Desert Heat aka Coyote Moon (1999) Movie Review

I999’s “Desert Heat” went through a title change before anyone even knew it existed. While the new title (“Desert Heat” replacing “Coyote Moon”) may be justified to the distributors for whatever reason, they fail to realize that the change also makes the movie’s opening quotes (concerning a coyote and the powers of a full moon) to be a tad, shall we say, nonsensical. Mind you, I’m not saying that by keeping the original title this Jean Claude Van Damme movie could have been any better; I’m just saying it would have made more sense. Don’t even get me started on how the title change completely destroys the movie’s obsession with using coyotes as a motif.

“Desert Heat” is, if memory serves, the second Jean-Claude Van Damme movie to go directly to video, with the first being “Legionnaire”. In fact, I didn’t even know “Desert Heat” existed until, since there was so little promotion for the title in 1999. You could look at this in two ways: either the filmmakers were so embarrassed by the finished product that they dumped the film immediately to video and tried not to let anyone know, or the movie just had bad P.R. people handling the release. Having seen the movie, I’m leaning toward the former.

Regardless, “Desert Heat” stars JCVD (“Derailed”) as an ex-Army-something-or-rather (they always are in these movies) who is on a personal quest to deliver a special bike to an Indian friend living in some unnamed desert town. Even though the movie takes place in the present, the scenery reminds me of those post-apocalyptic wasteland movies that Van Damme used to do in the beginning of his career. Before he makes it to his friend’s place, Eddie (JCVD) is accosted by three siblings who should have had Clich’ Redneck stamped on their foreheads. Eddie gets a bullet in the head and loses his bike and his gun for the trouble.

Although left for dead, Eddie is in fact still alive, though just barely. Johnny, the Indian friend, locates Eddie and carries him home, where he nurses his old army buddy back to life. Eddie, who had come to visit Johnny one last time before committing suicide, now has a new agenda: get the bastards that took his bike. Utilizing exactly the same plot points as Akira Kurosawa did in “Yojimbo” and Sergio Leone later adapted in “A Fistful of Dollars”, Eddie sets off to free an unnamed desert town held in the grips of fear by the Rednecks while getting his revenge. A lot of killing, shooting, and some minor fisticuffs ensue.

My suggestion is to go watch “Yojimbo” instead if you’re a samurai fan, or “A Fistful of Dollars” for you western fans. “Desert Heat” was written by Tom O’Rourke, who managed to namedrop Kurosawa’s movie toward the end just in case people thought he was ripping off Leone. The most surprising thing about “Desert Heat” is that it’s directed by John G. Avildsen, the man who made Sylvester Stallone a star with “Rocky” in 1976 and has managed a successful and prolific career since (including directing the first 3 “Karate Kid” movies). What he’s doing here, trying to inject class into an otherwise standard JCVD junk, is a mystery only the then-64-year old Avildsen can answer.

Co-starring with JCVD is Pat Morita, most known as Mister Miyagi from all 4 “Karate Kid” movies, who has the role of Odious Comic Relief. Danny Trejo (“Con Air”), who has made quite a nice living playing convicts or ex-convicts (and sometimes both in the same movie), manages some chuckles as Johnny. (Although I always thought Trejo was Mexican, not Indian.) Gabrielle Fitzpatrick is the love interest, but she has to share the screen with the town’s “hot girl” played by Jaime Pressley (“Poison Ivy 3”). Although, in a town with only 8 people, and 3 of them are women, does being labeled the “hot girl” really count all that much?

For a JCVD movie, “Desert Moon” has more gunplay than it does fisticuffs. It’s not an entirely bad movie; it’s just poorly conceived. The existence of the town, for instance, doesn’t wash in the contemporary world. No matter how isolated or far from civilization the town is, law-enforcement is still a phone call away. And yet, these people (all 8 of them, natch) allow the crooked family to push them around and extort money on a daily basis. This situation works in a western, and even in a samurai movie, but not in a film set in contemporary America. I guess had O’Rourke set his movie in the west, as he probably wanted (and where the situation would make much more sense), people would think he was stealing from Sergio Leone. Of course O’Rourke wants us to know that he’s stealing from Kurosawa and not Leone.

John G. Avildsen (director) / Tom O’Rourke (screenplay)
CAST: Jean-Claude Van Damme …. Eddie Lomax
Pat Morita …. Jubal Early
Danny Trejo …. Johnny
Gabrielle Fitzpatrick …. Rhonda
Larry Drake …. Ramsey Hogan

Buy Desert Heat on DVD