By Jeff Walsh
In "Shock to the System" (out this week on DVD), Chad Allen plays gay detective Donald Strachey in a noir murder mystery set against the backdrop of a gay "reparative" therapy program, and the crazy part is, it's actually an enjoyable, well-written, worthwhile movie.
I'm not sure why, but whenever I would see books like this in the gay bookstore with jacket copy exclaiming thrillers being solved by gay and lesbian detectives, well, I pretty much thought it was silly and a subgenre I really didn't want to know anything more about. I mean, what does being a gay detective bring to the picture exactly?
So, when I got the review DVD for this movie from Here! films, the second Donald Strachey movie at that (after 2005's Third Man Out), I was hesitant. My hesitancy didn't last long.
From the opening shots, it is clear that director Ron Oliver has a love for noir and clear sense of what he wanted to accomplish (an understatement and total victory after hearing it was shot in 13 days). We see openly gay actor Chad Allen in silhouette in a dark alley, meeting a new client but, before they can even exchange details about the case aside from him wanting Strachey to find someone, the client hands him a check for $5,000 as a truck barrels through the alley aiming at them, breaking up their meeting. The next day, the person who gave him the check is dead.
I'll be honest, I was hooked that fast. The relationship between Strachey and his boyfriend (Sebastian Spence) worked for me, they really seemed to have a shared history and intimacy. Kenny Kwan (Nelson Wong) as Strachey's new assistant, Morgan Fairchild as the mother of the dead boy, whom she pushed into the program to make him straight, all turn in great performances. There really wasn't a sour note in the whole movie. Even the pacing was tight and held you rapt for all of its 91 minutes, just a good popcorn flick.
The thing I liked most was that no one was played as evil for the sake of making Strachey the clearer hero. The person running the program to help gay people go straight is doing what he thinks is right and helpful, and the same is true for all the characters. They all have motivations that ring true for them, even though we are obviously rooting for the demise of the anti-gay group and the person who committed the crime(s) to be brought to justice.
During the movie, Strachey talks about the first man he ever loved when he was in the military, telling the moving story to his boyfriend for the first time, and it was such an emotional scene that certainly could have seemed overwrought or ham-handed, but it just worked. Although he was great throughout, that scene really gave Allen a moment to really show us another side of Strachey, as well as how gifted he is as an actor (as I think the last time I saw him in anything was back when he was just a kid on Our House, which was ages and ages ago).
So, I guess the message here is: if you have hesitation about seeing this movie because you don't understand what a "gay detective" movie is, why we need one, or any other baggage, just pipe down and see it because it's well-done, well-written, well-executed, engaging, and... what else? Oh! There's even some nice beefcake on display in the locker room scenes.
If, however, you don't have the hang-ups I did going into this, you'll be rewarded with a great movie as well, just without having to be surprised that this genre isn't as hackneyed as you might have thought. I actually want to go rent "Third Man Out" now, just to catch up on the fun.
The DVD also features a documentary where Soulforce (the group run by gay spiritual activist Mel White) has people delivering messages to Focus on the Family, including Chad Allen, Judy Shepard, and others. It seems like these are excerpts from a larger documentary coming out this summer, and I'd rather wait for the full narrative version. The director's commentary (I didn't listen to it all) is really packed with information, informative, and really shows how a lot of his noir influences are reflected in the movie. I especially loved his use of martini symbolism to show the changing state of the relationship between the couple.
So, get thee to a video store, and treat yourself to a good gay murder mystery, with a hot detective out there fighting for truth and justice while taking down an ex-gay program to top it off. I never thought I would write such a sentence in my entire life.