Salvador Dalí is often quoted as saying "I don't do drugs I am drugs." Whether or not this is a case of attribution decay it's certainly an appropriate statement for the surreal artist. Although it would be silly to suggest that John Dies at the End is on par with such an influential artist (and the movie will certainly never take over Dalí's monopoly of dorm room posters and assorted ephemera) it definitely feels like taking a trip down the rabbit hole.
Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes star as Dave and John respectively best buds and regular dudes who find themselves face to face with grotesque monsters from alternate dimensions and a panoply of other mind-bending horrors all thanks to a drug nicknamed Soy Sauce. The Sauce is an icky sentient black goop that destroys most of the people who inject it (and those who live will never be the same). When we meet Dave and John they're problem-solvers of a sort; if something weird is happening to you — say you're being harassed by your dead boyfriend — they're the ones to call.
The Sauce didn't kill them; it has given them a certain insight into the twisted nature of the universe. Much to Dave's dismay it chose them to save us from certain doom on a regular basis starting with a gross creature from another dimension called Korrok. It's kind of a bubbly vat of sentient goo with one terrible eyeball and it gains knowledge through osmosis. Naturally Korrok would like to nibble on Dave and John to learn their ways so it and a whole legion of freaky followers can hop into our dimension and take over the world we live in. Before they can do that they have a whole host of other problems to deal with like John's untimely demise for starters.
John Dies at the End is a logic puzzle that the viewer has to tease out the meaning of. It benefits from subsequent viewings especially since writer/director Don Coscarelli and author David Wong throw so much at you from the very beginning. (Coscarelli adapted the book for the screen.) It's a hallucinatory midnight movie that is so damn fun it's easy to forgive just how hazy it seems in hindsight. There's also a certain sense of disappointment when Dave and John's mission comes to an end possibly because the two characters and all the weird things they encounter are so entertaining that we hate to leave them.
Coscarelli fans will especially appreciate a small cameo by Angus Scrimm who played the terrifying Tall Man in Coscarelli's Phantasm series as a priest. And any genre lover worth their Sauce will love seeing Doug Jones out of prosthetics (but no less disarming) as a creepy interstellar traveler. Paul Giamatti plays a skeptical journalist who's writing a story about Dave and his misadventures; this narrative is the framing device and ultimately is a bit of a disappointment.
The practical effects have a nice goopy look to them and Coscarelli makes the smart decision to use an animated sequence for some scenes that would have been extraordinarily difficult to create on such a small budget. John Dies at the End is alternately trippy gross and droll and it has a cool B-movie vibe without looking too cheap. Although it's available on demand this would be a fun night out at the movies.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
A perpetually stoned delivery man named Leo unwittingly delivers a package of 10 kilos of high-quality cocaine to the apartment across the hall from its intended recipients who are anxiously awaiting its arrival. It winds up in the hands of a couple of inept crooks Brody and Guch who look at it as manna from God and set about to sell it to Brody’s drug dealing cousin and his accomplice. Meanwhile their neighbor Jesus and his clueless girlfriend embark on a desperate search to find their stash before the unforgiving drug kingpin who sent it to them finds out it’s missing.
WHO’S IN IT?
A game cast led by Donald Faison (who also produced) as the inept delivery man provide the laughs in this Tarantino-esque screwball farce. Faison is quite funny as the stoner Next Day Air worker who sets the dominoes in motion with Mike Epps and Wood Harris expertly playing the "dumb and dumber" hoods who think they’ve found nirvana in the coke-laden mystery package. Also making an impression are Cisco Reyes as the Puerto Rican dealer sweating out the missing box of drugs Yasmin Deliz as his girl and Omari Hardwick as the cousin looking to make the deal. Mos Def steals his brief scenes as a colleague of Leo’s and Debbie Allen is smartly sassy as Leo’s mother/boss. Emilio Rivera rounds out the principal cast as the intense and unforgiving drug lord.
With all these divergent characters focused on one very valuable package director Benny Boom has his work cut out for him but he merges the various lowlifes in and out of focus surprisingly well. Sure they’re all stereotypes but each gets their moments to amuse. This is not brain surgery and Boom knows that milking the silly situation for all the laughs it allows. Next Day Air is better than it has any right to be (if you check your brain at the door).
The film should have stayed with the comedy (ala Pineapple Express) instead of inserting unnecessary grainily-shot violent flashbacks to up the body part count. It’s as if a committee decided there wasn’t enough bloodletting and told the director to insert these pointless scenes. The inevitable final showdown also seems out of place with the light tone set earlier but does provide no end of irony in wrapping up all the loose ends.
For full enjoyment don’t try to make sense of the fact that a seasoned kingpin would send such a large parcel of illegal drugs through a commercial courier service. Obviously there would be no movie if he didn’t but last time we checked no one was using FedEx to ship heroin.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Either way. At a breezy 84 minutes Next Day Air is an agreeable timewaster.