local supermarket cashier, Honey (Cynthia Carle), a possessive shrike. All in all, his life is an abysmal failure, culminating in his dead-end badinage with Glory and their cataclysmic break-up (he calls her the ‘c’ word and tells her she has a fairly ‘big ass’ for such a small girl…what a prince!). Worse, Glory has the effrontery to side with Dinh (Ho Nguyen); a newly arrived refugee imbued with bright-eyed optimism about to get his own very rude awakening.
The Harris/Madigan interactions notwithstanding, Alamo Bay consistently misfires on almost every level; the Vietnamese – chronically perplexed by the rabid xenophobia that surrounds them. As individuals they are never etched beyond badly stereotyped cardboard cutouts; the indigenous Texans distilled into an even more unflattering cavalcade of gun-toting bed-sheeted bungling yahoos, whose seething hatred is so contemptible it borders on the psychopathic. When all else fails, blame religion; the mandarins of each sects’ respective churches empathetic in a ‘play it safe but don’t get directly involved’ sort of way; chairing ineffectual meetings that serve no public good but, in fact, promote the tempest. Arguably, the movie’s strength – its authenticity – is also its weakness; the narrative at the mercy of Amy Arlen’s verisimilitude and completely forgetting that what plays to moral shock value on the eleven o’clock news needs a modicum of artistic license to function with the same potency as two hours of movie ‘fiction’.
I suppose Louis Malle ought to get top marks for the semi-documentarian feel, albeit with stylized key lighting. But the drama never attains its desired level of revulsion for the obvious scandal – crumbling race relations in America. Even worse, in its final act, Alamo Bay devolves into the typically rank ‘Hollywood’ shoot ‘em up between Dinh and Shang with Glory as the de facto referee. She casts her deciding vote – sacrificing her late father’s family business, her own freedom and the one great – if thoroughly undeserving – love of her life. But Alamo Bay never asks the broader question ‘why should we care?’ perhaps because director Malle is too mired in the particulars; the characters trapped in their quasi-moment-to-moment existence; Arlen’s screenplay ignoring the overall dramatic arc of the story. As such, Alamo Bay singularly fails in its most basic intent – to entertain – despite good actors in too few vignettes allowing them to shine.
Our story begins on a lonely open road. Dinh is hitchhiking his way across Texas; his eager thumb disparagingly frowned upon until delivery truck driver, Leon (Gary Basaraba) decides to give him a lift into the small ramshackle of trailer homes and makeshift businesses dotting the Gulf Coast. Leon offers to speak to the proprietor of Wally’s Shrimp Shack on Dinh’s behalf to get him a job. Wally (Donald Moffat) is a curmudgeonly sort. But he respects the Vietnamese for their work ethic. Besides, they’re cheap labor. But their competition in the bay has already begun to frazzle the patience of locals who begrudgingly observe as the price for their catch plummets while at the same time the size of the Vietnamese community has exponentially grown. Tenuous race relations reach a fevered pitch after Shang goes to the bank to ask for an extension on his loan on the ‘American Dream Girl’ only to be turned down by Wendell (Michael Ballard); its chief financial officer who is sympathetic to Shang’s plight but cannot see his way past the charter of rules.
Dissatisfied and unwilling to go back home to Honey and kids, Shang picks up with Glory against Wally’s strenuous objections. The two share a playful romp in the sack, at the end of which Shang hints he could really use some money. Glory offers to see if Wally will give her back an investment she made in the family business. Wally, however, has either spent or squandered the cash merely to keep the business afloat. He cannot afford to pay his daughter back. Upon learning this from Glory, Shang’s mood toward her quickly sours. Glory realizes that Shang probably never loved her in the first place and increasingly she begins to side with Dinh, who is hard-working and aspires to have his own shrimp boat someday. At the Zanadew Lounge, Dinh attempts to buy an outboard motor from Skinner Johnson (Rudy Young), who instead threatens Dinh with a knife before tossing him out of the bar in the pouring rain. Glory is disgusted by this behavior, pursuing Dinh before crawling into Shang’s truck, only to suddenly realize what a cold, calculating brute he is.
