“Bad Ass,” a title that tries and fails to say it all, focuses on the exploits of Frank Vega, a quiet old man settling in Los Angeles and coping with his days winding down. A Vietnam vet who, at this point, has lost everything, he lives in the house vacated by his late mother with an old war buddy named Klondike, both just thankful they still have two legs to stand on. What makes Vega something of a local legend is a recent altercation on a commuter bus where he was attacked by a couple of skinheads whom he quickly dismantled and disabled with little fuss, earning the nickname in the title.
What’s interesting about “Bad Ass” on a surface level is that the film strips away this baggage and lionizes the man in the viral video alone as Urban Legend. More specifically, writer/director Craig Moss re-imagines him as a quiet Hispanic loner, a pillar of the community, one who would be aware of his own ubiquity had he any understanding or appreciation of computers. A “viral video” means nothing to this man, who is looking down at his own mortality, particularly in the wake of a shooting that leaves Klondike dead.
It’s not enough that he has to seek his version of justice for what happened to his friend. It turns out, Vega is also, unwillingly, on the trail of one of those movie-friendly “vast criminal conspiracies” involving a zip drive that connects the mayor (Ron Perlman, in likely a day’s work) to organized crime. Director Moss makes this crucial misstep of confusing modern mythology with tacky contemporary action cinema cynicism. It’s not enough to attack the system and go your own way -- the system needs to be not only very obviously corrupt, but also clearly out to get you. By giving Bad Ass an unstoppable boogeyman to fight, he’s essentially weakening whatever relevant reality this character can occupy. Which is also a disservice to Danny Trejo, who’s quite good, and fairly tragic as Vega. His weathered face and sad eyes gives Bad Ass a backlog of strife to reveal with just one look.
Moss fills the margins of “Bad Ass” with generic clichés, showing he’s a fan of exploitation movies, but not what exploitation means. One of these well-worn tropes is to have Bad Ass become the protector to the pretty abused wife living next door, and mentor to her wisecracking son. When romance blooms, the wife becomes a prop to give Bad Ass the impetus to stop the bad guys, who now threaten his inner circle. And all this around the zip drive MacGuffin, when Bad Ass not only has no idea how to use a zip drive nor does he ever mention the mayor or his administration. Protip: when you need to wait until the final reel to give your protagonist any motivation to care about the MacGuffin, maybe you need a new MacGuffin. Or a new lead character. [C-]