Growing up in the 90s often meant watching whatever was on TV. There was no streaming service, no YoutTube, and no OnDemand viewing for most of us. We generally either picked a channel that fit our mood and watched whatever came on there. As a result we saw a lot of strange and obscure films that were never big hits but made an impact on us because A.) they were all we had and B.) we grew up with them.
In retrospect a lot of these movies are dreadful…we might have loved them at the time but upon rewatching as an adult we regret not keeping them consigned to our memories (I’m looking at you, Mortal Kombat.) Others, however, remain entertaining and can even improve as we watch them with a more mature eye. These movies are what I like to think of as “better than they should be,” they work in spite of all the elements that would normally mean they shouldn’t. There are tons of these wannabe classics and I thought I’d share some of my favorites. Starting with one of the most unusual: Men at Work.
Title: Men at Work
Director: Emilio Estevez
Starring: Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen (pre-public drugs n’ whores meltdown), Keith David (a.k.a. “the best thing in the movie”), Leslie Hope, et al.
Premise: James St. James (Estevez) and Carl Taylor (Sheen) are surfers and would-be surf shop owners who work day jobs as garbage men. They spend their days misbehaving on their trash route, asking each other Trivial Pursuit questions, and spying on their neighbors with binoculars. After they see what they think is one neighbor (Hope) being attacked by a man, Taylor shoots him with an air rifle. Their boss, tired of their at-work antics, mandates they have a ride-along with his brother-in-law Louis (David) and the next day they find the man they shot in with the air rifle in the trash, after he was coincidentally murdered by corporate henchmen. They then have to dodge two cops out to get them, get mixed up in a politics, and stop an evil corporation from dumping toxic waste.
Why it’s better than it should be: Sheen and Estevez didn’t make a lot of movies together, especially where they shared considerable screen time. Their natural familial chemistry plays incredible convincingly (they have a ridiculous fist fight that is spot on how two friends actually fight and contains the dialogue “you’re a stupid man, you’re a stupid little man!”) and since the film hinges on the audience believing in these two guys their relationship is very important. What makes the movie however is Keith David as Louis. I’d never seen him before this film and after watching it he was what I remembered most. A hard-bitten, angry Vietnam veteran, Louis starts out to get Carl and James and the comedic tension he adds is brilliant. As they get mixed up in the conspiracy and murder his role increases as he refuses to let the guys call the cops, and militarizes their entire investigation into what happened and why. The film is also full of wonderful vignettes of comedy; the actual air rifle shooting, finding the victim in the trash, the bumbling corporate hitmen, the needlessly senseless police, and the pathetic pizza man. People are handcuffed together in suggestive ways, a delivery man hostage is taken, and a dead body is dressed up like Richard Nixon. It is farce at its best.
Louis: Awe, lookie here…someone threw away a perfectly good white boy…
Carl(To two cops on bicycles): What happened Mike, they take away your vroom-vrooms?
Louis: Yeah, cop, I know you, man. I know what you’re thinking…we got us another crazy n****r here with a gun. Well let me tell you something: human life means very little to me at this point in time. You see I thrive on misery. In the jungle misery’s all you got, but things are different back here in the world, or so they seem! Nobody wants to talk about pain and suffering. Everybody wants everything to be nice…and civil. Well okay then! Let’s be NICE. Let’s be CIVIL. And let’s drop those guns before I pull this trigger and change the way you feel about me.
Louis: There are several sacred things in this world that you don’t ever mess with. One of them happens to be another man’s fries… Now you remember that and you will live a long and healthy life.
Louis: I hate cops… (later) Rent-a-cops…I hate rent-a-cops too!
Hitman Biff: I think he wants us to kill some more people.
Hitman Mario: Ok.
James (offering pizza to hostage delivery man): Are you hungry? Would you like some?
Louis: Don’t give him any, James.
James: Why not, he might be hungry.
Louis: He’s a prisoner, he should be treated accordingly.
James: Have you completely lost your mind? We’re not soldiers and he’s not the enemy. He’s a pizza man!
Louis: Back in Fubai, he would have been killed the second he knocked on that door. I would have snapped his neck like a twig. And he never would have seen it coming either.
James: Louis, calm down!
Louis: The commie bastard gets no food! (GONG)
Carl: Golf clap?
James: Golf Clap. (both clap softly)