From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
Film Review #2
Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates) is a legendary cockfighter. He knows all the ins and outs of selecting the right chicken for battle and has taken home quite a few victories, but his mouth is bigger than his chickens and he ends up losing the chance to compete for a coveted medal when his prize chicken is killed by a competitor's chicken during an impromptu bout. Taking a vow of silence until he has his chance in the spotlight again, Frank works his way back up from the "minor leagues" with the hopes of redeeming himself in the eyes of his peers.
Leave it to uber-producer Roger Corman to make a film that absolutely no one was asking for. Of all the topics that could have ever been made into a movie, cockfighting is the last one I would have expected to be a viable option (right alongside baseball and/or hockey playing chimps). For some reason though, Corman saw something in Charles Willeford's novel that screamed to be made into a film, so make it he did and he called on cult director Monte Hellman (director of The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind, and Two Lane Blacktop) to assist him.
Along with Hellman, Corman recruited a who's who of character actors to make the story work. The chief actor that brings it all together is the late Warren Oates, whose rustic demeanor is perfectly suited to the countrified but stoic character of Frank. Although his character does speak in monologues throughout the film, he expertly gets his message across silently the entire length of the narrative. Fans of Harry Dean Stanton will enjoy his somewhat villainous role as Jack, the man who originally caused Frank to lose his shot at the medal and who also comes to collect his home when he places it up for a bet in the beginning stages of his return career. James Earl Jones and Sleepaway Camp devotees will also enjoy seeing Jonesí father Robert in a bit part as one of Frank's chicken wranglers. Charles Manson imitator Steve Railsback also does a fairly interesting turn here as a shady cockfighter who attempts to cheat his way into a victory. The biggest surprise here, though, is Ed Begley Jr. as a bumpkin who gets angry when Frank's chicken takes out his favorite pet during a side match he takes on for extra money.
Cockfighter isn't exactly the most compelling film in the world, but Willeford (who also wrote the novel that became the Alec Baldwin film Miami Blues) seemed to know his stuff when it came to cockfighting. Although I have absolutely no interest in the sport (nor did the film make me interested), I now feel like I could make informed dissertations on the subject. Why I would want to, or who would want to listen to it is beyond me, but the knowledge is now lodged in my brain forever.
Cockfighter has been released on DVD through Anchor Bay Entertainment. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.77:1 (enhanced for 16x9 televisions) and the film looks pretty good for one that was made almost thirty years ago. Anchor Bay has also included quite a few extras on the disc, including a trailer, a TV spot (which was apparently part of a double feature promo... the second part of which is visible for a brief second before the spot cuts off), several radio spots, and bios for the cast and crew. An excellent documentary centering on the late actor Warren Oates entitled Warren Oates: Across the Border is also featured here. For those who look for things like this, production notes can be found on the backside of the keepcase insert.
There is also a very entertaining feature length commentary track featuring director Monte Hellman, production assistant Steven Gaydos, and moderator Dennis Bartok. The commentary is incredibly informative, especially when Hellman discusses how he came about getting the project, but the best part is reserved for Steve Railsback's performance. Apparently, the tactics that Railsback's character uses to fire up his chicken were really performed by the actor (including sticking his finger up the chicken's backside) in a twisted bit of method acting. Hellman also points out a moment when Oates must forcefully shove Railsback back into frame because the camera was not able to capture the particular angle they were at, all of which just comes off as a trait of Oatesí character's frustration at catching the man cheating. All in all, this is a very entertaining track for a strange little movie.
Review by Pockets of Sanity