The Stranger (1995): Kathy Comes Home

Matty dissects this Don Borchers-produced neo-western and reflects upon its kickboxing star’s moment in the sun.

It’s impossible to overstate how big Kathy Long was in the early 1990s. From fighting in front of capacity crowds the world over, and video packages on Entertainment Tonight and Showtime; to endless magazine covers, and profiles in the Los Angeles Times and Sports Illustrated — the five-time world kickboxing champion was a martial arts superstar. And as the glowing praise she received from Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Oliver Stone [1] demonstrated, Hollywood was paying attention.

Following her work as Goldie Hawn and Michelle Pfeiffer’s stunt double on Death Becomes Her (1992) and Batman Returns (1992), Long was snapped up by Stephen J. Friedman’s Kings Road Entertainment for a five picture deal. Sadly, only two pictures came of it before the $700,000 agreement was terminated. The actual reason remains vague, but murmurs have suggested it was either due to Kings Road’s financial difficulties or the company’s loss of faith in Long’s acting ability. Personally, that last bit of conjecture seems a little harsh. Across both of her Kings Road vehicles, Long exhibits a solid physical presence and, when watched back-to-back, the improvement in her dramatic range between Knights (1993) and THE STRANGER (1995) is undeniable.

As one astute IMDb reviewer noted, The Stranger is “High Plains Drifter (1973) with a Harley” — though the idea that this gritty neo-western masquerading as VHS-era biker-sploitation was assembled to cash-in on the then-upcoming The Crow (1994) should also be considered. Long toplines as the eponymous unknown: a possibly supernatural arse-whupper who rolls into a dusty, crime-addled backwater town and invokes a palpable sense of unease among its shifty denizens. The sheriff (Eric Pierpoint), for instance, can’t decide whether he wants to arrest or shag her — particularly as she’s the spit of his murdered fiancée — and the local crime lord, ruthless biker boss Angel (Andrew Divoff), is appropriately perturbed when he and his boys remember where they’ve seen her face before…   

While anyone familiar with the aforementioned Eastwood and Brandon Lee-starring classics — or, even, something substantially sillier a la The Wraith (1986) — will know where The Stranger is going right off the bat, Long and Pierpont’s mournful verbal sparring provides a strong emotional footing that works in spite of them having to utter some very wonky dialogue indeed [2]. Baser, more cartoonish pleasures come via Divoff. Synchronised with his name flashing on screen during the opening credits, Divoff initially appears doing Tai chi. But don’t be fooled: as his chest tattoo, black leather trousers, and black moustache/goatee combo makes clear, he ain’t no man of serenity. Typically excellent, he delivers a masterclass in pantomime villainy as the leader of a nasty hog squad that’s almost exclusively comprised of tough-guy bit-players and stuntmen (among them: Nils Allen Stewart, Jeff Cadiente, the late, great Robert Winley from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and the ubiquitous Danny Trejo). It’s truly wonderful stuff and wholly befitting of Divoff’s “and” billing — a position that, in terms of ‘90s video fare at least, generally denotes a turn of monumental scene-chewing verve.

Produced by Donald P. Borchers and directed by his Children of the Corn (1984) and Tuff Turf (1985) collaborator Fritz Kiersch, The Stranger is set across a single endless day; a cost cutting measure on Borchers’ part, who reasoned he could save money by nixing night shoots (and, according to Long, the film’s catering, much to the cast and crew’s chagrin). Yet as financially motivated as such a limiting decision was, it does lend The Stranger an impressively textured aesthetic. Bolstered by evocative location shooting in the real-life Nevadan ghost town of Coaldale, Kiersch twists Borchers’ penny-pinching into an artistic advantage. The helmer fosters an authentically arid and stifling mood and unleashes several succulent, quasi-mystical-feeling images. Moreover, the infectious amount of fun Kiersch has aping High Plains Drifter as well as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and a sackload of drive-in biker flicks atones for the technical goofs — a camera shadow here, a blunt edit there — he occasionally lets slip through.

After being shopped around the American Film Market in November 1994, The Stranger debuted on HBO in March 1995 and was issued on cassette in the U.S. and the U.K. by Columbia-TriStar a few months later.

[1] In the wake of her brief appearance in Natural Born Killers (1994), Stone earmarked Long for the role of Marvel assassin Elektra in an adaptation that he was planning to produce.
[2] Screenwriter Gregory Poirer had previously scripted/co-scripted a couple of similarly biker-centric B-movie epics for Flesh Gordon (1974) hero Jason Williams and his ‘Wade Olson’ character: Danger Zone III: Steel Horse War (1990) and Danger Zone 4: Mad Girls Bad Girls (1992) (the first of which would be edited alongside the original Danger Zone (1987) and its 1989 sequel, Reaper’s Revenge, into a VHS compilation feature called Death Riders (1994) (aka ‘Valley of the Cycle Sluts’). Post The Stranger, Poirer would go on to pen and/or co-pen John Singleton’s Rosewood (1997), Jackie Chan’s The Spy Next Door (2010), and a pair of Disney franchise instalments: The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride (1998) and National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007).

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