“Historical accuracy? It’s vastly over-rated…”
The story of Ma Barker, legendary leader of a bank-robbing gang consisting mainly of her sons, has inspired multiple movies, from relatively well-known (Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama) to obscurist (Ma Barker’s Killer Brood from 1960). They all play extremely fast and loose with the facts, upping Ma’s role from a travelling companion for her sons, who rarely if ever got involved in their crimes, to the undisputed leader, who wielded a mean tommy-gun. The FBI at the time leaned towards the latter, but that was perhaps because they ended up gunning down Ma and some of her sons. [Hey, I don’t regard historical fact as meriting a spoiler warning. At the end of Titanic, the ship sinks.]
This is a cheery enough romp, making up for in blood squibs what it lacks in historical accuracy, depth or significant character development. Russell holds the film together well at the center, but it’s all shallow – hints (totally unjustified, as far as I know) of an abusive childhood are about the closest we get to psychological insights. There’s also creepy hints of incest between Ma and her sons – which reminds me that, contrary to her prominent cover position, Alyssa Milano’s role is minor, as a “gang whore”. If the dramatic side is half-baked, the action is good, with a real sense of the FBI being out-gunned. They actually were in their early days, though the level of ineptness shown here, with regards to stakeouts and ambushes, is difficult to swallow.
Especially towards the start, the narrative is lumpen and certainly doesn’t grab you immediately. Once the main thread becomes apparent – agent Melvin Purvis (Cortese) tries, but fails, to capture Barker and her gang – the film can devote energy towards this, and becomes more successful. It’d have been interesting had the connection between Purvis and Barker been made more significant; there’s an interesting scene where a drunk Barker rails against her hunter on the telephone, hinting at the potential here. However, I doubt the director of Commando was really interested much in subtle underpinnings, and on the whole it’s probably for the best he doesn’t even try.
Dir: Mark L. Lester
Stars: Theresa Russell, Dan Cortese, James Marsden, Frank Stallone