Deacon Tripwell’s mission is to protect Abel (he’s listed as Adam in the credits, but they constantly refer to him as Abe or Abel.), so Abe doesn’t become one of the dead boys.
There is scripture scattered around with references to the master of light – and Deacon pleads with a ghost (we don’t know he’s a ghost yet, but trust me on this) to bring Abel back. The time for a showdown is coming.
“His training wasn’t for this earth alone, but also in a higher court”
Legend of the Dead Boyz was described as a story about a spiritual awakening in South-Central LA, and I was half expecting a pseudodocumentary like “U.F.O. Secret Video” or “I Like to Hurt People”. We get moments like the one where a penitent is talking about laying down his sin and how he wishes he had made a difference in this world – but such genuine emotion is undermined by other goofy scenes, like a man praying for God to give him strength against the “hell dog”. Because of the spiritual context, I found myself imagining a demonic dog specter. It’s not made clear until later that “Hell Dog” (also sometimes referred to as “Big Dog”) is actually the name of the local ganglord, holding down this section of south-central L.A.
Legend of the Dead Boyz is an interesting departure from Jackson’s previous films. It’s not just the focus on a largely African American cast, though that’s the most obvious change. It means a diversion from his usual pool of stock players and it’s interesting to see him pulling some real talent here. Our lead, Don Richardson, was a regular at the World Famous Comedy Store and did a number of films before and after this. Carey Westbrook, our Deacon Tripwell, kicked off his movie career in Dee Snider’s “Strangeland”, and has had a long film career that lasts to this day shooting over a dozen films since “Legend of the Dead Boyz”. But the different cast isn’t even the most notable dissimilarity from Jackson’s usual modus operandi. No, it’s the very style in which the story is told. Jackson’s storytelling is characteristically pulp fiction. It’s human superheroes in fantastic situations. This is instead an urban exploration with some pop spirituality involved. Indeed, the messianic overtones surrounding the main characters feel more like a Neel Breen movie than a Donald Jackson production. It’s not until the last five to ten minutes that Jackson lapses back into ninja laden superhero antics, and it feels very disconnected to the rest of the film. More on that later.
The spirituality itself is fragmented. Donald Jackson was steeped in western Judeo Christian faith, whereas his collaborator Scott Shaw was a student of Buddhist and eastern philosophies. Legend of the Dead Boyz mixes them together, adding in a dash of African American religious exuberance. Combined, it creates an off-kilter sense of spirituality. An intellectual like Shaw might suggest that was an intentional aspect of the art, but knowing how protective Jackson was of his faith at this point in his life, I’m not convinced that’s the case. I watch the scenes of Tyrone and Abel riding in the back seat of a car, talking about grabbing corned beef sandwiches and pickles at Church and Tyrone tempting Abel to go see Reverend Donaldo because of the raffle for a DVD player and I’d be more convinced of it being a commentary on empty religion versus faith if not for the improv nature of the whole affair. Jackson never really spoke about this film as “Legend of the Dead Boyz” was released after his death.
In the background, we get a Casio powered soundtrack – drum machines and tinny keyboard sounds, very reminiscent of Chester Thompson’s tales from the Quadead Zone and Black Devil Doll from Hell. We’d get this kind of music occasionally peppered throughout the film. Jay Rucker, who would later be introduced as subversive gang lieutenant “Lil’ Dog” also provided the music for this picture.
“What do you mean, I am the one?” Abel ponders as he wanders through the subway. One almost wonders if he’s coming back from the dead or just returning from prison (The opening suggests the former, but the rest of the film seems to go with the latter). You get a long stream of consciousness monologue before a quick insert of Abel at a revival meeting. The clips continue as we cut to Abel settling back into his seat. He’s in a car with his brother who is I was happy to see him out of jail. They warn him of the Proms playing the community, props I can be traced back to hell dog. We get more quick flashes, inserts of two well-dressed people, standing on Jackson’s favorite overpass above the L.A. 170 freeway – the one he calls “The bridge of broken dreams”. I spent some time trying to figure out who these people were supposed to be. They look very like co-pastors at a black charismatic Church of God type place. The kind who would refer to themselves as “apostles” or “prophets”. I was kind of thinking they were perhaps the ministers at the Church the film keeps referring to. It wasn’t until I scrolled through the end credits that I spotted them listed as guardian angels. We cut to another flash, this one of a large black man holding a samurai sword. This is Big Dog or Hell Dog. He’s the ganglord everyone keeps talking about. (Good thing he’s got that sword. after all, we need to be reminded that this is indeed a Jackson film. The fact that Abel is being herded off to see “Reverend Donaldo” at “The Master of Light Institute” is a tip-off too.)
