Long before Chip and Joanna Gaines made Waco the enticing backdrop to their home improvement “Fixer Upper” cable television mainstay, the city provided the background for a 1989 feature-length action film called “Action USA.”
While there’s plenty that’s recognizable to a Waco viewer, from the ALICO Building to Cameron Park to the Melody Ranch country nightclub, Waco was competing against what was in the film’s foreground.
Namely: High-speed chase scenes through downtown Waco. A car catapulting over a school bus filled with children. A character’s spectacular crash and fall through a seventh-story window of the then-Waco National Bank. A second car flipping over in another chase. A helicopter flying down Austin Avenue. Gratuitous nudity, including the suggestion of sex in a Melody Ranch bathroom stall. A villain wearing a cowboy hat and duster because that’s what Texans wear. Waco country band Cherokee Rose. Cell phones the size of a brick. A glass-smashing, body-throwing dance hall riot. Not one, but three characters set on fire.
It’s a stuntman’s pipe dream, or rather an exploding pipe dream with plenty of smoke and fire. That’s no surprise as it was directed by a stuntman, John Stewart, with Waco filmmakers Alan and Susan Stewart (no relation) serving as the film’s producers during its Waco shoot.
While the rest of America awaited presidential vote counts this weekend, audiences in Texas, Arizona, Virginia and North Carolina were treated to an online screening of “Action USA” by Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in the latest leg of a second movie life.
The story is action cheese: A woman with possible knowledge of the whereabouts of a cache of diamonds finds her life threatened by the mob and corrupt law enforcement until an undercover FBI agent intervenes to protect her, in a town not unlike Waco. Cue engine roars, tire squeals, exploding gas tanks.
A low-budget action film destined to make up its cost in video cassette sales and the overseas action film market, “Action USA” — originally named “A Handful of Trouble,” but renamed to sell to foreign audiences — lingered in B-movie world for much of its life, with a low-quality transfer residing on YouTube for years.
Then it got rediscovered by some California B-movie action fans who saw it as vintage old-school stunt work: no CGI here, but actual explosions, car crashes, falling and flaming stuntmen. That led to B-movie champion Alamo Drafthouse, which picked it up for its showings, and new rights owners who plan a digital rerelease.
The Nov. 8 online watch party substituted for a widespread theatrical release that got shelved due to COVID-19 restrictions.
No word on when the digital release will be publicly available, but when it is, it will give Chip Gaines’ demo day a run — squeal! smash! boom! — for its money.