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Animal Factory

Starring Edward Furlong, Willem Dafoe; Danny Trejo, Steve Buscemi
Screenplay by Edward Bunker, based on his novel
Directed by Steve Buscemi
no website

IN SHORT: Fine Dafoe, weaker overall prison flick. [Rated R for strong language, violence and drug use, 97 minutes.]

Every five years or so we get a prison flick, all of which begin with an innocent young thing arriving at a hard core prison and, by the time the film ends, leaves a much hardened individual. Sometimes the hardness is from rigor mortis, sometimes not.

For the record, we note that Animal Factory co-star/co-producer Danny Trejo and Cranky have history. Five years back (we said there was a pattern) Trejo worked in another movie whose intent was to show the true corrupting effect of prison and how wrongheaded moves by prison officials established a network of organized in-prison crime (drug dealing and hits for hire) that would throttle California and the South West. It detailed the political camps and racial cliques and power structure that ruled from within. Released as Bound By Honor, it was a far too ambitious project and died in the editing room. Animal Factory is far superior.

We're not going to spill what happens to Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) in Steve Buscemi's Animal Factory, a film meant to show the corruption of the innocent (yadda yadda) while avoiding the stereotypes of prison films. The Decker character is a good kid from a good family (James Heard appears as the father), busted for selling dope and sent up for hard time because it's an election year. Once imprisoned at Eastern State, every character we meet and every scene we see is presented with a hard edged, almost documentary feel. We learn the ropes at the same time that Decker does. The alliances for protection. The dope traffic. The racial segregation and confrontation. sudden death. The set-up of the "new meat" and how the fatherly intervention of the Big Man On Campus, Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe) saves his butt. Copen's interest in the newbie, interestingly enough, has nothing to do with sex.

Targets. Victims. Snitches. Punks. The cross-dressing cellmate (Mickey Rourke) who freely hands out survival advice. They're all there. And the biggest casting surprise in the flick comes from Tom Arnold, in a role about as far from anything he's done as you could think of. It comes and goes in a flash and is creepy as hell.

The whole joint is run by Dafoe's character (Copen), because he's got the sweetest of jobs -- clerk to the senior guard, Lt. Seeman (Samuel Cassell). Copen can fix reports. Copen can give advice to the authorites and slip the same to the convicts. Copen has power because he has no need to leave -- "Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven". When the parole board, led by A.R. Hosspack (Steve Buscemi) turns against him, Decker grows tough. But not fast enough. Copen will take the young bird under his wing and plan an ultimate escape. If he can keep the kid alive.

This is a hard one to write up and lay a number on (sic), especially without spilling the ending. Director Buscemi, in his sophomore effort, doesn't allow many chances to let your eyes wander or your attention fail. Dafoe's performance is dead on; believeable and moving. Furlong's falls short. if the point of a prison flick is to lock in with the lead and walk away feeling something -- good or bad -- it didn't happen here, for me.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Animal Factory, he would have paid...

$4.00

pay per view level, which is kind of appropriate since Animal Factory debuted on Cinemax. If your preference is to frequent the local arthouse, Animal Factory is definitely recommended. Steel yourself first.

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