If you’re unfamiliar with Cannon Films, 1970’s “Joe” is a strange introduction. Cannon Films operated from 1967 to 1994, and made their name by extensively investing in the home video market, garnering the reputation of producing absolutely crazy but fun low to medium quality films. If you’ve seen RedLetterMedia’s “Best of the Worst” YouTube series, which focuses exclusively on direct-to-VHS films from yesteryear, you’ll know that they’ve featured Cannon releases prominently, and for good reason.
“Joe” is somewhat of an anomaly, as it has talent you usually don’t see in Cannon films. It served as a breakthrough performance for Peter Lawrence Boyle of “Taxi Driver”, “The X-Files” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” fame, who plays the titular Joe, and it was also the first film Susan Sarandon starred in (she starts her career playing a troubled drug-addicted youth named Melissa). It also has a remarkable performance from Dennis Patrick, who had an extensive career in television, and who has fantastic chemistry with Boyle in the film as Joe’s unlikely upper-class friend/father of Melissa.
Needless to say, the production values do not in any way match the talent on screen, as the film looks noticeably cheap, with outdoor shots so contrasted and dark you can barely see anything, and the cinematography looks sickly, rough and amateur, most of all of which can be attributed to the film’s $106,000 budget (though it remarkably earned $26 million). The film’s score is also atrocious, mostly distracting from the action on screen save for its climax.
The film is at its best when we’re given simple shots of Boyle and Patrick together, and they are simply allowed to act off each other. “Joe” is a story of unlikely friendship between a despicable middle- to upper-class white business man (Bill) and an angry bigoted white working-class factory worker (Joe) who find friendship in their shared hate of hippies, drugs and the changing times. It’s a film full of middle-aged debauchery, murder, and rebellion, and it is worth noting that, while neither Boyle nor Patrick’s characters are likeable, they are highly entertaining. It’s not every day you get a film starring two unlikable antiheroes that works so well.
I won’t talk too much about the film’s climax because, even 50 years after its release, it’s worth not spoiling, but it’s extremely fitting given its subject matter. While the film’s leads are amoral, the film itself is not, and let’s leave it at that.
Watching this film in 2020 bears weary parallels to current events, especially seeing as this film was released with the tagline “Keep America Beautiful” that is all too similar to President Trump’s slogan “Keep America Great.” The character of Joe is an extremely racist, gun-toting white nationalist, and many of his views mirror the president’s. He’d be right at home at a Trump rally. But then again, so would “Taxi Driver”‘s Travis Bickle.
“Joe” is an interesting entry in the Cannon archives well worth a watch during quarantine. If you’re bored and have nothing else to watch, Cannon’s direct-to-VHS shlock is a great way to spend the time.
“Joe” gets an 8/10