Next of Kin (1989)

Patrick Swayze made two action films in 1989 as Hollywood tried to figure out what to do with him after Dirty Dancing made him a major star.  I guess it was nice that he didn't keep making sappy dramas and such at the time, though his acting ability was often quite superior to the movies they placed him in.  Despite being silly and exploitative, Road House managed to have just enough of the elements to make it a cult favorite down the road.  Next of Kin, unfortunately, remains just the other movie he did that year.

I say unfortunately because, while not as over-the-top entertaining as Road House, it is still a decent '80s action film and features a number of actors right at the beginning of their careers.

Truman Gates (Swayze) is a Chicago police officer,  Born and raised in Kentucky, he is on the outs with his relatives for abandoning their small-town life for the big city, where he lives with his musician wife Jessie (Helen Hunt).  His younger brother Gerald (Bill Paxton) has also recently moved to Chicago to seek employment but, unlike Truman, is itching to return home once he has earned enough to start his own coal transportation business.

Relations are strained, but not so much that it doesn't hit Truman hard when a truck Gerald and his coworker David (Don James) is hijacked by low-level mob operative Joey Rosselini (Adam Baldwin), resulting in Gerald's death.  Rosselini, working for his boss Johnny Isabella (Andreas Katsulas), has been tasked with showing Isabella's son Lawrence (Ben Stiller) with how to handle the family business by using the hijacking to strong-arm Gerald's boss into selling his vending machine business to be used as one of Isabella's fronts.  Because Gerald refuses to pull over and make the situation easy, Joey kills him, much to his boss's displeasure.

He is right to be displeased.  Truman and Jessie accompany Gerald's body back to Kentucky, and his older brother Briar (Liam Neeson) is in no way pleased that Gerald's murderers are continuing to draw a breath.  Truman insists on letting the Chicago police deal with it, but Briar eventually takes things into his own hands, renting a room in a flophouse run by a strange man named Harold (Michael J. Pollard).  Harold gets wind of what Briar is up to and agrees to help him in small ways.

Truman also becomes aware that Briar is in town and, having his suspicions that Isabella may know who killed Gerald, warns him that he should turn over the man who did it.  Isabella denies all knowledge, but Rosselini is horrible at keeping a secret.  Briar attacks Rosselini and his gang at the vending machine company, only to be thwarted when police show up. 

With the tensions racheting up and Isabella not liking the increased attention from the police, Rosselini decides to prove that he can handle things.  His henchmen steal a number of weapons from the flophouse, and Rosselini kills Lawrence, leaving Briar's weapons around to make it look like he was responsible.  He then lays a trap for Briar, managing to mortally wound him.

However, Rosselini's troubles are not over.  With two brothers gone, Truman decides that it is now time for him to take matters into his own hands, while a call from Harold brings the rest of the male population of the town to his aid.  Not to mention that Rosselini is the type that can't keep his big mouth shut, resulting in one other important person wanting him did as much as the Gates clan does.

What we have here, even more so than Road House, is a modern hicksploitation film.  The town the Gates clan comes from is portrayed as backward, insular and generally hostile to anything in the outside world - not to mention that everyone tends to be related somehow.  Still, they are all able to operate without a problem in the big city, using their country ways to outsmart Rosselini and his mob of barely functional goombahs.  It's both fun to watch and, I'm sure if you are from that part of the country, hilariously insulting.  Either way, it results in a great finale in a cemetery.

Surprisingly, though Swayze is top-billed, he isn't as much in on the action scenes as Liam Neeson.  Neeson gets to go after the bad guys repeatedly, jumping from train top to train top to get away from Rosselini's thugs.  In fact, it often feels like we spend more time with Briar than we do with Truman, which is fine because Briar in some ways is a bit more interesting than boy scout brother.

It's also more interesting because every character, including Truman and Brier, is barely anything more than a piece of a puzzle to make the movie work.  There is no great realization that revenge is futile or that family should stick together.  Instead, Swayze's a cop, Neeson is the hothead, Adam Baldwin plays an arrogant, sneering villain, Ben Stiller a naive pampered boy and Andreas Katsulas the type of mobster than only seems to appear in movies.  Helen Hunt, as the only significant woman in the whole movie (the women-folk tend to make sandwiches and put coffee into thermoses for the men) gets to play the role of "strong woman." 

I think that's why Next of Kin never made as big of an impact as Road House.  The acting talent in both movies is off the charts, but there is something that clicked with the latter; some sort of chemistry that just made what should have been an average film so much more.  Next of Kin doesn't have this, remaining an average, but entertaining, Swayze vehicle from the '80s.  It often seems like the movie, despite having some classic scenes, remains on autopilot throughout.

Next of Kin (1989)
Time: 108 minutes
Starring: Patrick Swayze, Liam Neeson, Adam Baldwin, Ben Stiller, Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Andreas Katsulas
Director: John Irvin


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