There are two kinds of Frank Grillo movies, Frank-Grillo-gives-a-shit and Frank-Grillo-doesn’t-give-a-shit. Essentially projects he cares about and jobs he takes for a paycheck, and it’s obvious which is which—in one he’s clearly engaged and the other, well, you can guess. Little Dixie, the latest from writer/director John Swab (Ida Red), with whom Grillo has worked several times now, fortunately falls into the latter category. Also, Frank Grillo with a chainsaw. (Which, unfortunately, is not as cool as it sounds.)
Little Dixie is a big old pile of cliches with a convoluted, way over complicated plot, an uneven pace, and some structural issues. But it’s also a pretty good time. To the core an exploitation throwback, full of kidnapping, murder, and similar goodies, Swab never skimps on or shies away from the violence inherent in the story, and an all-star roster of DTV action and crime movie regulars carries you through.
The cast starts with Grillo, who plays Doc Alexander, a kind of fixer or go-between for Oklahoma Governor Richard Jeffs (Eric Dane, Grey’s Anatomy), with whom he served years before in the military. Fully on board and engrossed, Grillo leads the way. His gruff charisma and rugged handsomeness (my best friend calls him Chiseled McGrizzled) cut a compelling figure, and his brand of quiet, brooding menace is equally at home at high-powered fundraising dinners as it is in seedy warehouses full of topless women cutting bricks of cocaine.
There’s also Annabeth Gish (Midnight Mass) as a campaign manager who keeps her client shielded from the less savory elements of the political game; Maurice Compote (Den of Thieves) as a cartel boss; Peter Greene (Out of Exile) shows up as a rich guy with some kind of influence, I’m not really sure, but he’s Peter damn Greene; and Thomas Dekker (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) as a flunky, among others. It’s a real who’s who of actors who frequent films of this ilk and stature, and fans will get a kick out of playing spot-that-actor.
Chief among these supporting players, however, is Beau Knapp’s Cuco, a wild card cartel assassin with a lifelong chip on his shoulder and a vendetta of his own. He’s basically a Terminator, a killing machine unleashed upon a target. Even aesthetically he calls to mind those murderous robots from the future, he rarely speaks, maintains a near robotic expression, and only takes off his dark glasses later in the film. But don’t worry, he’s also still a damn weirdo.
Little Dixie begins primarily as a political thriller. It has pretenses of something to say on various topics—the death penalty, meeting cartel violence with state-sponsored violence, corruption in politics, lingering scars of war, and more—but that largely fades into the background texture. Similarly, the film handles violence in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner. Seasoned and experienced, little rattles Doc, and when firefights erupt or it’s necessary to throw hands, he goes about his task with a practical, workmanlike resolve, not afraid to kill someone only tangentially connected if it means a clear path to his goal. In many ways, Cuco is cut from the same cloth, killing is as natural as breathing and barely raises his heart rate.
The biggest flaw with Little Dixie is the structure. It spends too much time on matters that are ultimately not hugely impactful. All this pot boiling political intrigue doesn’t amount to much and primarily falls by the wayside around the 40-minute mark. That’s where the main narrative thrust truly kicks in and it becomes a different movie. Most of the seemingly important characters have died and the story morphs into a revenge saga and an overt riff on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The back half plays a lot like the mean-spirited nihilistic films Charles Bronson churned out with Cannon Films in mid-to-late-1980s, the kind that don’t get made much anymore. That’s not a bad thing, those movies are very much my bag, but the result feels like two movies stitched together, and while the bureaucratic tangle often comes across forced, the later portion plays much more natural.
Little Dixie works best when it leans into this simple nasty brutishness. There’s little to no moral handwringing, the tempo glides along, and it’s free to settle into Doc-versus-Cuco without the half-baked political complexities that muddy up the first half. Even with kinks and flaws, this is a solid endeavor, bolstered by a strong cast across the board, especially Frank Grillo. There are enough odd flourishes and bits of texture and personality, like drag queen karaoke and a cameo from a founding member of House of Pain, that provide an unusual texture and personality and set it apart from the VOD herd. Fans of this type of grim, gritty action thriller will get the most out of Little Dixie, but unlike so many others, it may also have a wider appeal. [Grade: B-]