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CLAY PIGEON [a.k.a. Trip To Kill] (1971; Just For the Hell of It).

Frustrated by the lack of meaty acting roles, Tom Stern took matters into his own hands by producing, co-writing and starring in the outlaw-biker heist HELLS ANGELS '69. In the wake of that film's box-office success, his follow-up was this topical indie thriller with a groovy counterculture vibe, produced and directed by Stern (and future Emmy-winner Lane Slate), with Tom raising much of the budget himself, rounding up an impressive cast, securing soundtrack tunes by Arlo Guthrie and Kris Kristofferson, and grabbing the lead role as Vietnam veteran Joe Ryan, who becomes a pawn in a dangerous, occasionally loopy government narcotics sting. MGM bought the film, then promptly, unjustiably buried it... Once back at home, once clean-cut, Silver-Star-awarded Joe chooses to become a bearded, disillusioned-with-society drifter, pushing a scrap-metal cart down the road, hanging out at happenin' nightspots, flirting with foxy ladies, and smoking a shitload of pot. That is, until shadowy Narcotics Bureau agent Redford (a pre-KOJAK Telly Savalas) offers Joe an assignment after he's tossed in the slammer -- to be their decoy, their clay pigeon -- and hopefully flush out their actual target, an illusive drug kingpin named Neilson (Robert Vaughn). Soon Joe, publicly fingered as this dastardly Neilson dude, is on the run from the law, with the real Neilson pissed that this imposter is messing up his regular shipments. But when Joe's friends end up hospitalized or murdered by Neilson's flunkies (Ivan Dixon, Mario Alcalde), it only makes Ryan more determined to take them all down... Ryan is such an unpredictable, unapologetic weirdo that he's easy to root for, like when Joe spots cops messing with innocent teens and shifts their focus by stealing a police motorcycle. Or his terrific speech about America's screwed-up judicial system, where wealthy dealers get minimal punishment and kids with a single joint go to jail. Or casually rapping with a dope-shooting teenage runaway (Belinda Palmer, who'd later play Faye Dunaway's "daughter/sister" in CHINATOWN). The film is decidedly pro-grass, but it doesn't dig harsher stuff like smack, coke and speed, with Joe even touring a clinic (run by Jeff Corey) filled with teens brain-fried by hard drugs. Meanwhile, the supporting cast includes Burgess Meredith as poncho-wearing, dune-buggy-driving, junkyard owner Freedom Lovelace; Marlene Clark is stoner chick Saddle; John Marley plays a Police Captain; and Peter Lawford makes a cameo as Telly's boss. The film has its fair share of problems -- characters are barely defined and its preposterous plot is short on logic, but damn, if this crazy mess isn't chock full of wonderfully overripe dialogue, gritty action and enjoyably outlandish directorial touches, like a stunt involving a Sheriff's truck flipping down a sand dune in slo-mo, which goes on for nearly two full minutes(!), as Arlo warbles on the soundtrack. And what the hell is up with Robert Vaughn wearing a different goofy hat in every scene? Or that fucking parrot on his shoulder? Sprinkled with anti-establishment humor and cool LA locations -- from the Sunset Strip, to nightclubs like The Candy Store and The Daisy, to the Hollywood Bowl for its bloody climax -- CLAY PIGEON is a wildly cynical, offbeat treat.

© 2018 by Steven Puchalski.