Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to a screener provided by the film’s UK distributor, Arrow Video.
Stop me if/when this starts to sound theoretically insufferable. Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, the second feature from Spanish-born writer-director Miguel Llansó, is an absurdism 80s retro-futurist mystery sci-fi comedy which cribs just as much from badly-dubbed Shaw Brothers movies as it does badly-dubbed American B-movies of the era and features the following. CIA agents jacking into a digital mainframe which is represented by crude stop-motion figurines and even cruder paper celebrity masks with flapping mouths. An Ethiopian president who dresses up as Definitely-Not-Batman and runs about accusing and arresting dissidents for being drug users. An evil Communist virus version of Joseph Stalin who speaks with a partly-Irish accent. Three evil kung fu masters all named after Italian pasta dishes by their boss, Mr. Sophistication, who speaks with an Italian accent so comically thick even Mario Mario would insist it’s too much. The invocation of lots of Reagan-era Cold War conservative propaganda. A transgender club-dancing skydiving captain (of what I could not tell you). Digital back-ups of human consciousness uploaded to portable television sets. Maybe-Jesus here envisioned as a metal-hippie leather-jacket-wearing sorta-cult leader. No less than four different composers for the score, alternating on a dime from clipping chiptune to cacophonous freeform jazz.
You would be forgiven for having your fight-or-flight instincts kick in at any point during that last paragraph. One of the more disheartening trends of cult cinema this past decade has been seeing that subgenre overflow with brazenly cynical efforts to become the Next Big Thing in cult circles, attempting to reverse-engineer the exact kind of bizarre cheesy trash which makes up Midnight Madness blocks the world over (or at least did until the ongoing plague ruined everything). Much like memes, true cult classics, the ones which take off and become beloved parts of their disciples’ vernacular, often have an earnestness and cheesiness that cynically Mad Libs-ing together pop culture from the 1980s cannot replicate. Intentionally making something with the intent of getting those sweet, sweet cult meme bucks is a fool’s errand because, also much like memes, corporatized trend-chasing gets rejected out of hand and nobody ever quite knows how exactly something goes viral/becomes cult anyway. It’s part intangible It factor, and a whole lot luck of the draw. Or, in so many words, when was the last time you or anyone else bothered to watch or talk about Slice?
In a way, cult cinema has spent a lot of its time stuck in a very [adult swim] mode where its various creatives go about recycling the detritus of their childhoods in the 1980s with a snarky meta-cynicism. Which isn’t inherently bad, for the record, but it does make things rather one-note and mildly desperate, hoping for that brief hit of memed virality rather than having a genuine spark of creative energy, and causes me to approach films like Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (a title that turns out to be truth in advertising) with a defensive scepticism. After all, there’s a difference between trying too hard because you have so many ideas you passionately want to include and trying too hard because you’re just throwing shit at a wall and seeing if any of it sticks; one is charming whilst the other is tiring, and it can take a while to figure out which one a film falls into.
Llansó’s partly-crowdfunded festival-beloved film may seem like the latter of those two categories, but in practice lands a lot closer to the former. It’s not too far removed from the [adult swim] school of semi-ironically perverting mainstays of Gen X pop culture ephemera – again, Ethiopian-Not-Batman beating up jive-talking drug pushers ripped straight from Streets of Rage – except that there’s more of a tangible appreciation for all the trashy detritus which makes up Llansó’s art, a desire to remix and reconfigure the stuff that America exported back in the day into something whose influences are obvious but whose combined feel is largely of its own. Llansó is not oblivious to the political undertones of the 80s B-movie sci-fi, coked-up action movies, conspiracy thrillers, and moralistic PSAs he strips for parts, but instead it almost functions as an outsider’s attempt to reclaim the surface level fun and coolness of that iconography for his own ends.
