Ace Jackson is a Dead Man, which I was recently asked to review, is an interesting experiment in contrasts and seems to offer a takeoff on traditional blaxploitation films; there remain questions, however, revolving around how it was executed.
Satire, Parody, or Pastiche?
Although the distinction is made fewer times as the years go on, there are distinct differences between satire, parody, and pastiche. Satire generally tends to involve attacking folly and vice, while pastiche lovingly pokes fun at aspects of genre tropes, and parody is effectively a simple “spoof”.
This film seems to teeter on the brink of satire and pastiche, by my estimation. The filmmaker attempts to iterate societal grievances in stark contrast to the immoral (and very reprehensible) actions of its protagonist; it also espouses the same sentiments by having the protagonist – the eponymous Ace Jackson – rob ostensibly middle-class domiciles and establishments wearing a rubber Ronald Reagan mask.
The climax of the film in the third act concludes with one of my favorite thematic devices, by having Baxter tell an “inner story mirrors outer story” anecdote before killing Ace by shooting him in the back of the head.
The other attempt at “inner story mirrors outer story” does not work quite as well, which I will explain later.
Ace Jackson is a Terrible Man
I don’t mind the trappings of blaxploitation characters and tropes, but there is a certain level of plot arc which characters need to traverse in the course of a film. Ace Jackson starts out as a sniveling terrible man, then proceeds to show himself to be a terrible man (intermittently sniveling when confronted with his own demise) throughout the film. At no point do I feel as though the character has grown in any way, nor do I feel any sort of sympathy for his completely self-imposed fate.
Technical Foibles and Merits
The low-budget nature of the film lends itself to a very interesting parallel – that of the film medium reflecting the inner conflict. The almost-posterized black and white cinematography indicates the way that the titular character views the world – there is nothing but black and white to him.
I did notice some sound issues, and the film could have benefited from some ADR or additional sound post-processing. The jazz-heavy soundtrack formed a pleasant counterpoint to the horrifying level of genre trope sexism, violence, and overall nihilism present in Ace.
The film vacillates between fairly static shots and cinéma vérité style handheld camera movement. Most of the time, this is tied more or less to the content of the film in keeping with blaxploitation tropes, and it seems to have a fairly long average shot length for most of the non-graphic sections of the film. It intercuts graphic photos of dead bodies during dialogue which appear whenever the subject matter turns to mortality.
NOTE: There is also a very high level of supposedly un-simulated sexual acts in the film. If you’re not interested in seeing this, you may have to skip the film altogether, as every female character who appears on screen engages in some sort of sexual congress with the titular character (including one who has cocaine snorted off of/out of her rear end).
The fundamental issue that I had with Ace Jackson is a Dead Man is that Ace just isn’t a likable character, nor does he have a particularly present plot arc. He’s a terrible person at the beginning, and he doesn’t get better or worse as the film progresses. (He’s only slightly relatable when he’s being yelled at by his drug dealer boss, “Bigelow”, in the first few minutes.)
I could buy into the idea that Ace is a product of his circumstances – which the interstitial crawls seem to indicate – if he had any redeemable qualities obviously present in his personality. Empire (which owed much to Carlito’s Way) explained this through expository dialogue, where another character points out that what we end up being is mostly luck of birth – that a drug dealer could have been a stock broker if he had been born in a different place. I never quite get that sense about Ace Jackson.