Some kids find a magical creature — perhaps Frankenstein’s Monster or an extra-terrestrial — who sends them on a wild and magical adventure where they learn life lessons. Other kids find Lee Marvin, and embark on a wild and wacky adventure where they become bank robbers. Only one of these youthful scenarios has a happy ending. But what do you expect when you find Marvin copiously bleeding outside of your barn?
The Spikes Gang initially sells itself as a lighthearted, Cat Ballou type of Western. Will (Gary Grimes), Les (Ron Howard), and Tod (Charles Martin Smith) decide to be kindly and patch Harry Spikes (Marvin) up. They do the typical teen thing, and hide him away from their parents, bringing him clothes, food, and money.
He generously turns down the money, revealing that he’s a well-padded bank robber, and sells the boys tales of silk shirts, women, Cuban cigars, and expensive bourbon. They’re drooling. Who wouldn’t? Marvin could use that raspy voice to tell me the sky was green, and I’d ride off with him in a heartbeat. (Or live in polygamy — but that’s another Marvin movie.)
But these are better boys than I, and they morosely watch Spikes ride off. The damage has been done, though, and those tales of bourbon and babes prey on their young, impressionable minds. Their grubby, poor, and sternly Christian lives seem more unbearable than before, and it takes only one belt-whipping before they ride out into the sunrise. For farm boys, they’re woefully unprepared, and it isn’t long before they’re starving and desperate enough to do like Spikes would do, and rob a bank.
Things go from bad to worse. They kill a man, lose their money, and wind up in Mexican prison. By luck, Spikes rides into town and bails them out, informing them that they’ve got bounties on their heads. The bad news comes with a taste of the good life, as Spikes lavishes them with food, baths, and hotels before leaving them to fend for themselves again. Just when they’re reduced to washing dishes for money (which, incidentally, is not a job I thought existed in the Old West), he shows up again with an offer they can’t refuse.
Spikes plays a cat and mouse game, Oliver Twist crossed with All the Pretty Horses. It’s a sign of how seductive the bad boys of the Wild West are that we’re rooting for three boys to become miniature outlaws. After all, isn’t this every kid’s fantasy? This is where James Mangold’s 3:10 To Yuma was heading until Christian Bale’s Dan Evans stepped up to prove lawfulness could create its own legend. And then the bullets start flying, and three boys realize you can’t ever go home again.
The Spikes Gang goes to a shockingly dark and sad place in the last half hour, a place not even Mark Millar or Kick-Ass would go. It’s the kind of “kid” movie that could have only been made in the 1970s, when cinema still thought you would spoil the child if you spared the rod and red Tempera blood.
It veers dangerously close to an after-school special, particularly in its misty parental flashbacks, but is kept clear by really strong performances from Grimes, Howard, and Smith. (After seeing this, I’m convinced Grimes’ disappearance from cinema screens is a travesty. There’s no record as to what happened to him or why he gave up acting, and whether he’s actually playing Paul McCartney in a Beatles tribute band.)
The final scene between Will and Spikes is as grim and nasty as any showdown Marvin ever had with anyone onscreen. Will’s determination suggests this is the night an outlaw is really made, and that a similar meeting is what tempered the Man with No Name, Ben Wade, John Elder, Cheyenne, Liberty Valance, Django, or any other stone-faced gunslinger.
But The Spikes Gang suggests that’s the sort of silly thing that really only happens in movies — and that even the most desperate killer really just wants to be a kid again.