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GRINGO [a.k.a. Story of a Junkie] (1985).

Those guys at Troma must have a screw loose. I have nothing against them spewing out wonderful trash like CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMBIETOWN or the TOXIC AVENGER trilogy, but when a truly marvelous film like GRINGO falls into their laps, they don't know what the hell to do with it. In some instances, the movie manages to sneak out to the public (like Buddy Giovinazzo's shattering COMBAT SHOCK -- the true JACOB'S LADDER -- which was butchered by Troma for its limited theatrical release), while GRINGO played the 42nd Street scene for one whopping week and has never been sighted (legally) since. (The same lousy fate awaited the no-budget Troma pick-up SCREAMPLAY, starring George Kuchar.) Well, this movie deserved better, and it could've played East Village midnight shows for months (since it was filmed on those streets)... Directed by Lech Kowalski (best known for the punk doc D.O.A., featuring Sid on the nod), it's a portrait of long time Village resident and heroin addict John Spacely. John is a personable character, open to inspection and willing to let the camera follow him anywhere. And Kowalski counters by simply shadowing the eye-patched Spacely through his daily routine, overlaying it all with Spacely's own commentary, and (thank god) offering NO cheap, easy moralizing in order to pander to self-righteous, do-gooder swine. Equipped with his skateboard, Spacely scores a bag, shoots up on camera, kills a little time, demonstrates his balanced diet of pizza and Ballantine Ale (with a straw, of course), runs into junkie friends and felons, and roams about the drug-etched niches of the Alphabet Heartland -- Avenue D and 12th Street (only three blocks from my own pad! How convenient!). Kowalski even gets his camera inside a junk shop, complete with homeys sittin' in their rathole apartment, baggin' heroin...Spacely is a fascinating tourguide into this hell. Not the cool, punk poseur world of drugs, but the one of poverty and despair, with dope providing fast cash and an escape from the urban cesspool. We're treated to a long, sad monologue from an addict shooting up and mellowing out; sudden violence when streetside tempers flare over cash; not to mention the joy of early morning vomiting. And though the movie flawlessly captures the realism of the scene, that's also an inherent weakness, because since junkies aren't exactly the most motivated individuals, watching them for 90 full minutes can get pretty boring at times. But Spacely's presense is enough to hold it (loosely) together, and GRINGO contains more raw, heartwrenching truth than any Tinseltown production could ever tackle (such as Spacely's story of how he turned to heroin after his girlfriend's miscarriage and death)... This is a great document which, though filled with heavy moments, is never weighted down by them. And the lyrical finale, with Spacely skateboarding around Manhattan to the tune "Since I Don't Have You", is a magnificent capper to an underseen gem.

© 1992 by Steven Puchalski.