Elsewhere, the Decon Tripwell is walking around with the ghost. They had over to the Hell Dog’s main operating street.
“You see this alleyway? This is where I was murdered. See the blood on the wall? That is my blood”
“If that’s your blood and you were murdered right here, what are you bringing ME here for???” Decon Tripwell protests to the ghost, exasperated. The area obviously makes him nervous. The Ghost insists that Tripwell’s destiny is to clean up the area and take it back from the Hell Dog.
We cut to a hotel room where a different gangster, lil dog, is on the phone, arraigning something when his Chandra comes in (We’ll discover shortly that she is Hell Dog’s girlfriend, but she’s been stepping out on him). Lil’ Dog is plotting to take over Big Dogs territory. Chandra keeps asked questions about that, frustrating Lil’ Dog who is trying to get his mack on. Down the way, Abel is stashed in another room. And yet another room (It’d probably be less obvious that these segments are all shot in the same motel room, minimally redressed, if they hadn’t put all of these scenes back to back in the edit), Big Dog lays with his girl of the night, grumbling about Lil’ Dog and Chandra’s betrayal.
“My name is Hell Dog, I’m Hell Dog! From hell!”
For a mob boss, Big Dog is awfully neurotic, spurning the affections of the woman in his bed and instead whining about how no one likes him except unless he’s showering them with gifts or getting high on his drugs and booze.
Abel is visited in prison by Deacon Tripwell in what I assume is a flashback?
“Pray for resurrection brother, because when you rise you can raise the rest of the dead”
“No brother, when I rise, there’s going to be a lot MORE dead.”
Back on the streets, Hell Dog shakes Abel down for $1 million that Abel was supposed to use to bring in drugs. With a gun to his head, Abel ties explain what happened to the money, he claims to have invested it. Big Dog gets even angrier and tells him he better has money tonight – by midnight or Abel’s a dead man.
Back to the car with Able and his brother and nephew running around. During the ride, we keep flashing back to his deal with Hell Dog. Abel is skeptical of the Church, accusing them fleecing the poor. His attitude is juxtaposed by the seductiveness of Hell Dogs deal. Even the nephew in the car is seduced by Hell Dog’s legend – Big Dog is presented in the community as a sort of Robin Hood, taking from the giving back to the poor.
Suddenly, they notice there’s a car following them.
“It might be the police, it might be the devil, it might be the evil… But I bet it’s Hell Dog!”
It may well be, because Hell Dog is angry about Deacon Tripwell’s growing influence in the community, as shown in a quick flashback.
“If you’re going to worship anybody but me, I’ll kill you!” Hell Dog tells one young associate.
Gunmen jump out of the car pulling Abel, the kid and Tyrone out. Abel pulls his gun in a standoff as the gunmen convince the kid to come with him.
We cut back to Hell Dog in bed doing more of his grumbling about people taking advantage of him – but this time, his bedmate is Chandra, fresh out of Lil’ Dog’s hotel room.
Big Dog remarks “Money is the root of all evil, but I got all the money so I must be the devil “
Chandra asks Hell Dog if he trusts the short dog. Hell Dog he says no, but he needs him right now.
“I don’t trust anyone. I trust my pistol, that’s who I trust”
This scene could actually be ominous if it had the right music behind it but comes up as flat with no background track.
Back in the car, Tyrone is still trying to convince Abel to come see the reverend Donaldo at the master of light Institute. Abel resists saying he’s got to go out tonight
“Don’t seem like the kind of night to go outside.”
“It’s a perfect day to go outside. There’s something out there, you can feel it – something is not right. Well, that’s what I got to see to.”
“God gives us a little help if we listen to him, after that it’s on us”
“God’s got a purpose for us all. And tonight’s my purpose”
Abel gets out by a strip club, then heads over to a pay phone and calls up Lil’ Dog to set up a meeting. Up on top of a parking structure, Lil’ Dog demands information from Abel, who refuses and then suddenly turns into a green-clad ninja and attacks Lil’ Dog (I suspect that Scott Shaw is the one actually executing those kicks and punches under all that military green and goggles). Tyrone’s car swerves into the frame and rescues Abel at the last second.
“So what now?”
“We will defeat Hell Dog with the power of the light!”
The film ends with quick cuts and inserts of a penitent Abel praying, The guardian angels stretching their hands out (as if to display the city in front of them), Tyrone and Abel talking in the backseat of that car, the sisters of mercy (Church ladies, not the gothic metal band) talking, and shots of ninja Abel with his Rambo knife battling Hell Dog and his samurai sword. We fade out into credits as Deacon Tripwell dances with the Sisters of Mercy.