The struggle to keep movie theaters alive gets very personal in “Showdown at the Grand,” an enjoyable tribute to retro exploitation pictures with Terrance Howard as a movie palace proprietor besieged by diminishing receipts and violent goons. Dolph Lundgren plays the former action star who shows up for a personal appearance, then stays to help save the joint from those agents of unscrupulous developers. More low-key homage than campy cartoon, writer-director Orson Oblowitz’s fourth feature does manage to deliver some tongue-in-cheek mayhem in an extended climax.
The setting is an actual vintage art deco temple for cinema, San Pedro’s Warner Grand, though rather than being managed by the City of Los Angeles (as it is off-screen), it’s kept alive here as a none-too-successful for-profit labor of love by George Fuller (Howard). Decked out in cowboy duds as if he were an actor himself, George is also projectionist, handyman, janitor and sometime bouncer, his burden only slightly alleviated with the hiring of film school graduate Spike (Piper Curda) as chief popcorn slinger. George seems to live for the hoary grindhouse fare he programs, his only apparent friend being local pawnshop owner Lucky (John Savage), a loyal customer he enjoys trading dialogue quotes with. That’s just as well, since operating this joint 365 days a year, 12 hours each day does not favor an active social life.
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George’s biggest problem is, of course, empty seats — patrons are few, which is why he’s trying to secure elusive ex-action hero Claude Luc Hallyday (Lundgren) for a special event that might lure the crowds back. At least that’s the most pressing issue until George realizes a developer whose overtures he’s been ignoring means to raze the place by any means necessary. Corporate ice princess Miss Shrader (Amanda Righetti) has secured rights to all properties in the area save his, meaning to construct some sort of luxury New Age housing/retail monstrosity.
Her “generous offer” refused, she dispatches two strongarms (Jon Sklaroff and Mike Ferguson) to do the persuading. When even that fails to budge the almost century-old building’s defender, a small army of ninja types descend — just as the promised gala evening with Hallyday has finally come to sold-out fruition. Good thing George has stockpiled an arsenal of old movie-prop weapons for lobby display, since he and his somewhat creaky-kneed star guest must now open several cans of whup-ass.
Interspersed throughout this basic but entertaining narrative are scenes from imaginary features being shown in-house: “Mad Mad” knockoff “Necropolis,” slasher “Malibu Massacre III,” self-explanatory “Moses Versus the Nazis,” Rambo-esque “Iraqnophobia,” vampiric “Blood Is for the Living,” sci-fi “Cyber Cartel” and so forth. These spoofs — most starring the Hallyday of yore, sporting long blond-dyed tresses rather than his current black-dyed Ozzy look — are amusing enough.
But “Showdown” isn’t primarily a genre satire, landing in some more gently affectionate terrain. It’s earnest enough to offer a straight-faced roster of “Filmmaker References” at the end, running a multinational gamut from Godard and Peckinpah to Lucio Fulci and Rudy Ray Moore. Oblowitz is also credited with curating an even longer scroll of archival soundtrack excerpts utilized; it’s anyone’s guess where they end and Daniel De Lara’s original score begins.
The director’s prior features “Five Rules of Success” and “Trespassers” prioritized style over content, their suspense-plot screenplays coming up a little short. This time, though, things balance out better — while seldom going for big laughs, the film never takes itself too seriously, allowing its story to occupy the realm of cineaste fantasy. Also seeking something other than strict realism is the widescreen photography by Noah Rosenthal, who also shot the sharp-looking “Trespassers.” Here, it’s easier to accept that a rainbow of lighting hues might color ordinary scenes, as the line between artifice and life is blurred from the start.
Howard channels an appropriate spaghetti western cool, and gets to sing an old-school soul track he wrote under the closing credits, to impressive effect. As the somewhat frail, nervous (he hasn’t faced his public for a while) but game erstwhile “Force from the North,” Lundgren is likable, though the role could have used a bit more comedic flair. Supporting turns are fine within their limited bounds.
If the climactic bloodshed here — from which the Warner Grand audience flees in a hurry, keeping the onscreen population economically low — is unspectacular, a little less than one might have hoped, “Showdown” still provides a good time. That fun will be heightened by whatever knowledge of 1970s and ’80s cult genre films you bring in with you.
“Showdown at the Grand” releases to limited theaters as well as VOD platforms on Nov. 10.
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