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Pure Race
cast: : Fred Hunting, Gregory C. Haynes, Marvin Payne, Katherine Willis, and J. Todd Adams

director: Rocco DeVilliers

115 minutes (18) 1995
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
For the first 20 minutes or so, you could be mistaken for thinking that Pure Race was a worthy TV movie about two guys overcoming racism through the bonds of friendship. Then someone calls the black character the N-word and it all goes a bit mental.

Tony (Fred Hunting) is a Seattle university student who decides to ride his bicycle on the pavement. Not looking where he's going, he rides off the curb and nearly gets crushed by an on-coming car. "I should have kicked his black butt!" he moans to his room mate, unaware that the owner of said black butt is standing in his living room, having been sent by the university to help him drive home for the holidays (I imagine this is a thing they do in America, though I have no idea why). Initially chilly due to Tony's racism, Carl's (Gregory C. Haynes) charm eventually wins him over and the two become firm friends. While driving through the middle of nowhere, their car gets a puncture and the pair are forced to a nearby farm inhabited by the impressively-haired Kim (Katherine Willis) who reacts with horror when she realises that she inadvertently allowed a black man into her house. The reason for this ridiculous over-reaction soon becomes clear when Carl opens up the barn door only to discover a bunch of rednecks zieg heil-ing each other beneath swastikas and signs that read 'Aryan Freedom Fighters'.

Immediately, machine-guns are pulled out and the boys are forced to flee amidst explosions and car crashes. Unfortunately, their attempts at fleeing prove to be fruitless and the pair are shipped off to a compound where they will be executed for disrupting a meeting whilst being Black and Jewish. However, one of the neo-Nazis lets his conscience get to him and he allows Tony to escape. After much humming and hawing (and more car crashes), Tony decides not to run but to return to the compound in order to free Carl. Obviously he gets captured and the Nazis decide that the only way to deal with these criminal ethnic deviants is by hunting them like game. But as these types of scenarios invariably demonstrate, man is the most dangerous game of all. The problem with Pure Race is it is trying to be two different films at the same time.

Firstly, it is a sensitive portrayal of white racism and how, regardless of class, it is easy to be brought up to fear people who are ultimately no different to you. These sections of the film work quite well, particularly one of the final scenes where, having arrived in Denver, the pair are stopped by the police, suggesting that in America racism is not just for rednecks. However, the impact of these interesting scenes is watered down by the fact that there are so many of them. Tony nearly abandons Carl about four times only to return to help him after much anguished staring into the middle distance. Use that type of scene once and it has power. Use it four times and your character starts to look like an indecisive prick.

Secondly, the film is a kick-arse action movie full of people running around with machine guns, explosions, car crashes and furiously edited fistfights. These are probably the scenes that do most credit to DeVilliers as a director. They are well edited, have decent sound effects and are shot with bags of energy and when strung together manage to create a real sense of dynamism. A chase involving a police car and a bicycle is particularly noteworthy for its good action-directing and Haynes genuinely looks the part as a reluctant action hero.

As you might expect, these two styles do not sit comfortably side by side. The first 20 minutes of the film suggest that it will be a low-key examination of racial attitudes in modern America but once the guys with swastikas and machine guns turn up, any sense of social realism instantly disappears in a puff of surreal smoke. This hint of surrealism resurfaces each time the film moves between two registers. So, for example, at one point Tony is wandering around town thinking about whether he should go back and save Carl and the next minute a maniacal local sheriff is shooting at him and crashing his car into stationary vehicles in an attempt to murder him in cold blood in the middle of the street.

The shift also takes place in the other direction as the film tries to humanise the leader of the neo-Nazis by making him worry about his daughter. But this means that, rather than looking like some kind of demented Colonel Kurtz, Grey (Marvin Payne) simply looks like a man who is permanently worried about having left the gas on as he moves from wanting to eradicate all non-whites to looking angst-ridden over the fact that his daughter is a bit annoyed at him. One moment of pure comedy comes when Tony is climbing through ventilation ducts only to notice a load of Nazis sitting in what appears to be a classroom. One of them stands up and decides to read a poem that he has composed. Aside from the beautiful idea of neo-Nazi poetry evenings, you have to admire any work of literature that begins by calling for genocide and then moves on to deny the Holocaust. This suggests that Holocaust deniers are not motivated by an attempt to reclaim fascism from the Nazis' attempt at genocide, but rather by a sense of shame that they did not quite manage it the first time around. These clashing styles effectively make it impossible to take the film seriously and it makes the film's action elements seem lost in a film that is at least a good 20 minutes too long.

Visually, Pure Race is well put together despite its low budget and the fact that its Super-VHS stock and the post-production re-dubbing of all the lines makes it look, at best, like a TV movie and at worst like early 1990s' porn. The fact that the film had to be re-dubbed also means that a lot of the performances come across as rather flat and lifeless, which is doubly to be expected given that the film evidently took four years to produce and includes scenes that were shot sometimes years after the initial production run ended.

On the whole, Pure Race is a well-meaning and occasionally entertaining but ultimately disappointing piece of work. As an example of low-budget cinema it is impressive enough to look at, but its strangely shifting tones and one-note characters demonstrate the absolute importance of a decent script for this kind of project, and reveals Pure Race's lack of one.

The DVD comes with some (largely uninteresting) deleted scenes and a full commentary track by DeVilliers and Haynes. Given that neither are particularly noteworthy filmmakers, this seems an odd choice for an extra but the pair natter back and forth easily enough and show a real sense of humour about some elements of the film.
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