Bad Country was directed by Chris Brinker (Brooklyn Sonnet, The Boondock Saints), written by Jonathan Hirschbein (Road to Paloma, Schism), and stars Matt Dillon (There’s Something About Mary, Wayward Pines), Willem Dafoe (Dead for a Dollar, Siberia), Christopher Marquette (Fanboys, Barry), John Edward Lee (Inventing Adam, Beyond the Game), Amy Smart (Just Friends, 100 Candles), Tom Berenger (Sniper 2, The Most Dangerous Game), and Bill Duke (Predator, Commando). It’s about an arrested contract killer getting in too deep after agreeing to be an informant to negate his punishment.
The Plot: Affording to film a good plot can be expensive and therefore hard to accomplish, so most movies seemingly try not to take leaps into the unknown so as to retain a broad audience. This is an amplified phenomenon in the low-budget realm, where films like Bad Country try their luck with unremarkable plots and esteemed performers to little avail.
Southern Louisiana, 1983, undercover officer Carter (Dafoe) has just busted a ring of illegal diamond dealers but has a hunch that there was more to the crooks than a few strung-out idiots, which leads him to Jesse (Dillon), who he gets a conviction on, but still knows there’s more to discover. It’s a fine start, fish nor fowl, and one would hope that Hirschbein would find an interesting destination to take the story, but those hopes are quashed with the arrival of newbie federal agent Fitch (Marquette), who’s been assigned to the case too. Cliches cometh.
While in prison, Jesse gets a call from his ex-employer, mobster Lutin (Berenger), who threatens his wife Lynn (Smart) and his future. Bad Country takes the easy way out by doing this, making Jesse’s choice to turn tail and reveal evidence that involves Catfish (Lee), and Lutin, and eventually goes undercover in his old gang where twists you’ll see coming, agents like Nokes (Duke) get anxious in scenes you’ve seen, and all the same, lines get crossed for the rest of Bad Country. A lack of details about the particulars of the story, such as what exactly Lutin does (or rather, doesn’t do) muddy the plot further, but everyone knows the strokes.
The Characters: In case audiences became too accustomed to New England accents but wanted the same relative identities to make up their next viewing, Bad Country pastes the same old archetypes with a southern drawl and calls it a day.
Jesse gets all the hallmarks of what a writer who wants their viewership to judge a character as “bad” but still able to be redeemed through a good act or two. He was a neo-Nazi, diamond seller, and drug pusher outside of prison and an alleged contract killer for outsiders who wanted incarcerated targets dealt with from the inside. Of course, he’s given most of this up and only wants to live with his wife and newborn child, as is the cliche. His arc is a complete 180 and barely registers. Jesse isn’t thin; really, he’s overcooked.
Carter takes up the other side of the screen for most of the scenes not involving Jesse, but not a thing about him is gleaned. Obviously, he’s a few notches above his peers and possesses a higher level of intrinsic desire to do his job, but aside from the intensity of the character, any personality would be given by Dafoe; but he, like most of the cast, isn’t all that interested in the material.
Supporting characters are mostly ignored by Brinker, who chooses to focus on the steely gazes traded by the hardened loners in the leads. Frankly, it was a wise move, as it seems like Hirschbein didn’t have much in mind for the rest of the people in Bad Country. Dillon and Smart were giving some effort, but everyone else must’ve seen the subpar script and accepted it for the zeroes on their checks.
The Crime: The script for Bad Country had been written with the experiences of ex-cop Don Connor (who was given a producer credit) in mind, and while they may have been stimulating in reality, Brinker didn’t do much to bring a pulse to the fictionalized script.
For the first 20 odd minutes of the movie, Carter remains at the center of the screen, but Bad Country doesn’t have much for him to do. There’s the diamond bust and ensuing questioning, but the movie skips over the deduction process that brings him to Jesse; instead, he just gets a phone call from a warden who exposits his rap sheet, which gives the cop a contrived reason to reach the con.
Navigating the southern mob doesn’t exactly reinvigorate the feature, but there’s more for it to work through instead of watching establishing shots while characters figure everything out off-screen. Jesse’s trial is fudged on purpose, allowing Lutin to post his bail and get one over on his ex-employee by enticing the family man to come back to work. Said work is acceptably entertaining, and it includes overseeing arms deals, eking out Lutin’s deals, and delivering a list of names that Lutin has accepted hits on; and most of this comes with the green Fitch making bad calls and putting his (kinda) informant in greater risk.
More happens in Bad Country, but a lot of the 80ish minutes that follow Carter’s drafting of Jesse are devoted to discussing the same details with the law bringers that played out in scenes just prior to said discussions, and extraneous business dealings with Lutin’s clients making their own deals. At least there are some sparks in this pedestrian crime tale.
The Technics: Brinker was making his directorial debut with Bad Country, but sadly passed away not long after shooting was finished, leaving the unedited picture in the hands of the production team, which didn’t help its stability as entertainment.
Since most of the recognizable faces in the cast are in underwritten and small roles, including Neal McDonough (Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, Monsters of Man) in an inconsequential role as a lawyer, some of the production budget probably would’ve been better off being spent on reconstructing the 1980s. As it stands, the movie doesn’t register as a period piece with the exceptions of a few older cars, telephones, and bristling facial hair. The movie does at least accomplish its goal of capturing the Louisianian setting with scenes in swampy bayous, historical plantations, and manufacturing sites, all mostly shot on location.
The camera work is a generally lumbering component of Bad Country, as Brinker was only ever a producer up to the making of this outing, he didn’t quite have an eye for visuals. Shots are often flatly lit and unremarkably photographed with static shots filmed at even angles, making each one interchangeable. What few scenes boil over into violence are shaky and forced to use CG blood for the sake of time and spending, spoiling the possibilities for a further embrace of the tangible atmosphere barring a handful of scenes that showed promise.
There have been worse directorial efforts by people whose primary vocation is producing, but Bad Country isn’t a good picture even by that measure. It’s endlessly generic and lacking polish in its final state, making viewing a great cast an unimpressive bore.