The fishermen rebel against Wally. They trash his front yard with garbage, causing Wally to suffer a heart attack. Rushed to a hospital in Austin, Wally dies a short while later and Glory decides to make a go of the business with Dinh. Their timing could not be more ill-advised. For Mac, having goaded the locals into siding with the Klan, is outsized in his support by Shang who turns rebel and acts as the Klan’s point man; spreading tyranny across the open waters and in town, forcing the Vietnamese to vacate their homes – all except Dinh, who remains by Glory’s side even after the locals have barred Leon from entering the wharf, thus forcing him to quit. To meet her commitments Glory decides to drive the latest shipment into Austin by herself. Shang takes advantage of the fact that Dinh and another Vietnamese, Ho (Tuan Tran) will be alone at the docks. Armed with his rifle, Shang engages the pair in a shootout. Ho and Skinner are killed and Glory’s boat firebombed with a Molotov cocktail. Shang now goes gunning for Dinh, his warped notion of white supremacy turned insular and intent on destroying just one man to satisfy his bloodlust. Instead, Glory returns in the nick of time, shooting her lover dead to save Dinh. In the final moments, Dinh is rushed to hospital from wounds sustained in his fight and Glory is taken away by the Sheriff (Bill Thurman) who has thus far relinquished any responsibility for getting involved to diffuse the situation.
Alamo Bay has its moments but they never come together. Ed Harris is a brilliant actor and thoroughly adept at playing the bastard we love to hate. But it’s a monolithic performance we get from him herein; the brief flashes of Shang’s softer side – witnessed mostly during his post coital exchanges with Glory glossed over in a screenplay that insists he revert to the proverbial ‘bad man’ run amuck. And Harris does, in fact, play this cliché of the gun-toting bigot exceptionally well – steely-eyed and menacing. As for Amy Madigan, whose movie career was made mostly by playing variations of a grassroots Holly Hunter-esque ingénue; she manages in Alamo Bay to imbue Glory with genuine intensity as her character steadily acquires a backbone. Harris and Madigan obviously have chemistry. Regrettably, it isn’t enough to sustain the plot.
Almost from the moment we are introduced to these characters Louis Malle’s melodrama morphs into a fractured ‘message picture’; curiously minus the message itself. What is the point to Alamo Bay? That deep-seeded racism continues to rot the American landscape from within; particularly in isolated, economically-strapped enclaves that time and polite society would rather forget exist in the first place? This we already know; the inexhaustible template of racial intolerance rife and known to anyone who has not buried their heads in the sand over the last one hundred years. At its most basic level Alamo Bay is a judicious surveillance of working-class American life. But the movie muddles along without narrative clarity, the screenplay choking on its own ever-present issue of territorial rights on the open waters. Yet these remain unresolved.
The best stories – cinematic or otherwise - deal with racial inequality by stripping away the hypocrisy of it and shedding light on the complexities behind racism itself. It’s not only a black and white issue, pardon the pun. But Alamo Bay makes no attempt to go beyond the basics. Any validity or rationale to the fisherman’s plight is eclipsed by the sudden appearance of a burning cross on the front lawn of the Vietnamese church. Any hope for understanding the Vietnamese from an alternative perspective is diffused by their representation as a globular voiceless/faceless community; virtual nondescript and living apart from the rest of the town; their presence telescoped through the eye-opening experiences of Ho Nguyen’s semi-articulate scrapper. Yet even Nguyen’s Dinh is given precious little to do except react to situations beyond his control. No, it doesn’t come off – at least, not as it should. A real shame too, because there is arguably a compelling story yet to be told in Alamo Bay.
While I decidedly did not care for this movie I have nothing but positive things to say about Twilight Time’s Blu-ray – the ‘wow’ factor in evidence in every frame of Sony’s new hi-def master. Alamo Bay exhibits a fantastic transfer with rich, vibrant colors. Flesh tones are very natural. The film’s palette favors a blue-green-beige spectrum. Fine detail is exceptional, the image snapping together with incredible film-like clarity. This is the way all movies should look on Blu-ray. Fantastic! The 1.0 DTS audio is faithful to the original theatrical presentation and will surely not disappoint. Alamo Bay comes with an isolated score, showcasing Ry Cooder’s effective compositions in true stereo. We also get the original theatrical trailer. Good stuff. I just wish the movie had more to offer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)