I should mention, there is a plot connecting all of this together, one that also has at least the faintest sketches of characters. It’s (a version of) the near-future and CIA Agent Gagano (Daniel Tadesse) and Lieutenant Palmer (Agustín Mateo) are assigned to protect a neural interface network called Psychobook from a dastardly Communist virus called The Cold War (personified by the aforementioned partly-Irish Stalin) which wants to take over the world somehow. Gagano, who also makes pizzas on the side as a hobby, wants out of the spy game so he can help open his girlfriend Malin’s (Gerda-Annette Allikas) kickboxing academy but equally can’t fight the call of duty inside him and actually resign. What Gagano insists is his last mission ends up going horribly wrong, his digital self being trapped in another level of digital reality (Beta-Ethiopia) whilst his physical body lays dormant in a coma, leading to a frantic-but-not-really race against time to successfully get out.
If any of that sounds completely absurd and borderline meaningless even before the 50s sci-fi movie bug monsters with laser eyes show up, don’t worry, it is supposed to! If there is some semblance of a thematic or artistic point being made by Jesus Shows You the Way, it’s that of how various pieces of popular culture can, through time and cultural distance, see their intended meanings distorted and replaced by whatever views or beliefs the new person who chooses to worship that media brings to the table. The intersection between media and religious faith that Llansó previously explored through on-the-nose narrative metaphors in his debut feature, CRUMBS (which Arrow have included in its entirety on this Blu-Ray release’s second disc), now instead conceptualised in the abstract through filmmaking. If that possibility risks sounding pretentious as fuck, however, then let me assure you there’s little to worry about on that front. Even whilst the narrative starts towards Terry Gilliam’s Brazil by way of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, it doesn’t amount to a whole lot and the film at large is really just a paper-thin excuse to fling rapid-fire jokes which alternate between the absurd, the deadpan, and the absurdly deadpan.
In many respects, then, Llansó’s film is probably the most accurate adaptation of Jazzpunk we’re ever going to get. Both works share an appreciation for dated kitschy American pop cultural ephemera, mashing all of their source materials together in a gonzo absurdist manner where the designations between intentional badness and just-plain badness cease to matter. Both Mexican hat dance around the dividing line separating irony from earnestness. And both have an infectious energy and raucous ‘let’s put on a show’ spirit that overrides any inclinations towards cynicism since it’s beyond evident that everyone is having the time of their lives making this.
When you stop to consider how exactly Llansó is pulling off some of these visual effects on a sub-$1 million budget is legitimately impressive. The manner in which the film careens from scene-to-scene where, even if the bigger picture is very predictable, the sensation of thrilling unpredictability as to what in the heck is going to happen next is honestly thrilling. I also like how casually unconventional and inclusive his cast ends up being – casting Tadesse, a theatre actor with dwarfism and a hunched-back, as an archetypal leading man; the plus-sized Allikas as his love interest and adamantly refusing to make that a joke; the non-professional Solomon Tashe as Definitely Not-Batman Please Don’t Sue – even if their performances are largely (and deliberately) undercut by the decision to make all of the dialogue poorly-synced and often robotically delivered dubbing by entirely different actors.
Admittedly, Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway is still aiming hard at the cult classic crowd to the extent that the absurdism and non-stop references to exploitation cinema, no-budget filmmaking of yesteryear, and the stuff you’d randomly find flicking through your three TV channels at 3am in the morning are by and large the starter, main course, and dessert on offer here. For just as many people who can vibe with this, there will be equally as many if not more who get tired of the schtick by the third new reality and accompanying aspect ratio change, even at a lightning quick 82 minutes. But for what Llansó’s film is, I was thoroughly entertained. I can’t help but compare it to TENET in that, much like Nolan’s latest, the point is the premise with little deeper than that. But whilst Nolan’s misfire is a bloated and pretentious snooze refusing to have any fun with itself, Llansó’s enthusiasm, inventiveness, and passion seeps out of every frame, energising the mayhem and holding things together before vacating the premises at exactly the point where things threaten to collapse into insufferable exhaustion. We could do with more cult cinema on the right side of earnest cynicism.