JOSHUA TREE: Blowing Up The Small Screen With Big Screen Action

By the early 1990’s, the straight-to-video route was both accepted and well-traveled as a way of getting movies out to the viewing public.  No longer was it just low-budget junk and shot-on-video quickies: you could see real movies, with strong casts and levels of production value that made them look as good as films you see at the theater.

Some of these films deserved better than their video store fate.  Case in point: Joshua Tree, a film that played a variety of foreign theatrical markets but was inexplicably dumped on U.S. home video under the title of Army Of One.  It’s a shame that this film didn’t get its shot at big-screen glory because it’s as worthy of the big screen as the other action fare that was playing U.S. theaters around this time.

The premise of Joshua Tree is built from sturdy action flick archetypes.  The audience gets its ‘wronged fugitive on the run’ hero in Santee (Lundgren), a former trucker and small-time criminal who landed in prison after being convicted for the murder of a highway patrolman.  In no time flat, guards are being paid off to kill him and he’s forced to make an escape.  At his first opportunity, he steals a truck – and its driver, Rita (Kristian Alfonso) – right out from under a group of cops and patrolmen hunting for him.

Thus, a chase begins as Santee tries to dodge the ever-more-tenacious forces of the law while enacting a revenge plan on the people who put him into prison.  You see, he’s the victim of an elaborate frame-up spearheaded by Lt. Frank Severance (George Segal), who also happens to be one of the cops leading the charge against him.  Further complication is added when he discovers Rita is actually a deputy sheriff and the two become attracted to each other.  A lot of gun battles and car chases will go down before this tangled web unweaves itself.

Joshua Tree is a pleasant surprise because it works a little harder than you’d expect it to at hitting all the right action-flick marks.  Steven Pressfield’s script is familiar stuff (the big twists won’t take you by surprise) but it has a playful sensibility and juggles a busy storyline and plenty of action setpieces in an orderly, propulsive manner.  It might be simple, periodically clichéd material but it works hard to keep the viewer engaged – and in a programmer like this, that goes a long way.

Better yet, stunt coordinator-turned-director Vic Armstrong gives the story an energetic visual delivery, using widescreen framing to impressive effect and pumping up the action to an operatic degree.  The stunts and fights have that impressive, pre-CGI “you are there” quality to heighten their impact: the best is an orgiastically-staged shootout in a warehouse that gives John Woo a run for the money as it incorporates every squib, explosion and Asian stuntman available in Los Angeles county.  Even a simple scene where Santee shoots up a few cars and windows to get away from some police is an extravagant fantasia of slo-mo, smashing glass and exploding inanimate objects.

Finally, the cast ensures that Joshua Tree‘s busy narrative agenda runs smoothly.  Lundgren carries himself well: he has fun with the material but never preens in a way that other action stars of the era might do.  Alfonso makes an appropriately plucky sidekick, even doing a lot of her own fighting, and Segal is clearly having fun in a role where he gets to chomp on scenery the way his character chomps on cigars.  Elsewhere, the film fleshes out the main story with a series of fun bit-role performances: Bert Remsen is likeably feisty as an old ally of Santee’s, Michelle Phillips vamps it up as Severance’s man-eater of a wife and Geoffrey Lewis brings instant gravitas to a stock sheriff role.

In short, Joshua Tree is a fun throwback to the glory days of the action movie.  It’s easily on a par with the kind of films Steven Seagal or Jean Claude Van Damme were cranking out during this time – and worth the time for action enthusiasts.

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